Making It Personal…

benvanhooksm

When I’m speaking to college students about my work, I’m always asked about finding ‘real’ moments while in the midst of a commercial shoot.  I believe it goes hand in hand with developing a personal voice in your photography.  I know students struggle with this all the time.  I’ve thought a lot about this question and in my mind it always comes down to being in touch with who you really are deep down.  We’ve all grown up with a different set of experiences and tapping into those experiences, celebrating them, finding the uniqueness in your self is really what makes us artists.

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That self-realization, combined with an incredible work ethic, is a recipe for success in this business.  It’s not about the camera, digital vs. film, strobe or natural light, or how much gear it takes…

It’s about how you see the world.  It takes time, passion, and perseverance to learn to really look at the world and not just see it, the dance between light and human emotion.  It’s a very interesting dynamic, spending all that time looking thru a viewfinder.  It can be a lonely pursuit sometimes, but provides for a life rich with experiences.  It certainly has for me, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

We are where we come from.  When I was growing up in a small town in Kentucky my father had a Kodak instamatic camera that he would use to take pictures of us. He’d bring it with us when we got in the Chevy to go on the rare vacation.  He would get it out when the flowers would bloom or the leaves would change in the fall.

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Dad would then get the slides developed and park my brother, sister, and me in front of the projector to watch those images appear on the wall in our living room.  It was about as close to magic as anything I’d seen.  Looking at that horizontal landscape with the car, the love of family (and family pets) was evident.  It had a huge impact on me and I can see it now when I look at my work.  I remember when I was a student at The University of Kentucky Sam Abell came to speak to my beginning photography class (we didn’t realize how lucky we were because Sam also attended UK) and he spoke very philosophically about his pictures.  He mentioned how he was molded as a photographer by growing up in Ohio.  That being exposed to the landscape influenced who he was as an artist.  He lingered over each picture and told us his thoughts.  Years later, in his book Stay This Moment, Sam writes, “In my grandfather’s picture of my parents is the same strong horizontal line that so organizes my own compositions and always will.  This line is an echo in my eye of Ohio.  To me that grand level landscape was utterly optimistic.  It said, you can go anywhere.”   He says it so much more eloquently than I can, but boy, do I relate.  I’ve always pressed forward and the camera has been a ticket to see the world.

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I was lucky to be surrounded by incredible talent and mentors at my first job as a photographer at The Courier-Journal in Louisville.  It was like an on-going parade of who’s who in the world of photojournalism.  Many folks went on to work for National Geographic and other national publications.  My time there, along with my photographic  family I worked with, really shaped me as a photographer.  It was an environment where we lived and breathed photography.  As I worked, I found myself making personal pictures on assignment and many of those photographs would end up getting published.  I was shooting not only the obvious for the assignment at hand, but letting the discovery process be driven emotionally as well.

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It wasn’t really complicated, just spending time with subjects, building a rapport.  Finding that people would relax and let you in as they realized you were sincere.  In the course of working at a newspaper, you tend to become an expert at the technical aspects just because you are shooting so much.  I realized this was an important step, because then you could stop worrying about fstops and whatnot and let the camera become an extension of yourself.  As I transitioned into magazine work this idea of personal shooting continued.  When I first went to New York and showed my book to Sports Illustrated I took a gamble and didn’t include a single sports picture.  It was mostly made up of stuff that had never been published…things I’d shot on my own.  I wanted to show them how I see.  They ended up giving me an assignment to go shoot the soccer great Pele on the spot.  I went out to the Meadowlands to photograph him that day with borrowed gear from the Time/Life photo department.  This started a ten year plus relationship with the magazine and work from other publications such as LIFE and Golf Digest soon followed.

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I always approach each assignment with eyes wide open.  I’d find that in addition to shooting the assignment, subject or game, I’d always be looking around the back alleys, locker rooms, and the fringes of the stadium.  Around 1999 I started shooting commercial work for ad agencies.  I still continued my ‘habit’ of finding a personal picture out of each scenario that played out in front of me.  These are the images that continue to resonate with agencies and editors.

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In the course of shooting the commercial work I had the opportunity to work on the sets of many television commercials being filmed.  High budget jobs that employed A-list directors.  I watched and learned.  I’d come home from the road and tell my wife, “ I think I could do that.”  I grew up loving music and film, so now that’s the next chapter…I’ve been directing film and television for the past 8 years or so.  Sometimes it was a steep learning curve (and still is), but I feel I’m still seeing the ‘personal’ moments.

