If you’re a big fan of scary movies, then you’ll know exactly where I’m coming from with this. Even if you’re not, I’m sure you’ve heard of this phenomenon before. Movie-goers, after watching enough scary movies, often love to shout “Don’t go in there!” whenever one of the movie’s characters is about to go through a door.
There’s a reason for that reaction. If you watch enough scary movies—or movies of any genre, really—they all sort of become formulaic. A cheap thrill that you’ve seen over and over again, even if there are some differences between the plot, characters and so on.
What does this have to do with photography, you’re probably wondering? Well, it’s simple. When you’re exposed to enough of anything, you become jaded by it. It really does become a cheap thrill, something that is one and done. You have that initial reaction, and then the experience is over—no matter how shocking that experience may be.
This same thing happens in photography, I think. When you look around at images in general, you’ll start to see that so many photographs are based entirely on capturing something shocking. In fact, entire techniques, like HDR, have been developed to make photographs seem that much more shocking or unreal. Images of this nature might include blazing sunsets, breathtakingly monumental landmarks, or athletes captured at the height of the action.
Consider, for a moment, images of athletes captured at the height of the action. We see these types of photographs everywhere—in newspapers, magazines, online and so on. A basketball player right at the slam dunk moment, a baseball player hovering mid-air the instant before he crashes to the ground and slides to home base, a football player making the leap to catch the ball.
Think about your reaction to those images. If you’re like me, you see them, experience a moment of awe at this feat, and then you turn the page to look at other things. Except in a few exceptionally memorable instances, the image is rapidly forgotten.
That’s because we can only see these things so often before we start to shrug and move on. Just like in the example of scary movies, we become numb to these amazing things after we’ve seen enough of them.
All of this is not to say that photographs can’t or shouldn’t be shocking. But for the photographer with the portfolio comprised predominately of these things, it can become problematic. As I said, in many cases, images like these are easy to forget because we see so much of this type of thing. So if you want to create something that isn’t forgotten after the initial shock value? Then it must have depth. It needs something more than that initial breathtaking first glance in order for it to endure. Viewers need to be able to look at the image, and then look again, deeper, because they’ve realized that there is more to find here than just the photograph’s primary subject. There are subtle details, shades of meaning, emotions to be gained. Depth is what keeps a jaded audience coming back to look again long after that initial surprise fades.