I’ve been re-reading sections of the interviews and conversations with Henri Cartier-Bresson published by Aperture.

What has struck me on this re-read was his conviction to separate his personal photography from his ‘job’ as a photographer.

He describes how his friend and colleague, Robert Capa, urged him to describe himself as a ‘photojournalist’, whereas HCB aligned himself with the surrealist art movement but he he accepted that to be seen as an artist would be detrimental to getting paid work and so was happy to labelled as a photojournalist.

I don’t think you can take good pictures if you are taking them with a purpose in mind.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

The need for efficiency, speed and limited budgets have meant that we are taught to approach photography projects with degrees of planning and ideas whereas HCB states “I don’t think you can take good pictures if you are taking them with a purpose in mind. For instance stylisation is the sad result of a systematic approach to composition, instead of intuition. The only art is the humanity of your thinking, how you look at things, and the coincidence of being in a certain place at a certain time.”

This is perhaps that difference between taking pictures for work and taking pictures for personal pleasure. A little like the difference between writing poetry for your own pleasure versus writing a corporate brochure for a client – both well written but one will lack the emotion and soul of the other.

In another interview he says “Photography is not propaganda but a way of shouting how you feel.” Which means we have to ‘feel’ something when we take photographs and only by feeling will we have a sense of whether we are capturing that feeling in our images.

I take four lessons from these quotes:

  1. Ideas are not the same as purpose
  2. Rather than starting the day with an agenda we need to approach the day with an open mind.
  3. Before deciding to make a photograph check that we are feeling something: sad, exhilarated, angry, confused etc.
  4. Don’t overthink, trust your intuition.