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In photography we often talk about interpreting an image, whether that takes place in the traditional darkroom, or in a raw editor like Lightroom when shooting digitally. The raw file contains the raw information captured by the digital sensor, but it requires some editing to make it look more photographic and ultimately aesthetically pleasing. 

So far so good. But the question I want to explore is whether there is such a thing as a valid interpretation, and who if anyone, decides what interpretations are valid or not. if there is a valid interpretation, can a photograph have multiple “valid” interpretations? 

These questions were inspired by a book I read recently where the author, a respected photographer and teacher, claimed that not only can there be multiple valid interpretations, which I agree with, but that those valid interpretations can come from someone other than the photographer. That’s where I disagree, so let me explain why.

First, I think it’s helpful to define what we mean by “valid interpretation.” Of course, any processing of a raw file that makes it look “better” is a valid edit so to speak. But editing an image is not the same thing as creating an interpretation. For me a valid interpretation is one where the photographers vision and intent are communicated through the image. 

“There are always two people in every photograph; the photographer and the viewer.” – Ansel Adams

So the key distinction I’m making is that to be valid, the interpretation must come from the photographer that was inspired to make the image; that had some emotional connection to the subject.

Lightroom provides a myriad of tools to edit an image, including automatic adjustments that make a “guess” at what the best settings are given the tonal and color values in the image. You may be tempted to call that a valid interpretation, but I think that would be massively undervaluing so much that the photographer adds to the process; experience, emotional context, personal style, and intentionality. 

Why do I think this distinction is important? Because it places the onus on us as photographers to decide how and why our images matter to us and should matter to others. It forces you to ask”what do I want to say” with my images, which by definition means it’s about how you see the world.

How can someone else interpret your image in a valid way without being privy to all of those qualities that make you unique, and by extension your images? Only you can decide if the image in fact contains all that you saw and felt when you pressed the shutter button. That is the only true valid interpretation from my perspective. 

That’s not to say that others might not be able edit your image so that you do feel it captures what you intended. This what I regularly do when I edit a students image to provide ideas for how and why to interpret the image in a particular way. But I always ask the student IF I’m moving in the right direction—if I’m moving closer to or away from their vision for the image. 

And often I get to a “fork in the road” as it were, where I feel I can’t make a decision because the edit in question would take the image in a drastically different direction—that’s for the photographer to decide, not me. I may be totally sure of what direction I would go in, and I can articulate that if asked. But there’s no reason why that should be valid for the photographer, especially if they can articulate their decision.

Most of the time I am asked for help in making that decision because that’s exactly the whole point of teaching and mentoring, and I’m happy to provide my opinion. But I’m always open to being questioned and challenged—we all learn in the process. 

The final decision still lies with you, not me. The more willing you are to let someone else define how your images can or should be interpreted (especially as your skill and experience progresses,) the less sure you are about your vision overall. (Just remember that in order to think outside the box, you first have to have a box!)

And that for me is the whole point of art; to make something that you feel comes from within and is worth sharing with others. It is true in almost all cases your work is inspired by the work of others; true originality is both incredibly elusive and rare. But creating new associations, new creative connections, and simply being authentic and committed to your own voice is what matters in the long run. 

First, study and learn from the masters—they have already explored and asked many questions about what works and does’t work, and established the “rules” that are always available to be broken.

Then exercise your ability to define what a valid interpretation is of your images – only you can have the final say, no one else. 

“You have to make your statement of what is essential to you—an innate reality, not a surface reality.” – Robert Henri

I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback!

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