The Singular Truth about Great Photography


More than a decade of grappling with questions and thoughts on the art, science, function and philosophy of photography has earned me some conclusions. And like every other conclusion, or truth, that we reach at some point or the other in our lives, I think that the one I have reached last is the most definitive. The truth is that great photography is an act of indescribable, all-encompassing love. It seems to be a very mundane truth. Yet, regardless of the depth of one’s study and practice, reason and function, and natural, moral or metaphysical dialectic, this indeed is the plain, simple and final truth.

Within this space, all I can do to explain it is to describe it. To begin with, love is blind. But it affords a clarity of vision like no other. It is never confused or disoriented. It always knows exactly what needs to be done and for this, it appears incredibly selfish. The greatest acts of love are also viewed, by those who don’t understand, as the most far-reaching acts of self-fulfillment.

For a great photographer, releasing the shutter is not merely the ‘right moment’ in time, but a moment of most clarity in knowledge, thought, deed and vision. If any one of these are in doubt, the shutter does not release. Even if it does, the photograph, somehow, does not seem right. It takes a lot to get to this moment, especially if you consider that the photographer has only a sixtieth of a second, or less, to decide composition and exposure, and when to release the shutter… or if it is to be released at all.

Steve McCurry, World Press Award winner and the famous photographer of ‘the Afghan girl’ cover of National Geographic, in the course of an interview with Better Photography many years ago, was asked, “What makes you decide on whether you can shoot a heartrending scene or not?” After a considerable pause, he replied, “There are times when you know that you can raise your camera and take a picture of people in mourning, and there are times when you know that you just cannot.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2008 issue of Better Photography.

Tags: K Madhavan Pillai, Steve McCurry, August 2008, Better Photography magazine, Great photography, Secrets of photography, Afghan girl