The Picture I Would Run into a Burning House to Save

A very good friend of mine asked me recently what I was trying to achieve with my photography; what was I striving for and how would I know I’d achieved it? I showed her this picture of a boy with a dandelion by Laura Panack and said that if I could ever take a photograph as close to perfect as this I would be very happy. 

Boy with Dandelion - Laura Panack

Boy with Dandelion - Laura Panack

For me the perfection of this image lies in the fact that it distils and presents such a pure visual representations of our humanity. There are many other images taken in either fine art or perhaps more commonly documentary styles that present more obvious or visceral representations of humanity. Certainly there are more iconic images that anyone might immediately recall as being synonymous with the subject. But for me the genius of this image lies in the ordinariness of the moment that makes it easier to connect with personally.

The lighting is the first thing that really draws you in to the image. It has a softness that gives such a wonderful gradation of tone and colour and makes the image feel very organic; it’s melancholic but not sad. The quality of the light is complemented by the delicacy and toning of the boy’s skin, almost like it, and the image, is breathing. That probably sounds odd, describing an image as ‘breathing’, but in my head that really gets close to how this image looks to me and makes me feel.

The boy, seemingly poised at the moment of exhalation, wonderfully mirrors that idea and his careful scrutiny of the delicate beauty of the dandelion before his own exhalation gently blow the seeds away is a wonderfully sensitive moment. You can see his fascination and engagement with something so wonderfully delicate but otherwise so ordinary. And that is where the humanity lies for me; in the deep personal engagement and the delicacy of an otherwise ordinary moment.

Having been a small boy once and having known and experienced the deep sense of insecurity and pain associated with that time, the fact that the subject is who he is and is the age he is, is also poignant and meaningful for me. That is of course a very personal thing; an interpretation based on personal experience that only I could bring to this image (but isn’t that the final and most important aspect of all art?) But still, the fact that most boys of this age are hugely self-conscious and the photographer has managed to capture such a delicate and involved moment of this small boy, without even a shirt on, speaks volumes about their ability to engage with a subject and build trust. Again that reinforces the humanity of the image.

What I learn from this that helps me understand my own work better and myself as a person is that the photograph is only part of the output of my work, and perhaps of any photographers work. The process of engagement, the insight and understanding of other people and therefore of myself is every bit as important as the resulting image. I’ve met a few photographers recently whose portrait work I have previously admired but when engaging in conversation with them it’s become apparent that they only really care about the image. The subject and the process by which they engage and the story and insight gained seems less important or not important at all and I’ve found that disappointing.

My instincts are telling me that the best pictures come from those subjects you end up making an emotional connection even if just at a superficial level. In that single brief moment there has to be a sense of the subject as a person with a past and a future, with memories and remembrances and hopes and fears and everything else that makes us people. Most of this may remain hidden from the photographer but there still needs to be an acknowledgement of them in order for the portrait to really work. I always want to leave having learned something about them and want to remember that and keep it as important.