Transitions: As The World Turns
Just now our planet, in its course around the sun, has us lingering between seasons. In the Northern Hemisphere the darkest days of winter are behind us but the promises of spring are still just promises. South of the Equator summer is fleeting, and we can feel our world changing. Every place on our planet responds to this swirling dance with the sun.
I am being dramatic because I remember the long-running soap opera As the World Turns, which always opened with a shot of our globe suspended in space, each revolution bringing something new to the melodrama of our lives. Our lives, like the planet, are always in transition. Seeing those transitions is a photographic challenge. It is so much easier to make photographs that are static. Still photographs, after all, make things hold still. So this assignment is about making change visible in a photograph.
This time of year is full of leaving things behind and beginning new phases of life. I’d like you to explore every aspect of these transitions. Examples are everywhere—the constellation Orion bidding us farewell for another year, the first peek of a bursting bud, the waning of winter’s long shadows, the eager glances of budding romance, the sanguine welcome we give each new season as our years pile up, the sun peering through ancient standing stones once again, and the sun’s rays tabbing into the darkness of skyscraper canyons to light up the mornings of our city lives. Moments of gain and moments of loss. Goodbyes and hellos, dawns and dusks, never say die and (quoth the Raven) nevermore.
Photographing transition is tough. But success takes you to new levels of photography.
Successful photographs will probably do one of three things:
• Capture transitions: The moment when one thing becomes another
• Evoke emotions: Whether joy or sadness, longing or melancholy, make us feel something
• Invite wonder: Dispel lethargy; make the world fresh and full of possibilities
I’ve painted a broad picture here. I'll leave you to fill in the illuminating details. But I want our pictures to tell the story of change in our lives, locked in this dance with our planet, cruising around the sun, every act of our play, from one scene to the next, our dramas great and small, lit by limelight and full of transitions.
Thank you for your contributions!
Keep Working, Breakthroughs Ahead
Now we enter an interesting phase of the assignment.Photographic stories have an interesting dynamic, one that is different from the process of taking individual pictures. As we come down the stretch, we enter a time when much work has already been done, work that has included both production (of images) and conceptualization. We have been both thinking and doing. And each side of that creative process has been informing the other as we move forward.
We began with the idea of transition, with me trying to define what I was looking for and you trying to interpret my directive. It’s not always an easy business, on either side.
But by now we have seen a lush outpouring of ideas and pictures from you, and the results have been incredibly rewarding. I have been, by turns, surprised, encouraged, humbled, joyous, and melancholy. Already we have a deep well of images that can tell a compelling story. The pictures have given substance to my nebulous assignment, made the ideas concrete, fulfilled the once empty concept.
Now we are at a different stage.
This stage comes when you already have enough pictures to do the job. We could stop right now and produce a fully formed story. Now comes the greater challenge: Push forward for breakthrough moments. Our opportunity is here and now. In a few days the assignment will be over, we will be on to other projects, our momentary band of photographers will find other interests, and most likely we will never return to this quest. Not in the same way, at least. It will be another transition in our lives. Let’s make this count while we can.
This is also the stage where I, as editor, am breathing a sigh of relief. Thanks to you I can see that this grand dream is going to work. Now is the time when I begin seriously thinking about the story arc, of how the story will go together, its form and sequence, and its emotional destination. How will it begin? How will it end? Where will the peaks and valleys fall? Which pictures should I choose to tell this tale?
Choosing pictures for a story is not the same thing as judging a photo contest. In a contest you're simply picking the best pictures, and how they relate to one another doesn’t really matter. Not so when you're collecting the raw material with which to build a story around a concept. When you're doing that, how pictures go together matters a great deal. For instance, once one theme or concept has been expressed, you probably won’t repeat yourself by using another picture that says, essentially, the same thing. This often results in agonizing decisions, when beautiful pictures end up on the cutting room floor, sacrificed for the greater good of the overall essay. It’s tough work, sometimes filled with regret, but ultimately incredibly rewarding.
