I had the opportunity to hear American hero, brilliant engineer and intrepid astronaut Captain Mark Kelly speak a couple of years ago. Thoughtful and engaging, Captain Kelly talked about a phrase that was written on a whiteboard at NASA after the Columbia shuttle disaster that read, “None of us is as dumb as all of us.” It seemed like a pretty ironic statement to be written in a room where the primary occupation was in fact, well, rocket science. Captain Kelly went on to explain the point of the message as a warning against the pitfalls of what you might call “group think” – a phenomenon where an entire group or cohort of folks can lock in on an idea as being the only right answer to a problem or an approach. The truth is, as Captain Kelly explained, any one person in the group, adequately detached from “group think”, would likely have enough presence of mind to challenge that broadly held assumption or approach and say, “wait a minute, this makes no sense.” So, really, that phrase is much more dignified upon reflection than it sounds on the surface: any one of us, even in an otherwise single-minded group, is smart enough to break with conventional wisdom and take a divergent, potentially more thoughtful perspective if we dare.
So what does that have to do with photography? I remember reading separately, in both Henri Cartier-Bresson’s and Ansel Adams’ biographies, that HCB reportedly leveled an insult at Ansel, saying something to the tune that “The whole world is going to pieces and Adams and [Edward] Weston are photographing rocks!” Apparently, HCB wasn’t one to bite his tongue (he also was reported to have told William Eggleston, “William, color is [expletive]!”), but this comment suggested that perhaps photographing “rocks”, as HCB called them, wasn’t nearly as important as photographing, say, a eunuch of the imperial court of the last dynasty. Ansel’s response revealed that he wasn’t insensitive to the human condition, but that he considered the acknowledgement and conservation of the environment as absolutely vital to the human condition. Perhaps you could say he was an environmentalist long before the term existed, and he made a subtle but important point: without the environment, there would be no human condition. Ansel (like Eggleston) decided to shoot what he loved, despite prominent opinion.
It was a lifetime ago that HCB made his comment, but that little philosophical exchange between two legends in the art and craft of photography strikes me as relevant. One might readily agree that to a much greater extent today, the world is most definitely going to pieces. The risks that documentary and conflict photographers are taking to bring awareness and tell urgent stories of the human condition are absolutely vital right now. The role of street photography in recording (and sometimes perhaps poking fun at) the way we collide with one another in society today is also essential. However, for the average individual photographer, the vitality of those disciplines shouldn’t make one feel guilty for enjoying photographing something that others might consider trivial. Like rocks. I like photographing rocks. And buildings. And life on the street. And documentary subjects. And fine art stuff. And my niece and nephews laying waste to any playscape in sight. And any other random subject of interest that comes into view. Maybe you secretly do as well, even though you may be in a more narrowly focused photography clique or social media circle. In any case, there is no reason to be a slave to “group think.” If you are *only* an amateur photographer, embrace it; enjoy shooting whatever you feel passionate about. Consider going in the opposite direction from your cohort. In the end, maybe your photos of rocks will matter to the world, or maybe they’ll only ever matter to you. Don’t sweat it. After all, it’s not rocket science.