Why You Should Photograph Your Everyday Life
I couldn't believe how long it took me to drive to Connecticut - over two hours! How was that even possible? In the many years I made that commute, it had never taken this long - especially on a Friday morning well past rush hour. But, I suppose it didn't help that we took the scenic route from the Westside, up along the Hudson River, across the Hutchinson Parkway, and through the Merritt Parkway - all the way over from the Upper East Side. Looking back, I suppose our ETA would have fared better if we didn't cross the park and just took I-95 across the East River instead.
But then, the leaves along the way.
How I miss autumn in New England. One never knows how much something is missed until that something is no longer in your life. It has been eight years since I've last seen a maple tree turn red... seeing that maple trees and autumn don't exist in Hong Kong. So, on the occasion of this visit to New York, I knew I had to make a side trip to Connecticut. Besides, I was feeling nostalgic... and it gave me an excuse to stroll down memory lane, and revisit my long forgotten stint in town and country living.
It was a period of my life I wished I were more attentive in documenting. How many of us have lamented in that oversight, for not being more vigilant in making personal records of our mundane existence. Either we never believed it was worth the effort, or we just assumed there would always be a better time to do it in the future. As such, we would put it off and forget about it... assuming we had even thought about it, in the first place. Only when it's too late do we realize the opportunity we have missed.
It's easy to see why many of us are so dismissive towards documenting the minutiae surrounding our lives. We see it as something so familiar that it makes no sense to document, much less bother with all the trouble. I mean, why would anyone want to make a visual record of something they see on a day-to-day basis? To many, what is the point of that? Instead, wouldn't it make more sense to document something photo-worthy you don't see everyday?
To a large extent in the context of personal documentation, that is how photography is regarded by most - a medium reserved for documenting those photo-worthy opportunities less seen - visual trophies if you will. It's no wonder we mostly photograph special events, occasions, and moments, like milestones, achievements, and good hair days on holiday when hanging around with good friends by the bar. Admittedly, I can see why most of us document photo-worthy opportunities, since it's usually a once-in-a-lifetime situation that we want to remember. So understandably, the need to be vigilant is evident.
Unfortunately, that perspective then assumes that anything familiar is not photo-worthy, and therefore not deserving of documentation. So, the morning light from your window sill, the neighborhood bodega where you get your turkey on rye, or that circa 1970 wallpaper pattern in your grandmother's kitchen - they're all too familiar and therefore not photo-worthy enough to document. I mean, heaven forbid we’re ever caught dead with an unoriginal documentation!
Ironically, in our search to document these once-in-a-lifetime trophies, we fail to realize the obvious. Often, what we photograph is unoriginal. So, that group selfie you did with your friends on that Saturday night, or that picture you took at Trocadéro with the Eiffel Tower in the background. They’re all unoriginal - and there is a reason for that. It’s because you don't want to run the risk of ruining the documentation. Because of that, you take the safe approach, like everyone else, given that proof of the experience takes precedence over originality in documentation - especially since you don’t have all the time in the world to make it right and do it justice.
In other words, you take the same photo, just like everyone else.
Plus, it doesn’t help that these once-in-a-lifetime situations are unfamiliar to us. Because of that, we don't fully know how to optimize the image capture. At best, we have a superficial understanding, from the pictures we’ve seen taken by others who were just as unfamiliar. So again, we do the same thing and hopefully rely on the muscle memory we've developed from our training or experience. Thus, it isn’t any wonder how our documentations tend to end up rather safe and predictable (if not mediocre), especially when it's our first time. It never quite looks like the work product from someone who is familiar with the minutiae of that photo-worthy opportunity.
I mean, there's a reason why most vacation photos look like vacation photos or amateur wedding photos look like amateur wedding photos
Of course, mediocre pictures will not stop us from documenting our photo-worthy trophies. Rightfully, it shouldn't. That would be like throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. However, it also doesn’t mean we should obsess over it, seeing how unoriginal we normally are in dealing with the unfamiliar. With that said, perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad idea to consider the opposite? Maybe the familiar can be more photo-worthy than first assumed.
