Photography: The Witnessed or The Witness

April 04, 2022  •  Leave a Comment

Moving beyond the witnessed reality to express the reality of the witness

For me this marks the difference between documenting photography (and there is nothing wrong with that) and self-expression in photography. Let me start by stating that there is no such thing as an objective reality, because we all see reality through our own filters, but let's assume there is something like reality in a landscape for the sake of clarifying my point. Let's say that we stand on a mountain and we all look in the same direction. There is the landscape, it is reality created by Mother Earth. It is an already created reality and we are looking at it. Our eyes makes us see differently from the wide angle or telephoto lenses in our bag, so this means that by even picking up a camera and a lens to capture what we see we will affect reality as captured in the photo.

Photography : The Witnessed or The WitnessPhotography : The Witnessed or The Witness

For me personally, there is no joy in just replicating the reality that this planet has so masterfully created. Human beings are as far as I know, one of the only species on this planet who can experience a state of wonder whilst looking at something beautiful. It is something that I am deeply grateful for, because without a sense of wonder, life on this planet would be very little more than just an existence. 

I might not be very impressed by human kind as a whole, with its belief that it is the only species who gets to decide what to do with this beautiful planet,  but our abilities to create new realities, from our own vision are unique and something I do not take lightly. If we abandon just witnessing reality but become aware of the one witnessing it, we can create new realities in our work.

By knowing why we want to make a photograph, what influences our unique way of seeing, by understanding who we are and what we want to express, new realities appear that in turn can move others. The what and the how in photography always get the most attention. Most photographers are focussed on the what (locations, camera, lenses, filters etc) and the how (editing, exposure etc), but many skip over the why.


Why are you tempted to pull out your camera. Try to question yourself about it. What is it in a scene that draws your attention and why? And who is the person who is witnessing this scene? What is it that you want to express? Drama or a peaceful mood; serenity or joy? 

If you make the photograph about the witness instead of the witnessed, you can create unique and authentic work. Many people struggle with this concept though and I understand that it is not an easy concept to grasp at first. 

If you have trouble putting into words what your vision is about, I recommend to keep asking yourself questions. Let's imagine that the scene you are looking at gives you a serene feeling. Ask yourself what elements are responsible for this feeling? What are the key components of serene for you personally? Think about light, brightness, clouds, weather conditions, shapes, lines etc. Perhaps hard jagged lines would not show up on your list of symbols representing serenity, but perhaps fluid lines, soft light and shades of pastel just might. 

You might also feel serene, because you feel safe and sheltered, or because you are alone. Try to pinpoint why the word "serene" (or any word that comes up for you) came into your mind.

Some symbols will be universal, like an umbrella will most likely be associated with rain. Other symbols are personal. If two people are watching a large wave come in and one of them almost drowned in the sea as a toddler and the other one is an experienced surfer, the wave will mean very different things to these two people. The first person might associate danger with the wave and the other one will associate it with thrill and joy. It is the same wave, the same reality, but still experienced very differently.


If the person who associates the wave with danger wants to express this in a photograph, you can imagine that this photo would turn out differently to the one of the person next to him who feels joyful. If these photographers are not aware of their actual perceptions of the scene, they might take very similar photographs, they might grab their phone, click and put the phone back in their pockets. If they are aware of their perceptions and they want to instead create a reality in their photographs based on these perceptions, then they must know how to express danger and fear or joy and thrill in their photographs. 

Try for yourself to figure out how these two perceptions would influence the process of choosing the different values for exposure, overall brightness, exposure time, white balance, the lens choice, focal length,  colours, the style of editing etc. This thought process will make you more aware of a personal response to the landscape, which is something entirely different than seeking a composition for composition's sake only. 

If a message or an emotion is going to be conveyed to a viewer it is important that you work from this response to the reality you witness. In short, you choose to put the witness in your photography rather than just the witnessed. Then you will begin to tell your story

Next time you pick up your camera to create an image, think about what made you pick up the camera and how the scene makes you feel and what your emotional response is. If something feels overpowering for example, how would you then go ahead in emphasizing this in the image? Remember that the image will not speak in words, so you have to make the message as strong as possible. Why does the scene feel overpowering? How can you emphasize its dominance? Think about all the different choices that are yours to make in the process of creating this image, that will help convey your response to the landscape. You will see that photography can be so much more than finding a composition and pushing the shutter release button, it can be story telling, emotive and deeply personal. It will invite you to think deeper, to be intentional and to trust your own way of seeing. And if there is one thing that I would like to install in all the people reading my writings or learning from me in person, it is that your way of seeing is unique, it is not of lesser value than anyone else's and you can learn how to express this in storytelling images if you become intentional in your approach. 

This past February an article about my tools of the trade has been published on Shotkit. Unfortunately I got a serious case of whitlow at the time of publication and was unable to tell you about the feature. But if you are interested in reading all about my current gear, please click on the logo below to go to the article. 

As always I would like to express my gratitude for your interest in my work and writing. I highly appreciate it. If you would like to help me continue writing these blog posts and learn about forest photography, perhaps you might consider purchasing my eBook The Magic of Forest Photography and/or subscribe to my newsletter.

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