The Magic Frame: Subject Matter



I once read a comment that it takes years for a photographer to mature and, that it is often in his 50’s and 60’s that a photographer starts to produce his best work.

(I am using the term ‘his’ to denote both genders. It’s convenient, and I am lazy).

At that time, I didn’t fully understand what he meant, and I probably don’t fully understand it even today. I was also influenced by the Gladwell book, where he postulates that it takes 10,000 hours of work to become really proficient at something. While Gladwell is indeed right, he is only partially correct, in my view. Largely correct, but not fully. No one can be fully correct.

To do the 10,000 hours, you need passion. No doubt about that. The apprenticeship does make you technically proficient, provided you have the talent.

However, the question that you have to ask, as a photographer (and, again I paraphrase another photographer) is – where do you point your camera? 

While these two pictures are relatively recent, I don’t photograph homeless people that much these days. I used to do it a lot when I first got into photography, and I used to feel happy about clicking homeless, and downtrodden people. I felt that I was doing ‘authentic’ work.

The fact is, that I was only pandering to my ego. I did not understand poverty, homelessness, hunger, deprivation, or the feeling of being beaten down and downtrodden.

I was exploiting them.

As the years rolled by, and I saw suffering, my views changed. When I sold biscuits in villages, and sometimes did not have a place to stay at night, I felt really scared about spending the night out. I did adjust, but never did like it.

When I was stuck in a hotel room for two days, without food or water, while a police curfew prevented the dash to freedom, I felt hunger.

I also realised that these were temporary, relatively sanitised experiences. Yet, they gave me the tiniest glimpse into that world. When I returned to the streets after my years in the corporate world, I started to squat in the gutter with people, to talk with them.

When I do shoot the homeless now, I try and feel something of their pain. I try. I don’t succeed, because I can never feel their pain. Yet, I try. This was not my philosophy in my hunger days. I was a typical callow, brash youth.

Nowadays, I shoot landscapes, I shoot people (on the street, and in the studio), I shoot abstract, and I am moving more and more into interpretative (call it fine art?) image making.

I think I am getting better.

My subject matter, when I am shooting for me, is being driven by what moves me as a human being.

As you evolve as a human being, the subject matter itself may change. The way you shoot your subject matter will change. The way that you interpret and make the images will change.

Either it will mature, or it will slide into insignificance.

Either way, the choice of your subject matter, and the way you interpret it, will reflect something of you as a person.



  1. As far as shooting homeless people is concerned, it sounds as though when you do that now, you are approaching them with empathy, rather than simply as subjects for your photographs. In other words you are interested in them as themselves, rather than an extension of your artistic self. Does that seem to make sense?

    1. Yes. however, earlier, I just shot them as subjects. Now, it is a mix of both – humanity and as an extension of my artistic self.

  2. I knew hunger and homeless in my youth so I shy away from the topic because it holds painful memories. I like to photograph things that bring me joy and people rarely do.

  3. You express this beautifully, Rajiv: My subject matter, when I am shooting for me, is being driven by what moves me as a human being….I love that.

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