The Odds of Being Aimless

Off the grid in 18-degree Central New Mexico.

I asked people what I should write about. Many people responded. This post points to a few of the things people brought out. Not one thing specifically, but since this just happened to me I thought I would give it a go.

As you all know, I love working on projects. Now “project” can mean different things to different people, and one question I get a lot is, “Oh, projects…like what kinds of things do you work on.” When someone asks me this I often draw a blank. The range of projects I’ve done is wide. I’m not sure why answering this is such a struggle but it is. I typically try to size up the person asking and then fit a few topics that I think might strike a cord with them. I’ve done projects on the border, pornography, religion, culture, travel, objects, etc, etc. so narrowing it down can be a real issue.

My general, drop-down answer is, “Well, I do long-term, black and white projects, that revolve around a people or a place or a idea or theme.” “I find something, or somewhere like and I go back over and over and over again until I have a body of photographs.” This generally gets the point across. At least I think it does. I find that the idea of working on one thing for a long-period of time tends to confuse more and more people. Think about it this way. How many people do you know who travel? A lot right? How many people do you know who seem to use travel as a contest? “I’ve been to 50 countries.” Or, “I’ve been to one hundred countries.” Another twist on this is the “Can’t go back to the same country” idea of travel I often run into, as if countries are just there to be seen once, added to the tally and then discarded. I’ve been to Sicily five times and still don’t know a heck of a lot about it. So again, the idea of going back to the same country, or same place, over and over and over, I think is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. We are here to see as much as possible in the shortest amount of time. Not me. I like to simmer on a low heat, for long periods of time so my flesh just falls from my bones.

So recently I was out working on a project. It was mid-winter and below freezing. I had limited time, a map and a general idea of where I wanted to go. There was nothing specific on my list. Even though I had a map and a general plan to see certain territory, I was what I consider to be aimless.

Now aimless photography can be fantastic and can be rewarding simply in it’s unpredictable nature. You can stumble across something, perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime image. Or maybe you won’t. Actually, odds are you won’t even come close to striking it rich. But, sometimes we do it anyway, and this is what leads me to my point. We still do it. We can’t help it.

When I look back on the best work I’ve done, it didn’t come from aimless pursuits. It came from planning. It came from being in the right place, at the right time and knowing that the picture potential was high. So on this winter day, I was more experiencing being out than experiencing great imagery. This isn’t easy, this kind of work. It takes the ONE thing we all seem to have in limited supply. Time. So as my tires crunched through sheets of ice and the sun fought to win out against the cold and wind, I just sat back and tried to see. I just tried to relax.

When we look at the news or at photojournalism, what do we see? We see people where the action is. Many photojournalists go from place to place, dropping in, shooting the action, then taking off when the action subsides. This work, in a very short period of time, can produce world-changing imagery. What I was doing on this winter day, not so much. So, when I chose to do this kind of work, I TYPICALLY try to plan, I try to work with someone or something specific in mind. I don’t say, “I’m going to go shoot on the border,” and then just drive to Tijuana. Nope. I say, “I’m going to go shoot on the border,” and I find a family that lives on the border who I can go and live with for three days or five days or a month. In short, I’m NOT aimless. I’m got a photo-target and I aim primarily at that one thing so as to maximize the potential for my images.

Now, just because I have a target doesn’t mean I stay on that target regardless of what happens. You have to be ready to flow, to forget your plans and go with your gut. Say for example my border family happens to know Osama bin Laden, and he stops by for some menudo while I’m there. Bin Laden turns to me after eating the last tortilla and asks, “Hey, you seem pretty cool, you wanna party with me in Kandahar?” “Hmm, let me see, that doesn’t really fit my photo-plan.” People, you just go. Now this particular situation, not Osama, but the general idea of shelving a plan and going with your gut has happened many, many times.

On this winter day I found a small village. A real village. Like a place that has changed very little from the late 1800’s. Sure, there are automobiles, a school, television, etc, but when I drove into this small place I could just feel how lost in time it was. But remember, it was winter, below freezing which means NOBODY was outside. My car has California license plates. I didn’t know anyone. There was no event going on. This is a very difficult way of working. You can get out and start walking around, could get lucky and get someone to invite you in and the relationship begins, but the odds are low. So now, my future begins to take shape. I look for a way in, a time, a person, an angle that will give me a reason to be there. It could be a year from now. It could be next week. Because what I’m looking for with the images isn’t about the surface, it’s about the “Why” in life. Or the “How?” How did this place remain so intact. Why is it so lost in time? And how can I translate that into a still photograph?

