Lessons from the Scene: Surprising Yourself, Will Surprise Others by Stanley Leary


by Stanley Leary

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Finding Forrester is one of my favorite movies. In the movie William Forrester (Sean Connery) is a reclusive Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who never gave the world a second novel. Forrester befriends a young 16-year-old inner city basketball player (Jamal). Forrester helps to develop the writing skills of Jamal who happens to be a young writing protégé himself.
Jamal comes over to Forrester’s apartment and shares his writing and gets some incredible advice from the famous writer. There is a particular scene where Forrester talks about the rules of writing. The characters have a lively discussion about rules like “You shouldn’t start a sentence with “and”, as well as a long list of other commonly misunderstood rules of writing. They talk about how breaking the so-called rules can create impact. If over done, they can also have a devastating impact.
This is so true in photography
Photographers must study and know the rules of good visual composition like writers study and learn the rules of good writing composition. Once you understand the rules your ability to break them help you have greater impact with your photos.
While many writers and photographers understand this, just breaking the rules isn’t enough. Tom Kennedy was the director of photography for National Geographic Magazine when I showed him my portfolio many moons ago. While at the time my work was professional and excellent quality, Kennedy’s comment was he wanted more surprises.
Kennedy had seen just about everything by being the director of photography of National Geographic Magazine. But to get his interest in hiring me for a project he wanted more than seeing me shoot from my standing height or sitting height for example. One of the things this had me doing right away was looking for the extreme.
I was shooting with my camera on the ground looking up and finding ways to get up high. I also started to realize shooting extreme close-ups also was a change in what I was doing.
There comes a point in your photographic journey that you find your own voice
In the movie, Forrester had Jamal to simply copy his work using a typewriter. This first, when he sat down at a typewriter, Jamal just sat there waiting for something to come into his head. When Jamal wasn’t typing, he asked, “What are you doing?” “I am thinking,” said Jamal. Forrester said, “No thinking; that comes later.”
To get the juices flowing, Forrester gave him some of his work to copy. It was through punching the keys and going through the actions that Jamal was loosened up. Slowly after copying the work he started to write his own work.
Photographers do the same thing. We copy other people’s work to learn how they did it and learn how to translate that skill for use later as our own skill. Most of the arts take time to master before you can create your own pieces.
After studying the concepts of other photographers, you soon learn that your work is no better or worse than many others. When you realize your work needs to stand out from others, you must do something unique—your surprise.
The Personal Project
Forrester had a great quote which made me think, “Why is it the words we write for ourselves are always so much better than the words we write for others?”
Most of the great photographers I know have a secret to their work—the personal project. They understand what people hire them to shoot is often not challenging.

The key to surprising others is to first surprise yourself and take some risks and look through your camera in a different way. Stretch the way of seeing. If there’s a better perspective, try it when making photos. Who know what surprises you might discover?