It makes sense when you think about it. After all, we’re likely to have a deeper and more intimate understanding about anything that is familiar to us. And because the familiar is usually close by and readily accessible, not having all the time in the world is not going be an imposition holding you back from making the perfect image capture. As such, we’re more likely to be original in our documentation, when dealing with the familiar. The only challenge now is how to make the familiar not mundane.
If you look back at the history of art in the Western tradition, many of the great masters demonstrated a noticeable preoccupation with what they were familiar with, which were often mundane subjects at face value. But, in picking the familiar, the great masters were able to offer a deeper and more intimate interpretation, which often resulted in original work that were visually and compositionally exceptional. With Vincent Van Gogh, it was his bedroom or the flowers around Auvers-sur-Oise. With Claude Monet, it was haystacks and water lilies. With Ansel Adams, it was still life and close up photography.
Also worth noting is the context of familiarity, which was something I hadn't considered until this visit. You see, as beautiful as autumn is in New England, I never appreciated it enough to intentionally document it. But, in showing Anna around, I realized something. Anna is not familiar with Connecticut, and reacted to the newness of my former town and country life with fresh eyes and noticeable enthusiasm. She actually enjoyed the experience, despite losing a day of cultural enlightenment in the city.
In other words, she thought my mundane life was photo-worthy.
Well, that made me think. All those pictures we take, while on vacation - cafés in Paris, street kids in Mumbai, and wet markets in Hong Kong - aren't they all just as familiar and more-so mundane to the locals living in those places? They are. But, that doesn't stop us from thinking they're photo-worthy, seeing we don't experience it on a day-to-day basis. I guess this is why we document the mundane so liberally when we're away from home.
Given what's familiar isn't mundane to everyone, and can be photo-worthy, wouldn't it make sense to document it - especially if one is familiar with it? We use the same logic for writers, advising them to write what they know about. So, why shouldn't photographers follow the same advice? I mean, even the great masters embraced the familiar.
Frankly, I have great respect for the mundane, when documented with familiarity. There is a sense of integrity in the image capture, which is seldom found in those typical photo-worthy pictures we all aspire to take. When documented deliberately with thought characteristic of a person with a deep and intimate understanding of the subject, place, or moment, the resulting image capture will be photo-worthy enough to appreciate.
Besides, do you really think the average person is interested in seeing the documentary point of view of someone who really isn’t familiar with what they’re photographing? It’s like getting second hand information from an inexperienced interpreter. At best, I suppose the average person could be interested, in the way a person accepts Chinese food from PF Chang’s. It's fine if fillers are all you're seeking. But beyond that, there really isn't much more to it. That is, if you're looking at your choice of documentation from an audience's perspective.
By the way, here are some parting images from our visit. This last set is a sample of my life, when I was living on the Upper West Side. The title image was taken at the Museum of Natural History.
Understanding this, I am more-so regretful in not being more vigilant in documenting my boring everyday life over the years. There is so much I wished I didn't take for granted in dismissing as not being photo-worthy of my time and effort. The boulangerie, where I bought my daily bread, while studying in Paris; the Chinese-made stick-shift Beijing Jeep, which I hated driving, when stationed in Shanghai; my Seinfeld moment, in my Upper West Side walk-up, when I first moved back to New York; and of course, autumns in Connecticut - all missed opportunities, because I didn't think they were photo-worthy at the time.
As a consolation, I did manage to get many group pictures with friends, I never see anymore, on days when my hair behaved. And of course, I do have that obligatory picture of the Eiffel Tower that everyone has taken from Trocadéro. I mean, I guess that's something?
Having said that, seize the day and see how photo-worthy every moment can be. Photograph your everyday life, with all the minutiae of the mundane and familiar. Once you do that, you're celebrating your life, by giving it meaning through documentation. And remember, it’s something you will always have with you. It’s the best gift you can give yourself.
So please, don’t look at documenting your life as an imposition - because it isn’t. If anything, forgetting to do that is something you’ll never forgive yourself for overlooking.
Okay... this will be my last deep dive for a while. Writing more "insight" pieces over the last five weeks has affected the frequency of my posts. So, next week, I'll probably do something simpler, like a comparison.
How is that simpler... I really don't know?
All images shot on the Leica M10 + 28mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH or 16-18-21mm f/4 Tri-Elmar-M ASPH. All images have been optimized in Lightroom. A few images have been cropped for composition.
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