This idea of trying not to work aimlessly permeates all my work. If I shoot a portrait do I say to the client, “Well, let’s just drive around.” No. I’ve done that in the past, even had a few successes, but most of the time I want a plan A, B, C and D. I want to stack the odds in my favor.

The real schtick of that is that when you DO get in the right place at the right time the feeling is so incredible it’s like a drug that clouds your mind into thinking you NEED to have that feeling again. The more you have it, the better you get at finding ways to change those odds.

As I sit here the clock ticks and it ticks loud. On one hand I LOVE the unknown of working aimlessly, but my archive tells me the more I think, the more I formulate, chances are, the better off I’ll be.

29 responses to “The Odds of Being Aimless”

  1. Michael Erb says:

    Wow! My wife and I have discovered that same idea. When we fail to plan we end up train wrecking. The moments that are the most fun have some thought put into them. Then, like you said, you roll with whatever comes of it.

  2. Suzanne says:

    Having just spent a week in New Mexico at a workshop, and pretty much aimlessly shooting, this post resonates. I do think sometimes a little aimlessness can help clarify our thinking about our work. Through my aimlessness, and the feedback at the workshop, I’ve started to visualize a short term (summer only) project in my mind, and I’ve begum planning for it now. Well, I guess that means my week in Santa Fe wasn’t so aimless after all, but I really had no ideas about any new projects before I went, and I felt a little unsure about what to shoot while I was there!!

    • Smogranch says:

      Well, I tell ya. Now that I’m NOT working as a photographer, for some reason, I feel MORE of a need to try and work aimlessly. Just to see where it leads. However, every time I do, I’m frustrated because it is so difficult to find imagery.
      As for the workshops. I always have a plan A, B and C when I do a workshop, and I typically have at least one story prepped and ready to go. But, that’s just me. I try to corner the instructor as much as possible, and to to do that I feel like I kinda need the goods. Sometimes it works…other times…not so much.

  3. jane beasant says:

    just love all your black and white photos,although im new to photography ive just finished my first book A darker shade of pale in black and white,would love a comment from you or any ideas,my photos were taken in gambia africa

  4. Good planning cuts the work load in half. That’s what some old man once told me. I suck at planning so I do the double work load 🙂

    • Smogranch says:

      I go both ways. And what is really puzzling is sometimes with planning….you get nothing. That’s why this game is so much fun.

  5. Larry says:

    Very timely post as I plan a trip in late April. Last trip to the same place wasn’t as planned, and as a result, I think the images are lacking. More time in one place this time I think.

  6. Cathy says:

    I love what you’ve said about travelling. It is like some sort of weird contest, and I’ve never got why it really matters.

    I’m rubbish at planning, but at trying to get better. Still, I love that feeling of wandering around with just a camera and no set agenda. It may not produce the best images (mostly), but is often when I have the best experience.

    • Smogranch says:

      Cathy,

      Yes, the travel thing is odd. I first remember running into this in Cambodia in 1996. At the time, the Khmer Rouge were still operating in parts of the country. There were places you basically didn’t want to get caught. I ran into two travel types at book store and one said, “I went to such and such a place.” The other guy said, “Well, I went there but slept in the jungle.” I realized then the race had begun. I’ve never quite put my head around this one, but it’s alive and well.
      As for just walking around….I feel it too. There is a relaxed feeling, coupled with frustration, at least at times, with me. I have such limited time….but we all know that story.

  7. Sean says:

    Excellent. Thank you.

    I’ve just this minute finished reading The Artists Way and the very last chapter mentions ideas (or projects in this case) being like baking bread. You’ve got to let the bread slowly rise in the oven and just leave it alone before reaping the benefits.

    It seems to fit well with what you’ve said here – have an idea, prepare the ingredients (planning) let it simmer and slowly rise to the surface (shoot and shoot some more), and then, if you’re lucky and have done everything correctly you get results.

    • Smogranch says:

      And you can’t rush it. You can bake the bread on HIGH for half the time, but the bread doens’t taste the same. But, today, a lot of people are okay with okay. I’m in no hurry.

  8. Thank you very much for creating this site. I am still trying to read all of the previous posts. Have you had trouble with theft of your gear both here and abroad. There have been times I wanted to stop and make photos but was concerned about the display of the gear attracting unnecessary attention.

    • Smogranch says:

      Joseph,

      No, never. I’ve had people point guns at me and ask for money, which I gladly gave them, but I’ve always kept the gear. You have to be careful, each situation is different.

