Cornel West

There is no one “right” way to make a photograph. So why are some pictures stronger than others? Certain photographs stop us in our tracks, while others we hardly notice. Is it the camerawork?

Some purists insist on unaltered photographs, imagery that comes straight from the camera. For them, artistry resides in the seeing. Purists say that the camera (and photographic technique) should be an extension of natural observation. I was one of these purists. By stalking the light, I could make a beautiful picture almost anywhere out of nearly anything. I grew dissatisfied because, for me, that process became one of finding compositions.

Slowly, the missing elements dawned upon me. Foremost among them was authenticity. By this I mean whether the image comes from the photographer’s heart. Whether the work is unique to the maker. And then, too, there is the power of story. What does the photograph – or the photographer – have to say?  What is this person sharing?

This insight led me to a more purposeful approach. Rather than be opportunistic, photographing whatever traipsed upon my path, I would identify a subject and make an appointment to photograph. My photographs became conceptually driven. No longer was I a passive observer; I embraced the role of an active participant. I engaged with my subjects as well as the camerawork. I photographed events that might never have happened were it not for my initiative.

I still find beauty to be beautiful. But beauty does not have the hold over me it once did. For me, the problem with beautiful photographs is that, too often, they show me something I already know. They repeat what has been said many times before.

So, what makes a photograph strong?  For me, it is a coalescence of several components. These include the subject and how the subject is seen, the story, authenticity, the imagery’s relevance, and appropriate camerawork. When these elements work in harmony, the photograph sings.

I was commissioned by Princeton University to photograph Cornel West. To make this portrait, I brought him to meet LUV and KASSO, graffiti writers who had painted a mural of his likeness.