I would encourage you to chase your dreams, never forget where you come from, and shoot the photography from the heart.  Inject your personality into your pictures.  Shoot, shoot, shoot photographs.  Then shoot some more.  Really look at the world and look inside yourself.  It’s a wonderful gift we’ve been given.

I want to thank a few friends and colleagues  who have been a huge influence / inspiration to me over the years.  Joe McNally, Joel Sartore, Walter Iooss, Bill Luster, Sam Abell, Melissa Farlow, Dan Dry, Jim Gensheimer…okay, as I write this list I realize we are in a profession made up of very talented, giving people.  There are way too many friends and influences to list!  Carrying on the tradition of mentoring and giving back to other students of photography is an honor.  That’s what Scott’s site is all about.  So thank you so much Scott and Brad for inviting me to ramble today.  I’m humbled to be in such great company.

Now, get inspired to go out and make your photographs personal!

You can see more of Ben’s work over at BenVanHook.com and can keep up with him on his blog.

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54 Comments

  1. Thanks for the inspiration. It was a joy to see “normal” (they resonate as authentic) work being appreciated alongside great technical portraits.

  2. Shooting from the heart…..with this gift. Awesome insight.

  3. nice work, simple and to the point

    ken in ky

  4. I remember your work from a lecture at DSC; really great words of encouragement.

    Thanks!

  5. Some amazing photos here. I totally agree to you about shooting photography from the heart. I believe all work is effective when you put your heart to it.

    Best work is not only a matter of you putting your heart into it but to appreciate your surroundings. Every individual is given a wonderful gift like you said.

    Keep up the great work!

  6. “We’ve all grown up with a different set of experiences and tapping into those experiences, celebrating them, finding the uniqueness in your self is really what makes us artists.”

    Never forgetting who you are or where you came from is, in my mind, one of the best pieces of advice anyone could follow. Those growing up years are what shape and mold us into what we are today – for better or worse. Right on Ben.

  7. Ben, the photos you took of my family for a recent Parade Magazine article, brought out the best in each of us! We were amazed and thrilled that each one of us looked great, a first in our family. I have since become a huge fan of your work, always marveling at how you capture the essence of the soul in every photo you take……

  8. Ben — you have an instinct for that “moment” — when the snapshot reflects the greater life. I love everything about those moments. Thanks for sharing.
    Rick

  9. I really liked this article. I am somewhat new to professional photography having only been shooting full time for a short while. I decided in July to start making myself see creatively so I started my Project 365 where I take one or two pictures a day and share them with others.

    It hasn’t been easy, I don’t always have someone to photograph, but it has been so much fun looking for that photo opportunity every day.

    BTW I use to love when my dad when get out the slide projector and go through the family pictures. I had forgotten that until I read your blog today. Maybe that’s where I feel in love with photography.

    Thank you for reminding me.

    • “We are where we come from.”

      The trend in much contemporary illustration and editorial portraiture is slick on the outside and empty within. In these uncertain days, that’s probably not what we need. Glad to see that there are still some photographers who retain a sense of human kindness and empathy, in both the personal and professional work. Way to go, Mr. Van Hook.

      It’s also interesting how the 60s snapshots are similar in feel to the professional work. We are where we come from, indeed.

  10. Ben, Nice Post Pointing out how to think of photography in more simplistic terms. It can be intimidating sometimes when you think you don’t have all the right gear needed to get the perfect shot. Shooting from the heart and paying attention to our surroundings are great simple suggestions.

  11. Art and science are the tools of talent and inspiration. Great personal point of view and perspective on how you capture the moment.

