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A Love Letter to Photography
Reflecting on a few lessons that help me endure as a photographer
Last Saturday night, I felt restless at a friend's brownstone deep in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. I decided to walk home to Greenpoint, just over three miles away. A week ago, I'd returned from five weeks traveling in the American West chasing a heatwave, following the story of climate change that will be published in the coming months. After a few drinks and small talk with my friends' guests that I didn't know, I knew I needed to get back out on the road again.
I always have a sense of displacement during post-work reinsertions. My mind is still wandering while my body sits still. Each time I return to the city, I come down from the intensity of traveling: the characters I take on as I wander through the lives of strangers, the logistical hustle, the creative push. I start to question my career and my work. Is the way I see things as a photographer valid? Was the work I made good, or did I fail? Is it all worth the personal sacrifice of transience and loneliness? Why am I a photographer?
I realize these are privileged questions coming from my insecurity and disillusion with what feels like an often fleeting and unstable freelance career, but they are questions nevertheless. After an abrupt and early goodbye, I paced north into Bushwick as a sprinkle of rain turned to a pour. I adjusted the face mask in my pocket over my phone so it became its umbrella and turned it so the charging point was on the bottom. I kept walking, and I thought about photography.
Never forget to be a student of photography. It's an easy pitfall to feel accomplished or in command of a craft. The moment I settle into a sense of complacency, my work suffers. There have been several times I have made this mistake. There was a moment in my career in 2010 when I was working in Afghanistan and receiving regular assignments. I thought I had made it—this was the first time I started to feel like I was established.
During this time, I stopped learning and started to settle into a single craft trick—I replicated the work of others. I got lazy and frustrated on assignments, and I wasn't cultivating any personal work. I settled into my mild success and forgot the most important thing—to be a student.
By being a student of photography, I find it much easier to be a student of life and art. I forget this sometimes, and I feel lost when I do. But eventually, I return to this thought: Being a photographer is about endless learning.
Photography is like love—it needs to be cared for, protected, and nurtured. A colleague and friend shared this wisdom with me once, and it is something I come back to when I fall out of love with photography. There have been many days on assignment when I struggle with the repetition and the intrusive nature of pushing myself into other worlds and other lives. Sometimes the process between photographs is tedious and isolating. It can be uncertain financially. I have often thought about leaving photography.
When my love starts waning, I clear a few hours and look at photo books or see an exhibition, which help me remember the power of photographs. Then I take my camera for a walk, and not to make a picture, but to consciously try to see something new and spontaneous. I try to exist not as a professional but as someone sharing curiosity with a camera, someone looking at life for the pleasure of seeing.
It’s also important to take time away from photography, so I miss it. That way, when I get back to it, I am ready to give myself to it all over again.
I also acknowledge that photography isn’t perfect, but it gives me enough. There is immense freedom in the job; it allows me to participate in and share stories that I would not have been able to be a part of without a camera. It has given me self-determination and offers me a single form to grapple with. There is comfort in remembering all these things, and they remind me that I also have to love photography back by doing the best I can for it, for journalism, for art. It’s my responsibility.
Making a successful photograph is not about a personal moment of creative genius; it’s about working hard and showing up, no matter how you feel. Some days things will go your way, and there will be “good” pictures; other days, there will be none. When days feel the slowest and the things you were anticipating did not align, that’s when you have to show up with the strongest conviction.
For me, this is the hardest thing of all. When I started in photography, I looked at books by some of the documentary masters and thought I would venture into worlds and find these epic, iconic moments to photograph. But I learned over time that this preconceived notion I had developed was a fantasy. Those moments are not out there. They are created by a person looking and translating the world. And the only way to do that is to work hard and find your own way of seeing.
Some of my most successful photographs were moments when I didn’t realize I was making a worthy image. I was just seeing and doing the work. I was showing up, pushing through, sleeves rolled up. I try to remember that making photographs is about the act as much as a final image—you just have to keep going, keep working.
The only way to endure life as a photographer is to undertake a long, enduring love with it. And like love, it requires constant care.
By the time I got home on Saturday evening, the light cast a purple hue on the walls of the apartment. My shirt clung to me, and my shoes were soggy. I took a hot shower and pulled out And So Forth by Sophie Calle, and began to read.
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