What to Photograph?

Source magazine. no. 65, Winter, 2011

What to Photograph?

I recall the very first project I gave to my students on my very first day as a photography tutor. If they learned a tenth as much about photography as I did from it, I’d consider it a success. I had a group of thirty-six students and it went something like this. Each student thought of an object, place or scenario to be photographed. The thirty-six thoughts were written down in a list. The list was photocopied and given to all thirty-six students. Each student was given a roll of color film (thirty-six exposures) with which to make one attempt at responding to each thing on the list. They processed their films at a local lab and brought their six-by-four inch prints to the studio. We laid them out in a huge grid, so that vertically you could see thirty-six different responses to the same instruction, while horizontally you might be able to discern each student’s approach or ‘style’.  I still have the list of instructions they gave each other:

  1. A red ball
  2. A tree and a dog
  3. An ugly photograph
  4. A political argument
  5. A kiss
  6. A shallow focus image of a bar of soap
  7. A random photograph
  8. An unambiguous photograph
  9. Grass and concrete
  10. An old fashioned photograph
  11. A futuristic photograph
  12. A blue car and a white car
  13. Nigeria
  14. Timeless beauty
  15. Flowing water
  16. A woman dressed as a man
  17. An empty room
  18. Consumerism
  19. A person crying
  20. A really bad smell
  21. Bright clothing lit by flash
  22. A dangerous place
  23. Dawn
  24. Justice
  25. A cheese and tomato omelette
  26. A boy shoplifting
  27. A plate in the air
  28. A modern landscape
  29. A car park at night
  30. Things in a pile
  31. Things in a long line
  32. A fake photograph
  33. A celebrity
  34. Someone asleep
  35. A classic still life
  36. A smile


It is a list compiled by nineteen year-olds thinking they might want to take photography seriously, and in that light I think it is remarkable. It tells you something about their ‘world’ and how photography might fit into it or express it. It also seems uncannily like an inventory of all the major trends in ‘art photography’ from the 1960s to the 2000s.  We didn’t really know what we were doing but the results proved to be so fascinating that we put up the grid on our studio wall and it stayed there all year. I wish I’d kept the pictures.  All 1296 of them.


This piece is also published in: 


The Photographer’s Playbook

Over 250 Assignments and Ideas

Edited by Jason Fulford and Gregory Halpern, Aperture 2014

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