Is Photography Superficial?

2016-07-29

Once upon a time, two very different people met at a beach party in Singapore. There was a Burmese freelance photographer in his mid-twenties and a young multiracial girl, clueless about photography, who had to sneak into the club because she hasn’t turned 18 yet.

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Alcohol has loosened my tongue and mind, but it doesn’t bring me closer to the group I am with. So I’ve started a conversation with this Burmese guy from the table next to ours, who – even though I’ve told him that I have a boyfriend – seems to be intrigued by the young foreign girl who was not completely herself (who knew it’d be the start of a long lasting friendship).

Denisa3We sit on the sand next to the sea, looking ahead into the vast darkness. My friend Josephine is talking to another Burmese guy in the knee-high black water. When my new buddy Kevin tells me that he’s a photographer, the first question that bubbles into my tipsy mind is: “How important are appearances for you? I’ve always thought that [portrait/fashion] photographers are kind of superficial, because they only photograph the beautiful.”

How naive I was. But at the same time, so right.

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When I started out with portrait photography last autumn, my main goal was to show the beauty that everyone has. It’s an important matter to me. I used to look at those beautiful photos of beautiful people and felt like shit. So I wanted the people in front of my lens to feel good about themselves and make them realise how beautiful they are.

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Denisa7However I realised something while looking at professional photographers’ photos: If I wanted to take my photography to the next level, there was no choice but to create visually more appealing photos. And how do you do that? Not only by improving your craft, but also by photographing people who are experienced or at least confident in front of the camera – models. And most models are beautiful in some way.

This realization put me into a dilemma. I was contributing to the high beauty standard, pressuring more young women to feel insecure about their looks, doing what my younger self in Singapore would have disapproved of.

Denisa9I’ve received some messages during the last couple of months. Strangers told me how they appreciate that my photos look so natural or that they love that I’m photographing ‘real people‘. I appreciate those messages and I’m glad that people notice that I’m working with ‘normal people’, the girl next door.

But there’s a price for it. Almost all the girls I’ve photographed had no modeling experience – and often, you notice that. There’s nothing bad about it, everyone has to start somewhere. However, I was lucky enough to photograph some naturals and noticed a huge difference: it’s so much easier for me to take good photos if the model is confident and knows how to pose, so I can focus on directing and photographing.

Denisa8I’ve recently watched a tutorial from fashion photographer Lara Jade in which she talked about the importance of choosing the right model for a successful shoot. She also said something like ‘if you don’t feel inspired by the model, it will show in the photos‘ and I realised how true it is. In the future, I’ll focus on shooting with people who really inspire me.

My answer the question in the title: A photographer wants to create ‘beautiful pictures’ and is probably also inspired by beauty. It applies to me as well, and I feel conflicted about it. Of course, beauty is everywhere, but I don’t believe that the phrase ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ is entirely true.. I’m afraid that portrait and especially fashion photography are superficial, because we are naturally attracted to beauty (that comes in many forms!).

However, I believe that I can do something meaningful anyway. Maybe I could create other images aside from my usual work and spread awareness about an important issue. I don’t know. I don’t have the answers, but I’m trying to find my way.

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Denisa12Speaking of inspiring people – these photos are from my first session with Denisa in April. We didn’t know each other before it and it took us ages to finally meet up, but dang, I was thrilled! It was her first photo shoot and she totally rocked. And she’s not just super beautiful and an awesome model, no, she’s also really nice, funny and a great writer (check out one of her poems here).

Also, she was present at the incident that led me to write my post “People Pleaser” that resonated highly with you. I didn’t expect that anyone who was there would read the post, but she did and left a thoughtful comment.

When I decided to be more open and vulnerable here, I often wondered who of those who live in my area read my blog and what they think of it. With the exception of a few close friends and my sister, I hardly receive any feedback on my posts. Denisa’s comment was the first and it was so reassuring to hear those kind words from someone else than a close friend or a fellow blogger. I’m so grateful I got to meet her through my photography and can’t wait for our future shoots ♥

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I hope my post made sense to you! What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you agree or disagree? I’d love to hear your opinion!


Model: Denisa, April 2016

56 Comments
    1. Beauty is subjective in many ways. An interesting portrait will come out from an interesting person and this is beauty. After all a unique personality for me is nothing but a reminder of how wonderful and beauriful people are.

      1. From this point of view, I totally agree with you. In my post, I was referring to the mainstream meaning of beauty, the “classical” beauty. Of course, there are many other kinds of beauty as well! Thank you for your comment :)

      1. PS: You just made me think.. you wrote that someone interesting and unique is beautiful as well. I agree with that. But what about a “boring” (which of course is subjective as well, but I think you know what I mean) face and/or personality? Why would a portrait/fashion photographer take a picture of a boring face who doesn’t capture one’s attention if he could have an interesting subject instead? That’s my dilemma, that this kind of photography is about the beautiful, interesting, appealing, etc. and the less fortunate ones (concerning the looks) are neglected once again.

