It used to be fashionable for the photo gurus to proclaim that, in order to take “good” photographs, you should “become one with your subject”: to photograph a tree you should become that tree. In an extreme form: you had no “right” to express your opinion about/take a photograph of e.g. poor people if you did not belong to the same social class! No matter what ideological or philosophical thoughts these seemingly “deep” ideas stem from, they have always struck me as plain nonsense. Would an extensive study of all the pharoahs and dynasties of ancient Egypt have resulted in better photographs for my Egypt series….hardly. I did not want knowledge to get in the way of experience. I was going to absorb the country as it presented itself to me during the five weeks of my stay.
Useful as it may be to know at least something about your subject (be it old people’s homes or Latino gangs), it certainly is no guarantee for better photographs. A quick intuitive response is far more important to me than study, meditation or even identification with the subject. Being able to look at things your very own way and thus maintain a certain distance – figuratively speaking! – sometimes helps to avoid being overwhelmed by a subject, or may add to an atmosphere of alienation, when opportune. Having an open mind, not losing yourself, is the key to good observation.
Being an insider, and I’m thinking in years rather than weeks, may get you those special images and a feeling of belonging, and seeing details that stay hidden to the casual eye. In both my “house parties” series and the upcoming “gypsies” series on my site http://www.tomstappers.com you may find this involvement which permeates the best photographs from the many thousands I’ve taken over a long period of time. It is fascination with other people’s lives that drove me, not some supposed “professional attitude” of pursuing “the ultimate picture” that “says it all”, should such a thing exist.