How I remediated my biggest photography mistake

Running Man, Haiti

[I] have shared many times already that when I started photography my biggest issue was I was always focused on what I thought photography was, not what photography meant to me. The answer to my problems, was a very simple realization.

My biggest photography mistake
When I first started photography, I took pictures of everything: Flowers, Buildings, Rivers roads, all of this because I was phased by the visuals of photographs. I used to look at landscape shots and I just wanted to do that, not because it stirred me in any way but because it looked terribly cool. Hence I started my photographic journey with a mistake: I believed photography was all about the visual. To my defense, I was (is) a graphic designer, not quite artistic but terribly cold and calculated.

My mistake costs me dearly
My mistake cost me a lot. My mother beat cancer, the old lady was frail, and to be truthful, I was always afraid to hear a dreaded phone call (that did came) declaring that she was no more. I was already into photography at that point, but if you look at my catalog and what was in it…….I am ashamed to say that there was no mother in there, nor wife. Flowers, sticks, buildings. It's not like I didn't have any warnings, in the only photo class I took (Didn't learn anything from the course, learned everything from talking to the teacher) my teacher said “You have a very defined view of what photography is”. I took it as a compliment, it wasn't.


When looking at my classmates pictures, I could not understand it. My pictures were compositionally perfect, theirs was loose and visually unimpacful, yet theirs had SOMETHING that mine definitely hadn't. It took me years to understand what it was: The heart. My wife used to beg me to take pictures of her, my mind, I am ashamed to say was on going to central park to shoot things like flowers and buildings.

It's no secret that I am a Haitian, I lost my mom in the Big Earthquake. I have no pictures of her beyond the snapshots. I have no photographs of her….no reminder of what I actually felt towards my mother. I now take pictures of my family like crazy, but the lack of photographs of my mother is a testament to my foolishness. I hope you don't do the same.

The photographer's heart
I took me years to realize that I was shooting what I believed photography was about, not what it meant to me. I was shooting for other people, not what my heart told me. My mind was correct, I knew how it worked, My eye was correct, I learned composition through design, My heart was misplaced: My photography was frankly, sterile. Cool looking, will make you go WOW for 1 second and it was forgotten.


I offer a warning in the first article of “Inspired Eye“, it's simply not to equate composition with photography. It's necessary but the heart is where it's at. That's why when I see folks with their cameras, taking pictures of their kids and their immediate surroundings, I push them to look inside rather than outside. The message of most magazines is to always go out and seek the photographs, my experience tells me otherwise: Start with the heart.

The camera as enabler: Ansel Adam's story

During a family vacation at Yosemite National Park  in 1916, Ansel Adams's parents gave him a Kodak Box Brownie. That's when he received the power so to speak. Ansel Adams was a sickly child, while nowadays kids would receive video games as bed companions, he received a book from his Aunt “In the Heart of the Sierras“. That moved him so much that he then prompted his parents for the family vacation. His heart was gripped and became what he is today.

The camera is the ability to externalize something that is inside. Ansel Adams's heart was stirred before he had the ability to actually photograph, he propbably knew nothing of composition, yet the heart was there. The photograph is inside you, not in the camera or outside: That's why a great camera does not equate great photographs.

How I remediated
To start shooting with you heart, it's simple: Throw everything you think photography should be about, replace by what your heart tells you it's about. You should always be alert to what is pulling you towards pressing the shutter release button: Is it a composition, or is it your heart that alerts you? Great photographs have both.
Always be conscious of your heart, as i am writing this, my kid is sleeping, there is no killer composition, but the heart is there.

Tap-Tap, Haiti

You don't need to shoot people you know only, you just have to be tuned to your heart, you need to be in sync between your heart and what you are shooting. Capa's quote is misunderstood: “If your pictures are not good enough, you are not close enough” doesn't mean get closer, it means get closer to your work. I got my work to a tipping point (you would not recognize me in these photos!) when I finally listen to my heart and got closer to my work, because I was connected to what I was shooting.  It's Eugene Smith's secret too: He genuinely cared for the people he photographed………The heart transcends the frame…..

Keep it real
All I can say is keep it real. Shoot how your heart feels. If you have a family, shoot them, you will have more meaningful pictures there than going to France or something. If you are out in the streets, don't shoot what you think street photography should be like, but shoot because the scene gives you a gut feeling. Photography is not what people make of it, but it is what your heart tells you it is. Listen to your heart folks, I learned my lesson the hard way.

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19 thoughts on “How I remediated my biggest photography mistake”

    1. Well Tommi, Oliver just got it too.
      Olivier, I must say that this is the truest post you’ve made in a long time…like forever. I like learning more about what’s going on in that head of yours. It seems by looking inward, your looking more outward than ever,,,,congrats and keep up the good fight….

      now that yer writing so well, you don’t need that Nex 7…send it to that shooter guy in Philly.

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  2. Well, I certainly do a bunch of mistakes in life, and my share of photographic ones, but I never had to deplore the lack of heart. The mandatory flowers, buildings, sticks and stones details always bored the life out of me, and I always photographed what was close to my heart. It might not make me a highly regarded photog, but it does make me a very happy one.

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  9. I completely agree with this article. The subject is something I’ve struggled with for a long time. Since picking up the camera seriously in 2007 I sought to make the kind of images that so many others did – the perceived great photos of today. Some of these have become cliches – driftwood in foreground, while sun sets over milky sea – that kind of thing. And I do like shots like those. But try as I might I didn’t enjoy trying to recreate them and I realised I was trying to impress people rather than myself. These days I try to shoot things I like. Often that results in images I like but aren’t necessarily ones I share, but more and more I’m finding gems to share in these because I’m capturing images I like rather than wha tI think others would like. This coupled with a shift from a heavy Canon EOS 50D to a Sony NEX-6 means I’m a more prolific and happier photographer.

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  11. I needed to read this today. Went out on a Kelby photo walk yesterday and realized I was just taking pictures of things. Need to think in a new way. This article is a good place to start.

  12. I wouldn’t equate being a graphic designer with being cold and calculated, for me, being a graphic designer means photography gives me A) a release away from the confines of the 2D page, I carry my trusty LX3 everywhere, even if I don’t use it, it’s usually in my hand
    B) an understanding of composition, space, negative space etc… even if I’m not thinking of these things when I’m in the zone, it’s there in the background.
    I don’t tend to read many photography books, although I’ve recently seen two amazing documentaries on Vivian Maier and Don McCullan which were very inspiring, I’ve not yet found my niche, if one even exists for me, as being a designer means I pull in imagery from everywhere, I like street photography, but don’t like getting in people’s faces like Eric Kim, I’d rather observe and catch a moment unsullied by standing in people’s way.
    Anyway, love your blog and insights!

    1. Thanks man,
      In general terms I can point to who is a Graphic Designer by looking at their pictures. Just did that yesterday 🙂 What I mean by cold and calculated is that by default designers prime the layout and design of the pictures above other elements like the emotional one 🙂

  13. Thank you Olivier! Your PetaPixel article brought me here. Both of them did me so much good tonight! Can’t thank you enough!

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