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Why I Shoot For Myself

The joy of falling in love with photography again.


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Ryan Jiha

3 years ago | 6 min read

This is not another how-to post about what someone new to photography should do to improve his or her skills, nor is it another pointless debate over which gear is best, which lenses are better, have less distortion, are faster, full-frame vs. cropped, mirrorless vs. DSLR, or which is most suited for a specific genre of photography.

This post is about the why of my personal photographic journey as opposed to the how. It is a reflection I wrote after stumbling through old photographs in my archives.

The following images (most of them lightly edited) were taken at pivotal times in my life and have rekindled my passion for photography as an art form.

This is a post about my love for the medium, what it means to me, and how it continues to teach me so much about myself in the complex modern world we live in.

If you’ve been following my Instagram page lately, you may have noticed that I started posting daily images of my work. During these difficult and challenging times, finding ways to escape the realities of COVID-19 both on a personal and professional level has had tremendous benefits on my mental health.

One effective way I found is to spend more time reconnecting with my photography and revisiting old images I took amidst my travels. This process of rediscovery made me realize how much my technical and creative skills have improved over the years, but more importantly why I fell in love with photography in the first place.

My love for photography started when I was living in New Orleans, LA (NOLA) as a graduate student from 2012 to 2014. Maybe it was my personal experience surviving the 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Haiti still fresh on my mind,

or maybe it was how much NOLA reminded me of home with its eccentric and vibrant culture, its incredibly friendly people, its renowned music, and the (spicy) food, but I remember feeling a deep sense of familiarity and connection to my Haitian roots.

I remember feeling so deeply inspired by the nuances of this beautifully complex city that I started capturing street scenes and slices of daily life using my main camera at the time, iPhone 4. Coincidentally, it is also when Instagram as a photo-sharing platform was just taking off and do-it-for the gram was starting to get coined in popular culture.

Fast-forward to yet another pivotal time in my life when I moved to Boston in 2016 for a new job with Partners in Health. I purchased my first camera- a Sony point and shoot- on Black Friday.

It was certainly an upgrade from the iPhone, but I remember a strong feeling of novelty, joy, and excitement of just going outside with this camera to capture the most random things. I remember spending countless hours learning all the features of this new equipment.

I made sure it was always in my pocket as anyone around me could be subjected to a photographic experiment at any time.

Suddenly, my environment started to look beautiful again. I would bring the camera to my work trips in Haiti, and despite the country going through social unrest, I would slip away to document its beauty and complexity.

Every day was an adventure and also an opportunity to step outside of my comfort zone and acknowledge my own privilege as an amateur photographer.

I could write an entirely separate post on the challenges of photographing in Haiti, the lessons I took with me during my time living there, but it is the iterative process of consistency and persistence with photographing subjects I knew made me feel uncomfortable that have had the greatest impact on my photography skills.

I knew the grind would be tough and that there was no way around it. I knew I had to teach myself. Sometimes I would get home, amped up from a shoot so I would plug in my camera and eagerly await to see my shots, only to discover that most of the shots weren’t as great as I thought they would be.

We all see these incredible photos every single day, and somehow, we forget that nobody picks up a camera and shoots like a pro from day one, even though we’d like to have people believe it.

We don’t see the tens of thousands of photos on photographers’ hard drives that are just off, where the shot was a second too late or just didn’t work at all. Nor do we see the terrible edits from when they had just started either.

We forget that there’s this big grey section of learning that sits between picking up a camera for the first time and finally seeing some good results.

But I did not let that put me off and still kept shooting at every opportunity I got. While the majority of my pictures looked terrible, I still thought they were the most beautiful pictures I had ever taken.

And in many ways, they were. My first images were unapologetically raw (photographic pun intended), with all their faults and imperfections. Although I was still experimenting and putting in the hard work, I started feeling comfortable with my surroundings.

My confidence in the process soon followed.

After each photo shoot, I slowly started appreciating the beauty in the imperfections I captured. It is that beauty that drew me to the most imperfect and flawed beings of all: humans. And it is that beauty that deeply inspired my own photographic style.

“It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera… they are made with the eye, heart and head.”
— Henri Cartier-Bresson

While my personal stylistic process continues to evolve and adapt over time, these early shots from my iPhone, and later from my point and shoot camera, serve as reminders that gear is irrelevant in photography.

Yes, having a good (expensive) camera makes a difference if we’re talking professional photography, but for a fraction of the price, a truly gifted photographer can get equally satisfying results.

True photography starts with what the observer sees, feels, and lives in the present moment. The alchemy that slowly starts developing between light and the different elements of the frame.

Photography forces us to slow down and appreciate the beauty in the most mundane, ordinary things we often take for granted. I miss that feeling of excitement of just going outside to shoot with whatever kit I have at my disposal — nothing planned, nothing rehearsed.

These old photographs, as digital fragments of my memory, are powerful reminders that precious moments captured can cause euphoria and still silence at the same time. They also serve as reminders that sometimes, expression is more important than perfection; that there is still beauty in the mundane.

Looking back on my photographic journey, it’s the process of growth and the relentless pursuit of imperfect beauty that I really fell in love with.

I miss shooting for me; not for an audience of faceless strangers based on what I think they might like. As I continue to post on Instagram,

I need to remind myself that if I am creating and posting solely for other people (or for likes, followers, fame, and self-gratification), then I am no longer doing it for the right reasons. I need to remind myself that the validation of others is fleeting as a reward.

I picked up a camera and fell in love with photography as a way to document the beauty and complexity in the everyday life of this extremely hard and unequal world. It’s okay to shoot for myself; life can be every bit as beautiful as my portfolio.

Originally published on medium.

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