Hit the Books with Dan Milnor: exploring the images you can’t explain

One of the things you are told early in your photography career is that you must be merciless when it comes to editing your photography portfolio. You hear things like, “You are only as good as your weakest image,” and for the most part, I entirely agree with this. Oftentimes, when you show your work to an experienced reviewer, you have a matter of minutes—sometimes seconds—to make the right kind of impression. Having a weaker image can often seal your fate before things even get going. 

However, times have changed, at least to some degree. I’ve been around long enough to be the one reviewing work instead of the one showing work. From personal experience, sometimes those stray images I see in someone else’s portfolio are more important than I first thought. Those images, in fact, can lead to the creative promised land. 

Two Leica cameras and a lens

But first things first. Most of us creatives are known for one thing or another, and keeping that part of our lives in tip-top shape is important. It is important to do what works and do what you are good at, but most of us also have those quiet, internal conversations about who we imagine ourselves to be somewhere down the line. Sometimes we make things we can’t explain or for reasons that seem just beyond our grasp. 

So when I review professional portfolios now, and I see a stray image of some sort or an image that doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the portfolio, instead of saying, “That image doesn’t belong,” I simply ask, “Why is this here?” The more muddled the answer, the more intrigued I become. The best part of this experience is that the person often begins to fidget in their seat. They become slightly embarrassed and sometimes have trouble finding their words. I know now these are all good things. 

Three photographs blended together: a bicyclist, President Obama, and a protester wearing a bandana over their mouth

There will often be a period of awkward silence as the person tries to defend their inclusion of the image. And at some point, they will often say, “I can’t quite explain it, but I felt like I just had to have that image.” Again, I could easily say, “Take it out,” but I rarely do. I dig deeper about why the image had to be included, and what I find is that these images are often a visual foreshadowing of where the creative person will be a year, two years, or five years in the future. 

The bulk of the portfolio might show where someone is now, where their comfort zone lives and thrives, but the restlessness of most creatives needs an outlet, and that is where the stray comes into play. “This image represents who you might be next,” I explain. The typical response is one of both excitement and relief. Suddenly, the words are there, and the explanation and passion come flowing out with a simple opening of the door of possibility. 

Clear cup with a photograph of a brick wall directly behind it

The moral here is to keep pressing. Cover your bases and keep your foundational work strong while leaning forward. Always test, experiment, and tinker, and never shy away from failure. Also, remember that when someone looks at your work, they are also looking with keen eyes directly at you. 

Confidence leads to power, and power leads to control. Whatever you decide to do with your work, whatever you decide to show, own it. Always have the answer to “Why?” The reviewer may or may not respond, but you will ultimately hold the cards by representing yourself truthfully and with professionalism. 


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