Yesterday I spent the afternoon making photographs in Pasadena. I was getting familiar with the new Fujifilm X100F that I had purchased to replace the X100S I had been using as my primary camera for the past 5 years.
It was while walking through the streets that I spotted this shopping cart discarded in a parking lot. It reminded me of an assignment I had given myself years ago where I challenged myself to photograph nothing but shopping carts for the week.
I did that not because I have a fixation for them, but rather I had gotten frustrated with my photography. At the time, I was struggling with finding time to make images and even when I did, I felt that I was just endlessly repeating myself. I was taking pictures, but I wasn’t producing photographs that excited me or seemed new to me. I could certainly make a good picture, but I often felt that I had made the same image countless times before. I felt stuck.
So for a year I gave myself different assignments. I would choose one visual element and shoot that exclusively whenever I had the opportunity to make photographs. Some weeks, I focused on a color while another week I looked for a shape. At first, the assignment was fairly obvious but over time, I found myself trying to choose more challenging subject matter.
When the idea for shopping carts first popped into my head, I immediately dismissed it. I sure as hell wasn’t going to spend what little time that I had making photographs of shopping carts. But I took my resistance as a sign. If I was so averse to doing it, it was likely the exact thing that I should be doing. So, I reluctantly began my week thinking that this was one of the stupidest ideas I’d come up with.
Then I began to see shopping carts everywhere. Whether I was walking down the street or driving in my car, I would spot them. And each time I stopped to photograph them, I challenged myself to try and make an interesting photograph. I didn’t simply want to document its existence. Instead, I wanted to see whether I could come up with a photograph that was interesting to look at regardless of how mundane the subject matter was.
I began to examine a shopping cart in terms of light and shape but also how it related to the environment it was in. I paid attention to how light and shadow and color played a role in how I experienced it. With each image, I kept pushing further and further my ability to make the less than obvious choices.
By the end of the week, I was having a wonderful time photographing shopping carts. I certainly wouldn’t have thought that when I began the assignment. What propelled me forward was that I was challenging the way I saw the world not only through the camera but through my eyes. I realized that I too often disregard potential subject matter because they were ordinary and familiar. It wasn’t until I was forced to reconsider them in a visual and graphic way that I discovered a new and exciting way of seeing.
If you are struggling in a similar way, I recommend finding some mundane and ordinary subject matter to focus on for the week. I think that you’ll find as I did that that the challenge of making photographs of the ordinary will help you to learn the skills needed to make the mundane extraordinary.