When I was learning to sing, my voice coach, Harry Martin, would often say to me: “plain and ordinary Sabrina, that’s what we want.” I thought he was crazy. I didn’t want to have a plain and ordinary voice, I wanted an awesome, stellar voice! I wanted to show Barbra Streisand and Whitney Houston a thing or two. It took many years for me to understand Harry’s wisdom. The greatness of singers like Barbra Streisand and Whitney Houston is that their voices originate from a place inside them, which for them, feels plain and ordinary. When Harry enjoined me to use my ‘plain and ordinary’ voice, he was really getting me to use my authentic voice, the one that can carry conviction, passion, love, and all the honest emotions to which we as listeners respond.Photographers are like singers. Instead of a song, we offer our audiences a photograph, and that photograph has the power to evoke an emotional response in the viewer with just as much force as a song can touch the heart of a listener. If you can do that with your photographs, then you are a great photographer.
A memorable moment in photography is exactly what a photographer wants to offer, and exactly what a viewer wants to experience. But it doesn’t happen very often. Why is that?
Like my own misguided ideas of glamour and greatness, many photographers undervalue the importance of the ‘plain and ordinary.’
They reach for greatness with technical brilliance and an armory of editing tools. They tinker with their photograph until it looks like a magazine photo in all its vacant perfection. They strain all bounds of credibility with contrast and colourisation. They airbrush out the ‘flaws’ that actually provided the character. They crop their image until the surrounds are unrecognisable. At the end, what they are left with is a photo that is all that they think the photo should be, with little left of who they are to shine through.
Online, photographers undermine the moment of one photo by throwing another one at their viewers without time for reflection. They mistake quantity for quality.
Despite the many ways available to us to annotate our photos, we often fail to offer any information to allow the viewer to understand the photograph, such as where it was taken and when, and why it is special. This issue is contentious, I know. Many photographers feel their photo should tell a story without needing their viewers’ eyes to stray beyond the boundaries of the picture frame. Unfortunately, in a global society where we are increasingly communicating with each other using images, there is a lot of redundancy and uncertainty about the meaning in the images we view. We need to use our words too.
Our most important audience
Importantly, we often forget the reflexivity of our craft. Who is it that will view our photographs more than any other person? It is us.
For every time someone else looks at our photographs, we look at them many times. Photographs key us in to our memories, and they become ever more important as time goes on. When victims of major disasters are interviewed, what is one of the first non-living things they mourn? Their photographs.
Photos allow us to bring back the feeling of precious times, homes, adventures, people and creatures that the years have lost to us or changed.
Each time we manipulate our photos, we introduce a tiny separation in which the photographic evidence of our lives is slightly less real than our actual life.
Do you want the story of your life told in ‘plain and ordinary’ photographs that recall how it actually unfolded, or do you want a lot of glamourous images that conflict with your memories?
There is another reason why we should think before tinkering with our photos. According to Dr Ira Hyman, Professor of Psychology at Western Washington University, “our photographs can actually change and modify our memories over time.” He makes a telling point in asking “How many of your childhood memories resemble the pictures that your parents took? Is it your memory or their picture?” If our memories are swayed by our photographs, the stakes are much higher. When we alter our photos, we also alter our memories.The magic of a photograph is not in the illusory image you created that other people will view and say “ooh, how beautiful!” but rather a missive of meaning that you and other people will view and say, “wow, I get you now. I can see what you mean.”
Isn’t it already magical that our photographs can instantly communicate ideas and emotions in ourselves and others, that they can chronicle our world in a way the painters of the Lascaux Cave could only dream about, and that they can trigger our memories to resurface and fill our hearts and heads with the emotions of days long gone?
So the next time you are tempted to ‘improve’ your photograph through the heavy application of software filters and brushes, consider whether instead you can trust in yourself and your own authenticity, your ‘plain and ordinary’ self.
Your own personal greatness is quite enough for you to take and share photos that speak truly and eloquently of our amazing world and your valuable place in it. In fact, it is the only thing that can.
All photographs by Sabrina Caldwell. They have not been manipulated in any way other than to be resized for web use.
 PMA stands for The Worldwide Community of Imaging Associations (previously Photo Marketing Association)
 Photographs and Memories by Ira Hyman, PhD, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mental-mishaps/201312/photographs-and-memories, Accessed January 2014
 Queensland Museum, Common Imperial Blue Butterfly or Imperial Hairstreak Butterfly, <em>Jalmenus evagoras, http://www.qm.qld.gov.au/Find+out+about/Animals+of+Queensland/Insects/Butterflies+and+moths#.UttN1xxXf0k Accessed January 2014