        1. Your photos are incredible and your model is stunning no doubt. I can see your dilemma I think its a difficult thing to navigate for sure. The truth is ‘beauty’ sells. We are all drawn to it even if we don’t agree with it. Its a strange catch 22 or something right?

          1. Thank you so much for your lovely comment! <3 Yes, you're right, unfortunately beauty sells and when I want to work as a photographer, I'll have to give in. Though I'm thinking of ways to balance it - I'll see if I can come up with something that makes me feel better about what I'm doing :)

            1. I have a feeling you are one determined woman and you will find something that creates a healthy balance that will capture attention at the same! :)

    1. As someone who has began taking portrait/fashion photography ‘serious’ only recently, I know how it feels to photograph inexperienced models, both the ‘naturals’ and the, hate to say it but, stiff. It does frustrate me a bit when I’m with the latter but at some point I realized, this is where your skill as a director comes in. Good photographers just know exactly what to say in order to turn dull poses into pleasant-looking ones, and that’s what I’m in the process of learning as of now :)

      1. So awesome that we’re on the same journey! :D I tried to get onto your blog, but the link in your profile is not available – could you give me the link?
        I can totally identify with your comment and had to laugh about the word ‘stiff’ :P I have to admit that I had to direct A LOT at the beginning and was totally surprised when I first came across a natural after a couple of weeks. You’re right, you learn a lot when you have to direct a lot, but it’s more fun when you can just run around, look for different angles, direct a little and let the model do her thing :D thanks for your comment!

        1. Sure thing, it’s rcvillanueva.wordpress.com. Check it out when you have the time. I have several shoots already showcased there. :)

          1. thanks for the quick reply – you’ve got a new follower on several social media channels haha

    1. A thought provoking post. I think we all have beauty, but many people feel shy in front of the camera. Maybe they can be helped to feel less shy and to relax a bit, but some people will always be more challenging to photograph, and it may not be a function of their beauty.

      1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Christopher. I totally agree with you, a good photographer can show everyone’s beauty – but I guess his focus would rather be on portraiture and not fashion, where contemporary beauty ideals have to be met. “it may not be a function of their beauty” – what do you mean with that? :)

        1. Hi. I think if one is uncomfortable with having his or her image taken, they won’t photograph as well. It has little to do with “beauty” and more to do with them feeling and looking awkward before the camera…if that makes any sense. Cheers!

          1. Hello Christopher! Thanks for your explanation, I understand it now – it makes a lot of sense. :) Have a nice weekend!

    1. Pretty interesting topic. I think there is a lot of superficiality in photography. In many ways I think it stems from the idea of making money, or at least wanting to be liked. From pretty girls to photographing something you don’t believe in/care about, I think there is a superficial element going on. I know I’m guilty of it.
      Thanks for opening this up…

      1. Thank you for your interesting input, John! I’m glad you understand what I mean, I found it difficult to put into words. I hope you still photograph what you care about most of the time :) Take care and have a lovely weekend!

    1. I think if you’re trying to sell something, you’re going to focus on conventionally attractive people. But when making art, I feel like it’s less restrictive. I’ve seen lots of cool projects where photographers take pictures of any stranger who volunteers themselves, and in the space of 1-2 minutes can coax them into a pose that makes them look unique, relaxed, and beautiful. Here’s a project I participated in when I lived in Kansas City: https://youtu.be/vY36jgOcP9w

      1. I loved your comment, thank you so much for commenting! I’m glad you got what I was trying to say with the conventionally attractive people. You’re right, I have to think when I’m photographing to sell something and when I’m creating just to create. I checked out the video, awesome! Can I find your photo somewhere? I know there’s a link with all 500 photos, but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to find you :D

    1. I suppose that as in any field, it can be difficult to achieve success without “selling out” and giving in to superficial market pressures. But I like your idea of diversifying the types of photos you take in order to compensate for the superficiality that is hard to avoid in portrait photography. Who knows, it might also be fun to add more variety to your work!

      1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Josh! It’s comforting to know that not only artists have that problem. I guess I should really get leave my comfort zone and started with a personal project! Take care :)

    1. Great post and lovely photos, Monika.
      But let me play the devil’s advocate a bit: My answer to you question is that it depends. Model/fashion photography might largely be about beauty (and if I were ever to photograph people, I would try to showcase the best in them – a matter of respect I guess). But if I look at photos that are supposed to be art, I think a beautiful subject is not the first thing I expect to see, neither a beautiful picture. Maybe I just want something that ‘massages my brain’ and makes me look at things/the world in a dfferent way. Which of course does not mean a picture must by all means be unpleasant.
      I think some of your portaits are a good point in case. What I remember when I think of your pictures are young ladies, self-contained but seemingly lost in nature – and those stunning colours. Superficial? I am not so sure. And even if so: There ought must be an art that explores surfaces because the surfaces should not go unnoticed, should they?