  9. Tom Ridout says:

    It’s interesting to experience what effect a plan can have on what you see in a place (or don’t see). I’ve gone back to the same place with a different plan and found things I never knew existed. That said, without a plan you’re cooked for the most part.

  10. Paul Gero says:

    Dan…last year my one camera one lens blog was kind of a plan, but the daily photos were often not planned. What it made me do was look for photos around me, when I would not normally (because of the blog)…it was a challenge, but the fun was forcing myself to look and being open to serendipity. Plus, my camera was my constant companion because I didn’t want to miss any chance for a photo.

    The notion of planning reminds me aboutreading a story was about David Burnett and he was trying to plan a story on The Children of War and trying to think what his photographs would be.

    His editor, John Durniak, said to him: Take 100 rolls and go out and when you’re done shooting them come back and we’ll see what the story is.

    What I loved about that advice was that it meant you had to go out and put the camera to your eye, and film through your camera and you had to discover what was there and what struck you visually, rather than following a roadmap or just looking for images because others had done them.

    Don’t get me wrong. Planning is important and can be good. But so can wandering with a “general” idea and of just wanting to be out in the good light, making frames.

    • Smogranch says:

      Paulie,

      Yes…..BUT, he had the theme of “Children of War,” and I’ll bet he didn’t wander around Topeka. He went to where the war was, or where it had been. That is all I’m saying. I have a theme for my New Mexico work, and sometimes I have specific events to cover. Typically, when I do, I produce more work. When I drive around aimlessly, sometimes I get something great, but they are few and far between. I like doing both things, and not working as a photographer had really allowed me the chance to say, “You know, I’m just going to go out and see what I see.”

    • Suzanne says:

      I went to a talk given by Robert Frank last year at the Met, and he talked a little about how he worked on the Americans. It seems like the work happened so intuitively, but I think there was an underlying plan to it, and he had an underlying idea about how the photographs should and would look, but clearly, being open to serendipity. Of course, sometimes, in the end, your project may look completely different than you planned for in the beginning… and that’s not a bad thing, necessarily, but I think the idea of having and making a cohesive plan will help your work considerably. All that said… if you are hunting for an idea, for a project, the aimlessness can spark it for you. But, then it’s time to start planning, I’d say.

  11. This post makes me think of two things;

    #1 the book River Of Traps, photography by Alex Harris, words by William deBuys. It is set in a little northern new mexico town and it covers the hurry up life and the slow pace of small villages.

    #2 the reason I call myself a roaming photographer. I agree that planning is good for most photography, I do it in a lot of my shots. But there are times when I just grab my camera and drive in a direction. Sometimes I find something, other times I find nothing, but that nothing in New Mexico is also beautiful. Also, I think finding the lost parts of America by stumbling on them while I wander the back roads is part of the beauty.

  12. Smogranch says:

    I saw his show in NY and London, back to back, and the best part…for me…was the idea of having his contact sheets right there. You could SEE how he moved and where he was. At times it looked completely random. But, I think there were specific reasons why he was where he was when he made images that might have looked random. But, I’m making this up as I go. Never met him.

    • In 1979, Tod Papageorge explored the relationship of Robert Frank’s “The Americans” to Walker Evan’s “American Photographs” with an essay entitled, “Walker Evans and Robert Frank: An Essay On Influence.” Evan’s book has served as a “road map” in terms of exploring the American vernacular not only for Frank, but also Garry Winogrand, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld and most recently, Paul Graham.
      .
      For a pdf of the essay, click on http://wp.me/p61yu-3G
      .

    • thanks so much for your posts, I will definitely read it, and check out the work of the last 2 guys you mentioned…

    • Smogranch says:

      Never heard of any of those guys………just kidding. Evans is in the DNA of a lot of subsequent snappers.

  13. Interesting post….I love peoople talking about their process. I think over the years I’ve reigned in a certain aimlessness in the work, but have not let go of it entirely as I feel it can lead one to roads that otherwise one would have not discovered. I guess I’m talking about a balance here, of being prepared (either with tools, technique, or just a self-awareness of what enchants you) but at the same time willing to use those tools in an unorthodox way, or forego technique.
    Walk into the desert with a blindfold on, but have a good Swiss Army knife in your pocket.

    • Smogranch says:

      I think that is what it takes, and this phrase I keep hearing….critical thinking. You just have to have the time to think. Sounds easy, but for me, it isn’t.

  14. Tyvek cors says:

    What are the odds of being killed by lightning? Or dying in a plane crash? While such questions may strike some as macabre, the National Safety Council frequently receives these inquiries.

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