"Know thyself" (gnōthi seauton or nosce te ipsum, in transliterated ancient Greek and Latin respectively), which according to Pausanias was inscribed in the forecourt of the temple of Apollo at Delphi, home of the celebrated oracle, has been variously attributed to Bias of Priene, Chilon of Sparta, Cleobulus of Lindus, Heraclitus, Myson of Chenae, Periander, Pittacus of Mytilene, Pythagoras, Socrates, Solon of Athens, and Thales of Miletus. It's one of the pithiest and most problematic maxims in philosophy and—more lately—psychology.
...But at least with your photography it's possible. Last year I was offering Portfolio Reviews here where I live in the Finger Lakes region of Western New York, and I had started to talk to a reader named Tom about a review. Now he's just going to stop by for lunch. By way of explanation, he wrote:
I’ve been thinking long and hard about why I take pictures, and I’ve come to the conclusion that in fact I’m simply a happy snapper. A much-over-equipped happy snapper, perhaps, but that’s what I am. I don’t really have a portfolio, and to be truthful I don’t feel the need to change that—if I achieve some sort of reasonably competent mementos of places I’ve been then I’m happy. So the truth is, I’m not a serious photographer. (You have no idea how liberating it has been to accept this….)
I was particularly taken with that last line. Surely, the payoff of self-knowledge is indeed liberation. If you really know who you are, it helps you to know what to do; and if you really know what you're doing, it's a lot easier to do it.
I lost a review client, but I think Tom got a whole lot of benefit out of thinking about it. Works for me if it works for him.
(Thanks to Tom for permission to quote him)
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Featured Comments from:
Andrea Costa: "Uhmmm.... Many times I've heard people saying 'I'm not a serious photographer' in a radical-chic, smug way, like they are saying 'I'm really different and for this I'm so better than them.' You know, a passive-aggressive demeanor. I, for one, started with snapshots, then moved to portfolios, and I find that I'm very happy when I shoot projects that I can show to others. (You have no idea how liberating it has been to accept this….) :-P "
Mike replies: Like you, I'm also happier when I strive. That's what lets you engage with the problems—technical, psychological, procedural—and the problems are all interesting, in my view. My idea of liberation would be to get more serious, not less. But for each of us it's different, and I take Tom at his word that his conclusion is the right one for him.
Wayne: "For me, happiness resides in the effort; the photograph is simply a reminder that I was there and engaged. Somehow, I managed to leave a thumb-print on one of the my favorite shots from the first roll of film I hand loaded in a reusable film canister. It does not seriously detract from the shot,but it is there...forever; my brand. Imagine if HCB had done the same thing on his photo of the man jumping over the puddle. What would be more prized today? A print including the thumb-print, or a print not including it? Fact is, if HCB were too hung up on what others thought, we would probably never have had the joy of such a photograph in the first place.
"Don't just 'know thyself,' take pleasure in learning about thyself. Photography is a perfect tool for the effort."
Anthony Shaughnessy: "I've often wondered at the disappointment I used to get on some days when I go out and shoot. I've recently realised it's because I want to shoot mountains. I was shooting in other places that just didn't do it for me. I've been fortunate to be able to concentrate on mountain scenery for the last year or so and I'm far happier with my photography and where it's going."
Mike replies: That's an incredibly important revelation, right at the core of self-knowledge as a photographer: what do I really want to shoot and how do I get to go do that?
James: "I'm an unhappy snapper...I long for a project, some set of images that could be called a portfolio, something to do with this hobby. But no matter how hard I try, I just keep snapping away and posting single images or small series on my blog, which gets about 100 hits per day, mostly to a review I wrote about an old lens that didn't have much other coverage. A couple of people reflexively like the G+ autoposts that come from the blog, but other than that, I get no feedback, probably partly because I don't give it to others and don't much participate in any of the online photo communities. Virtually everything I listen to or read seems to push towards a some sort of comprehensive, realized thing, and despite trying for several years, I've yet to even define what I want to shoot, much less what I want to get out of it. It's very discouraging at times. But the rest of the time, I just really enjoy shooting, learning things, trying things, etc., and I wish I could learn to focus on that and ignore the impetus to make something of my very enjoyable hobby."
Animesh Ray: "In Sanskrit, Atmanam biddhi, or know thyself, is the central tenet in The Upanishads (~650-700BCE), which would place it at about the same age as, or perhaps a hundred years earlier than, Thales of Miletus, perhaps contemporaneous of most of the sources you quoted. Why did people in 700BCE suddenly get this philosophical insight in apparently far-flung places?"