A row of a water faucet used for ritualistic cleaning, Wudu, before enter the Mosque.

Recently I had a friend comment on some photos I had taken from a recent trip.  He told me that there were some well composed shots that he wasn’t exactly sure why I had taken.  He went on to comment on how we as photographers inherently take pictures that mean a lot to us but often times lack the meaning for those viewing them.  That’s no surprise to anyone, is it?  Color yourself underwhelmed.  However, this conversation is what set my brain on a collision course for this somewhat nebulous post aimed at furthering my photographic self discovery.

I’m not nearly smart enough to dissect culture, upbringing, religion, world view, past experience, preference, etc – all those things that unconsciously and undoubtedly play out in our photography.  I’m really asking the question what happens when we present these photos expecting the viewer to automatically understand the personal meaning behind those images?  Is the story complete?  Does the story necessarily need to be complete?

The picture above is a great example of this point.  When I sat down and thought about it, there were 5 different, specific, and influenced reasons that I took this picture.  This photo actually means a lot to me, but to the viewer without appropriate background, it’s honestly just a f1.8 shot of a row of water faucets.  It’s a bunch of water faucets nailed to a wall for crying out loud.  However, I can’t look at this scene without my mind going into overdrive.

A picture without context is a lot like a joke where you have to explain the punchline.  I agree with this statement and at the same time I violently disagree with it.  Sure, some of the most influential photographs I’ve seen were layered with explicit context  – but at the same time an image without certain contexts can send a potent message in and of itself.  Neither is wrong until you consider what you might be trying to communicate.

Take a look at the image above again – isolated, this image fails to communicate that a) this is a mosque and b) that this is an extremely important location in a mosque for Muslims.  I’d have to surround it by other images – or outright verbally explain it to the viewer.  Simply put.  If you intentions where to communicate all these things to you – I failed. If I were on assignment to present Wudu I failed. Honestly, If I had presented this to friends that are familiar with the context – I still failed. If it was for me to artistically and effectively remember something that meant a lot to me – I win.

Like I said, I hardly have any great bits of wisdom on this point and even if I did, it would be a load of crap because it’s different for everyone.  All I can do is pay attention to some continued personal resolutions:

  • Why do I shoot what I shoot and why do I shoot it the way I do?
  • I shoot because I love photography.  You don’t have to get it all the time – it’s largely for myself.
  • Lack of context won’t get me struck by the photography gods.
  • Some of the best images I’ve seen come with a story that explains context rather than explicitly showing me the context.
  • What am I doing?  Is it for me or am I truly trying to communicate something.  If so, did I contextually do the photo justice.

So how do you bridge the contextual gap?