heartGuy Tal, one of my favourite writers and photographers, wrote an article in Photograph, Issue 7 called The Soul of the Landscape. Here is his description of soul.

Scientists, theologians and philosophers may give very different answers to the question of what soul is, but when I say that James Brown has soul, most people intuitively and unambiguously know what I mean. It is an impression we have of art that expresses passionately, honestly and sometimes defiantly: the very core of the artist’s humanity, their raw emotions about their work and what drives it, without masks and barriers.

What gives a photograph soul? After culling through thousands of images, Tal discovered the ones that made his heart soar.

They were not images of grand scenes or majestic feats of landscape and light. Rather, they were simple and honest and quiet and profound.

Simple, honest, quiet, profound. Photographs with soul are direct, with no excess. They touch our hearts. We feel as if we’re right there with the photographer. We see and feel from our own unique lens.

Photographs with soul tell a story, or express a universal emotion or theme.

They do this through visual design, the language of photographs. To tell a story or express an emotion, you need a grounding in visual design and you need to know yourself. You must understand exactly what and why something touches you and be able to put it into words and into the photograph.

The more I read and researched, the more the language of images began to take shape. I discovered how visual relationships can translate into emotions, how the direction of lines affects mood and implies motion and force, and how colours and angles take on weight and meaning.

As photographers, we are visual artists. Even if photography is just a fun hobby, we’ll reach a point of frustration if we can’t express how a scene makes us feel. In her fabulous book, The Language of Emotions, author Karla MacLaren offers exercises to help you identify the emotional pull of a situation or scene. Here is her feelings inventory. You can use this with my visual journaling worksheet.

I wanted to widen the plots of my stories beyond simplistic utterances like “look at this view,” or “here’s an interesting bird.” I needed to expand my vocabulary. I needed to learn the visual equivalents of grammar and symbolism and metaphor. 

Pay attention to what moves you deeply.

Guy Tal stopped photographing what everyone else was photographing and followed his heart, going to anonymous, quiet places that moved him.

More and more, my images reflected moods and stories rather than places and things. I lost interest in the social and competitive aspects of photography and, instead, sought to learn about the things that made images meaningful and how I could better express the depth of emotion I felt when making them.

The image at the top of this post is one such example for me. While in Hilton Head, South Carolina, I noticed fallen leaves stuck in cracks on a wooden deck. I spent some time noticing the different groupings of leaves and how they were caught. They spoke to me.

The one above was my favourite. There is a warmth and sadness to this scene. There is a tenderness in the mottled grace and beauty of the aging leaf and how it seems quite comfortable where it is, caught in the crack of the wooden deck. Yet, there is also an acknowledgement and acceptance of aging and impermanence.

I’m curious. Have you had a similar experience? Do you have images with soul that reflect what moves you?

If you’d like to practice visual journaling as part of an online group experience, please join me and Sally Drew for Once Upon a Time: Your Photographs have Stories to Tell. The first session begins February 27th.


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