On How Stories Shape Your World

Jay BurtonOn The Streets Leave a Comment

“All men have stars, but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travellers, the stars are guides. For others they are no more than little lights in the sky. For others, who are scholars, they are problems… But all these stars are silent. You-You alone will have stars as no one else has them.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

If you’ve been following my blogging since the beginning, you’ll know that I’ve been documenting my evolution as a photographer since my first “aha” moment of realising that I could actually try to become an artist. This realisation came to me very quickly, one evening. I had been a commercial photographer for a while, but never allowed myself to believe that I was capable of creating photography for the sake of photography, as an artistic medium. In just a few minutes I changed the narrative, the story I was telling myself about who I am, and decided then and there that I could at least try to become an artist, that it wasn’t a path for “other people” and that it could also be my own. That invisible barrier crumbled away, and I got to work.

Since that moment in 2020 I’ve gone through many phases that all photographers probably face at one point or the other. Early on I finished learning the basics of photography, I’d mastered my camera and all the different possibilities it could offer. I understood the rules of composition and colour theory, and the thrill of learning a new craft disappeared. Randomly photographing interesting subjects was no longer enough, I needed to find out what I wanted to photograph.

And so I decided to go through the photographer’s rite of passage and started the 365 challenge. I had to take and post one photo on Instagram every day for a year, which was not an easy challenge, to say the least… Not easy, but very rewarding. It didn’t help me develop a portfolio, because the photos were still random and didn’t fit together as a coherent project. But it allowed me to practice, a lot, and discover intuitively what I was attracted to, what I enjoyed shooting. I discovered a love for street photography and improved greatly at making good photos. But I still didn’t know what I was photographing.

Finding inspiration in other photographers is a big part of the work. I could see that every artistic photographer works by building projects: Collecting a visually coherent body of work, and clearly explaining what, how, and why, there are creating this project. This is then usually published in a photobook and exhibited in a gallery. And so begins my next phase, of finding something that links my photography together, some way of creating a style, a voice, a project. That makes me, me. Through experimentation I found out that I was developing a style of abstract street photography, finding hidden worlds in window reflections. I was finally onto something: These photos were fairly unique, showed a good comprehension of technique (i.e looked rather good), and came together as a coherent whole.

Another year went by as I built my portfolio around this concept. I started to feel a certain amount of pride in my Instagram feed and what I was putting out into the world. I think a natural consequence of pride in one’s work is wanting a bit of recognition. I wrestled with this feeling for a while, it felt like an ugly emotion, coming from my ego and society’s vision of success that didn’t speak to me. I explored all of this in a recent blog post and realised that because photography is such a big part of who I am, it’s only normal that I want to share that part of myself with others. I just needed to be aware of the fine line between enjoying the photographic process for myself and sharing that with my community, and creating photography to chase fame or ego-driven recognition. Having redefined what success meant for me, I could move forward into the next phase: Finding a gallery or publisher to start putting my work out into the world.

This was five months ago, in February 2023. At this point I hit a horrible, extremely painful point in the process. I had to write about what I was photographing. I needed to be able to talk about myself as an artist and the project I was creating. There comes I point where saying “I photograph what I’m attracted to” just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Us photographers, we don’t use words. That’s our whole thing. We work without the need to explain ourselves. So naturally it took me months to find the words to explain what I was doing intuitively. Thankfully my partner is also on the path of becoming an artist, but she’s a writer. Where I work intuitively, she works analytically. Through many long conversations she helped me explain my process with words, she helped me bring the unconscious forward into the conscious. What I discovered was that I was searching for atmospheres and that my photography represented fictional stories. My photos are quietly and contemplatively telling a story, always observing humanity but never interacting.

I won’t explain this anymore right here, because that’s not the point. The point is that my process was now clear to me; I could finally explain what I was doing. This unlocked something for me, and a day later I came up with a whole new idea for a project and hit the streets, camera in hand. Instead of randomly walking the streets capturing what I felt like, I was actively searching for quiet and contemplative atmospheres that told a human story. After a year of conditioning my photography to abstract window reflections, I could suddenly see hundreds of new photo opportunities everywhere that were completely invisible to me just a few days before. I took over 1000 photos in that one session, the result of which is illustrating this blog post.

What I find fascinating is that nothing had changed in my life between my last photo walk and this one. The only difference was the new narrative I was using to approach the world. Consciously unravelling my intuitive approach gave me the tools to choose a new path. That change happened instantly, the moment I found words to explain it.

This echoes the moment in 2020 when I realised that I had constructed a belief that I was only a commercial photographer, and artistic creation was beyond me. The epiphany did come straight away, but I’m not saying it was easy, and I’m definitely not saying that all you have to do to change your life is to tell yourself a new story. Your story is writing itself in the background all the time, and you need to have stability in your life and the time, energy, and tools to reflect on such things.

I’ve always been convinced that stories shape ourselves and the world. Take the story of Viktor Frankl, a Jewish-Austrian psychologist and holocaust survivor who was imprisoned in a concentration camp during the war. In a situation where you would expect someone to crumble into a state of despair, he wrote a different story for himself. He used this painful experience to learn more about himself and others. He found personal meaning and hope in the experience, which gave him the will to live through it.

Beyond the stories we tell ourselves, we are also shown narratives that affect the way we build our personalities. Just look back a few decades, where it was expected that men had to be strong, hide their emotions, and work to support the whole family, whereas women were only expected to raise their children and look after the household. We needed to tell new stories of what men and women could do to break free of these narratives. These forces are still at play today, but thankfully we have a wider variety of models to identify with in the modern age. We do however need to have access to these new models: without them we can never imagine an alternative way to live.

But stories affect us even more than the obvious connection we feel to certain fictional or non-fictional characters. Almost every aspect of your life is explained through the use of stories. The country you live in only exists because we arbitrarily agree on its story. If you go to a border you won’t see a natural separation between your country and the next. And yet the story of your national identity is so strong that you can live in relative harmony with millions of other people. Think also about opposing political groups and their narratives. Vilifying refugees through the use of stories has allowed many governments to create stricter laws on immigration, some of which go against basic human rights that we took for granted only a few years ago.

We use stories to create a narrative that ties together all our beliefs about ourselves and how the world works. These stories help us make sense of our experiences and they shape the kind of relationships we can have, and they help to us to make sense of the world. For the most part, we do this intuitively, without realising it. I for one was content and happy to do so all my life. But my recent experiences showed me the importance of truly understanding the narratives I tell myself.

And so my advice to you, dear photographers and friends, is to take a page out of the writer’s book for once, and write about it. Use words to understand the way you function and what you are doing. Knowledge is power, after all.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.– Viktor Frankl


  • Jay Burton

    When I go out into the world I see scenes worth capturing everywhere: In reflections, in textures, in nature, in cities, in colours, in symmetries, in people. Art is all around us. My goal is to inspire people to slow down and look at the beauty around them. Sometimes I see the most amazing thing, and the hundreds of people around me just walk by, thinking about their issues. My dream is to see a world where all people can be vulnerable to the beauty around them.

    http://www.jayburton.photography jayburtongva@gmail.com Burton Jay

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