Your Visual Vocabulary | Reflecting on Keywords

Image | Writing Exercise

Sift through your image archive, selecting images that particularly jump out to you as interesting. You don’t need to think deeply about this, just go with your gut instincts or visual cues. Try to select fairly quickly and intuitively. Don’t be precious, be playful. This is not an examination, just an exploration. Use whatever method you wish — chronologically from oldest to newest, or reverse, or randomly, or whatever. Spend about 15 minutes on this, or until you have at least a couple dozen images.

Once you get your images selected, slow down and go back through this edited group. For each image, write down between one to three keywords that come to mind. Try to think broadly and expansively about your possible vocabulary of keywords. Some straightforward examples of possible keywords could be: people, nature, angles, texture, family, pattern. These would be fine and good. But there might be other keywords that are less obvious, such as: silence, duration, frenzy, desire, memory.

After you have listed keywords for all the images in the group, start reviewing and reflecting on this word list. Here are some questions and follow-ups that you might consider:

  • Are there any keywords that you used more than once?
  • Are there any pairings or clusters of keywords that seem related? Can you begin to connect and consolidate?
  • Can you write a few sentences or a short paragraph for each keyword that further explains or expands its meaning in the context of these photographs?

Set these images aside, or duplicate them in a new electronic folder. I encourage you to review and reflect on this grouping more than once. Wait a day or two, then look at the pictures again. Read your notes. Do you have any new thoughts or insights? Sift through your archive multiple times, perhaps over a period of several days, until you have carefully reviewed your entire collection.

As you continue to make pictures, get into the habit of writing down keywords as you review your images. You can begin to incorporate keywords in the naming scheme for images that particularly interest you. You can also begin to organize your pictures into folders that are named according to your personal keyword vocabulary.

There are undoubtedly patterns and habits in your way of seeing. You may notice, for instance, that your pictures nearly always have people in them, or that you focus mainly on architectural details that feature strong lines and angles. Perhaps your archive has a strong shoot-from-the-hip street documentary flavor, or is populated with more methodically framed sedate landscapes.

You might be surprised by the discoveries you make. You may be missing key insights about how you see. For instance, you may take tons of pictures of buildings but realize that your most satisfying pictures are always about people. This is significant, potentially even a breakthrough. We don’t always understand, especially at the beginning, how our seeing works or what we are trying to capture.

Keep looking at your work. If you are starting with broad keyword terms, like ‘landscape’, you may find that over time your can subdivide and refine your vocabulary. So you may discover that your landscapes are really about solitude — and that the idea of picturing solitude is a broad theme that interests you. And then one day you go back through your archive and suddenly you can read those occasional street shots you took as a visual opposite of your landscapes — they were attempts to visually convey congestion. Then suddenly you discover that these two sets of images have been in conversation with each other, and that maybe what you are really pursuing is different notions of space and place. And on and on. This is the kind of thrilling and mysterious rabbit hole that you can fall into.

related post: Self-reflection | Self-knowledge

image credit: Gratisography

words: © copyright 2016, Joseph Squier. No use without permission. Contact: