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The Essence of Photography: What You See Reflects Your Inner World

Here’s my favorite quote from Jay Maisel, one of the legends in the world of photography: “If you want to make more interesting pictures, become a more interesting person.” As photographers, we often get bored in the place we live and we want to travel as much as possible to get different and more interesting pictures.

We think that it is all about pictures. But I’ve found that for me, it’s exactly as Jay Maisel said: the more I know about life, about people, about art, the better and more interesting my pictures become to me. If I’m in the process of learning from some new artist or new philosopher, it will reflect in my work and in what I see in front of me.

That’s a very obvious thing, of course, but what we forget to do is to constantly update our inner selves. We tend to think that what we know is enough and that we just need to go out and find the good pictures waiting for us. But that’s not true. All those motivations are enough for a time, but afterward they disappear and we need to update ourselves constantly.

We need to dedicate way more time to those “updates” than to actual photography.

I have one particular example I’d like to share with you. It’s an illustration of the behind-the-scenes thoughts that go on in my mind when I see something and take a picture.

I took this following picture in the Baumanskaya metro station in Moscow, Russia:

The man was Russian. He initially wanted to sit on a nearby bench, but homeless guys who were sitting there drove him away, telling him that he attracts police.

Something told me to wait as I watched how he sat below this bench, where the light was much better. He laid his carpet out, placed all of his belongings on the ground, took out a book, and started to read.

At that moment, I remembered some art, some painter. Something popped into my head. I couldn’t remember what exactly, but I decided to look it up later.

Later on, I did remember what I was inspired by. It was this:

This is a painting done in 1873 by Russian artist Vasily Vereshchagin, titled “At the Door of a Mosque.”


A crop of Vereshchagin’s “At the Door of a Mosque.”

I took some pictures of this man while he was walking and I thought I was done, but something made me wait and continue watching. I don’t think I would have noticed the photo I captured above had I never seen the painting by Vereshchagin before.

Many famous photographers (including Jay Maisel) say to “be open” and to “learn to see something you have never seen before.” That sounds like good advice, but is it true?

By “something,” the photographers mean some gesture, event, people, emotions, etc. But let’s think of it as if it were a language — say… Vietnamese. If you don’t understand Vietnamese, the language won’t reflect with your existing knowledge in your brain, so you’ll only hear sounds, not words.

I believe the same is true in photography — to be able to understand what’s in front of you, what you see has to reflect with your existing knowledge and experiences.

So the more experience and knowledge you have, through seeing and living through more things, the more tools you have to use in your work.

Be “open,” of course, but also be constantly updating your imagination with masterworks by great artists, keep talking to interesting people, keep reading books, and keep adding to your knowledge — it will lead to photographs with new dimensions.


About the author: Alexander Light is a photographer focused on street, travel, and landscapes. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of his work on his website, street photography portfolio, Facebook, and Instagram.


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