So we have shown that there are pictures that elicit that delicious sense of being in the moment, between one time and another, when we open a door, walk through it, and close it behind us, knowing that we will never go back. (For a picture to draw us into that moment is a wonder.) And now we are in a similar moment, having done much work, with work yet to come, but transitioning into another mode of thought, and then into another time.
If we succeed our story will unfold like a novel, not just a collection of pictures, taking us through a journey of emotional discovery, eliciting the ephemeral and eternal at the same time.
Good luck to us all,
Capturing a Moment, Evoking Emotion
What a remarkable set of pictures we are accumulating! It has been a pleasure to sit here and go through them so far, to see how I might be surprised or delighted, to start to put substance to the nebulous thoughts in the original assignment. But that is always how it goes. No matter how specific your intent, the world has a way of taking you where it will. Especially in photography.
Before I go into further direction and amplification, let’s take a moment to consider the editing process, which has a dynamic all its own and which is never as clear cut as one would wish. This assignment is no exception. Indeed, because I purposely made it about photographing an idea (rather than a place, thing, or time of day) it is even more indistinct, maybe even formless. Editing it, like photographing it, has the eerie quality of when you're making your way through gauzy curtains toward something that will be revealed. Once revealed it will be obvious. Until then it is an unsettling process.
I used the word formless. Our job—yours taking the pictures and mine selecting them—is to put form to the idea. To make solid that which was vague. It is not a straight, linear process, one in which you simply reject the unsuccessful pictures and keep the correct ones. That’s the easy way out. What we are going to do is to go someplace we have never been before. That’s tough. So if you're scratching your head, wondering what works and what doesn’t, well, join the club. It’s how I feel every time I do an assignment for National Geographic magazine.
Now, here are some things I'm noticing. The successful pictures seem to capture a moment that is part of a transition. And that moment has a recognizable emotion attached. Like the truly touching picture of the woman touching her forehead to the old man in his last days. The moment was one about aging, and we have had a number of aging pictures submitted, but this one had the clear emotion of sad resignation clearly portrayed. That same quality showed up in a number of the pictures I favorited—there was an emotional side to the images. Sometimes that emotion, while strong, was also a bit baffling. What was it I felt when I saw the hat sailing over the field of red poppies? I’m not sure yet.
That business, of seeing that a picture says something without yet being quite sure what is being said, is one of the ways a photo essay can sweep beyond the bounds of common expectations. I understand that what I have just told you is no formula for going out and taking a better picture (like some combination of f-stop and shutter speed) but at least when you're in the field it will help if you pay attention to your emotions and listen to your inner voice when something in the viewfinder makes your heart skip a beat. Don’t shrink from something that disturbs your placid picture taking. (Notice the emotions evoked when you see the cat stalking the dead bird. One life gone, another life nourished.)
I also notice that pictures of static conditions don’t seem to grab me very much, at least for the purposes of this assignment. (Trust me, there are a lot of beautiful pictures being submitted.) It seems that the pictures have to imply a before and an after, and that the moment of the picture is the teetering point between them. That’s probably what gives them their power. Notice our emotions when we see a picture of someone jumping in the air; we know it can’t last.
Finally, this gut-wrenching process is totally normal. It’s part of the job and part of the thrill that will come when we've the finished essay in front of us. Then we’ll crow to our friends that we knew just what we were doing all along, knew exactly how to get the right picture, and never doubted for a minute that we’d pull it off. Bully for us! (Let’s just keep the truth to ourselves. It will be our little secret.)
Good luck everybody,
• Three Submissions-remember you cannot replace photos you have already uploaded to the assignment. If you delete one of your submissions, you do not get another upload.
• Photos from your archive or gallery are allowed, however we always encourage you to make new images.
• Please caption your photos with meaningful information.
• The assignment ends on March 15, 5pm EST.
• Good luck!