      1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment! Interesting perspective; however, what do you think if I say that fashion photography is art as well? Of course you’re trying to sell something, but nonetheless you have to be creative, think of a concept etc. and yet (very often) the result has to be conventionally beautiful (of course, the result probably won’t ‘message your brain’).
        Well, I’m glad superficiality is not the first thing that comes into your mind when you look at my pictures, but I choose to work with girls that inspire me, amongst other, with their looks and radiation (Ausstrahlung). Of course, my taste might differ from others, but I’d say that it’s still within the range of what we conventionally perceive as beautiful. And that’s putting me in a dilemma because I dislike how ‘beautiful’ people already have an advantage in society and portrait/fashion photography (what I really enjoy) is another place where the “less fortunate” lose.
        Apart from that, you’re right, of course: art doesn’t have to be beautiful when the goal is to make someone think or see the world in a different way.
        Have a nice week! :)

    1. Though ‘beauty’ is subjective, there’s this science, a “measurement” of you will, of what is beautiful. In relation to what you wrote (correct me if I got it wrong), Fashion photography aims to sell a look, clothing, style, lifestyle, and a fantasy. Thus, we’ll notice models look nothing less than fantastic – even those “plus-size” model aren’t really real-world plus-sized, or if they are then they have faces that could launch a thousand space-ships or something. hehe.

      If one embarks on Fashion photography then it must be accepted that it’s all about beauty, mainstream or not. Is it superficial? Probably Yes, because fashion photography’s main purpose is to sell an idea. Is it bad? Well, it’s not I guess. As a photographer does it make you inspired and happy? Well this is the real question. If it does, then by all means fuel the flame. If it doesn’t, it might not be for you.

      Sorry for the long post… I’d offer you a potato, but I ran out of it. heheheheh.

      Beautiful insight, by the way. :)

      1. Sorry it took me so long to answer – I enjoyed your comment a lot, don’t worry about the length!

        It was really thoughtful and made me realise some things. I totally agree with you what you wrote about fashion photography and that it’s about selling something.

        Thinking of it that way, I’m going to stay away from fashion photography and try to focus on producing photos that convey a mood and emotions instead. I guess that was what I’ve subconsciously tried to do all along, but I didn’t know how to call it :D

        Thank you very much for your comment :)

    1. Thank-you for the follow :) You have a beautiful blog combined with the writing and photography.

    1. Your photos are lovely! I enjoyed reading about the evolution of your thought processes. It is a dilemma – as a plus-sized woman, I reflect a lot on the social norms about beauty. And I do think some photographers are better able to capture beauty than others.

      1. Thank you so much for your kind feedback! <3 Yes, I guess a lot has to do with the photographer's capabilities. Have a lovely Sunday x

    1. As human beings we are triune in nature, we are a spirit that is reflected through our soul (mind) and body. Our outer image is a refextion of who we are as a spirit, that incidently is in ever flux, the essence of which can be induced by the photographer exerting what he/she wants to see. What I’m saying is “I see a lot of you in the pictures you take”

      1. Hello Patrick, I’m sorry I didn’t answer your comment sooner, I must have missed it. Thank you very much for your feedback! You’re sharing a very interesting point of view here, I’ll certainly think of it for a while :) have a wonderful week and take care!

    1. As a fellow photographer & blogger, this post resonates deeply with me. Your images are fantastic! Thanks for sharing.

      1. I’m so sorry, I totally missed your comment! Thank you for your kind feedback <3 take care! x

    1. The saying goes that a picture is worth 10,000 words so I don’t find photography superficial at all. Thanks for the visit and happy blogging and photography. ^__^

      1. Thank you for your comment! Well, the problem is that it doesn’t apply to every picture. There are so many meaningless photos out there that are just focused on beauty.. have a lovely Sunday! x

    1. Interesting dilemma…I cannot advise on the fashion industry. As I am a different kind of artist. A painter by passion. I photograph to compose a scene. To inspire ideas within myself…and lastly because it makes me happy. The beauty is in the way those four corners of print are filled. Where the lines fall, where the light meets dark…I would say that as a salesman of fashion wares, you may have to pander to the population. Unfortunately a large portion of the public at large, are shallow and lack a creative understanding of your art or purpose. To break into that scene with unengaging or boring faces . Your compositions are going to have to override them. Much as the one I saw from the Instagram photos. the blonde framed in autumn leaves….Exquisite composition!! Not that she isn’t very pretty but the placement of the entire composition…I’m curious if that would work with a lesser level of “beauty” … I hope that made sense lol

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