  12. Ben,
    Great read and inspiration. I know that all my best photos come from feelings that are stirred from inside. Some good feelings and some not so good, but the resulting shot stands apart from photos taken because you have to. When I shot as a pro one of the hardest things I had to do was shoot a product that I had no thoughts about. That is when I was glad to have an art director, but give me something I caared about and move out of the way.
    Keep up the great work, love your photos

  13. Ben,
    Great read and inspiration. I know that all my best photos come from feelings that are stirred from inside. Some good feelings and some not so good, but the resulting shot stands apart from photos taken because you have to. When I shot as a pro one of the hardest things I had to do was shoot a product that I had no thoughts about. That is when I was glad to have an art director, but give me something I cared about and move out of the way.
    Keep up the great work, love your photos

  14. I have had the great pleasure of working as Ben’s art director for several of his projects over the years. Often on commercial shoots we are saturated with camera gear, grip gear, a multitude of people, trucks…general chaos. To see Ben maneuver through the chaos and find the soul of why we are there, regardless of the setting or location, is a rare and enviable quality. His art reflects this soulful approach to photography and has made being a small part of this blissful chaos all the more fullfilling…thanks Ben.

  15. Hey Ben,
    That was a really well done blog! I have learned alot from you over the years and have done my best to apply it. Shooting from the heart and tapping into your personal experiences is something so many younger photographers avoid. I so often see photographers trying to conform to what they think people want to see and the images end up having no soul. I admit I have done this myself off and on. Thanks Ben for sharing your insight about this, I know I have found it helpful!

  16. Loved your article esp. the memory of the slide projector although my Dad would bring out the reels of film. Recently we took those 40 years of reels and had a DVD made from them. Such a wonderful moment to see where I’ve come from and the people who empowered me to take chances in life.

    Beginning a journey into the world of photography later in life than the average photographer, I’ve chosen workshops, seminars and reading blogs as my “college” with the hope that through my passion for life I can learn to shoot from the heart.

    Thanks for the inspiration! :)

  17. Nice going Hook! I would like to give a shout out to the great Mel Levine (now retired) from SI who loaned you the gear for that first assignment! I hope you returned the gear to him promptly!

    Great pictures and great words. Very inspiring!

    Brad

  18. Hi Ben,
    Thanks for such an inspiring morning read. Your words were excellent, and you are right about Scott and his companies helping others by mentoring to the masses. Personally, I, my photography, has grown by leaps and bounds since I found NAPP and Scott Kelby. This is something that I can never repay.
    Thanks again,
    Mike

  19. You Sir are an artist in the true sense of the word. Thank you for the inspiration, both visual and verbal here. What a sermon. I could listen and try to absorb your thoughts and revelations all day.

  20. Thank you so much for posting and sharing your thoughts with us. I love your point of view! A lot of times when I flip through magazines I find that there are tons of photos that are from a technical point of view very good, but still leave me fairly cold on a emotional basis. Whereas your “snapshots” made me smile and stirred up all sorts of emotions. Thank you for being such an inspiration! It is very true that you need to shoot from the heart to get photographs that stick with you and tell a story.

  21. Nice post. It’s always interesting to get insight into what makes another person/artist see the world the way they do and how it influences their work.

    Thanks for sharing.

  22. Ben, Great work…but you have always done great work. Wonderful memories of working with you at the CJ&T.

    gary

  23. Wow, very inspirational article! Thank you for sharing!

  24. as always, your perspective is true, honest and inspiring. i remember reviewing your work before you ventured into the agency world. it was emotional. real. something that we appreciate and strive for with our work but don’t always accomplish in the ad agency world. having worked with you on many projects since then i am confident in saying, with your help, we successfully created and produced some beautiful work that represented the brands in a positive, true, emotional nature. we even had some fun along the way.

  25. You shoot like Sam Abell. You see like Sam and sound like him. You seem to have the same calmness and love of life that Sam has. Thanks for sharing your insight and wonderful talent in the “art of seeing”. I will add your name to my list of people whose talent and ability to see the beauty in the simple/everyday life around us. The list is very similar to yours..and much longer, like yours. Thanks again for touching my soul with your insight, talent and beautiful images.

  26. Your photos are amazing!!! I especially love the “Lion King”

  27. Ben, thank you for sharing. I am, right now, chasing my dream of photography as my profession and sometimes, as do we all, doubt myself and get overwhelmed but you spoke to something inside me that really understands. I find it hard sometimes, none photog’s don’t really understand what we’re trying to do but some truly see my passion for it and when you’ve completely submerged your self in it it’s hard to think or talk about much else. I hope one day I too can teach and help build the fire of passion in other photographers, help them see the world the way I do, it’s magic, wonder and splendour in all situations. Again I thank you…..

  28. Ben –
    Great blog! Like your photography, it’s an honest representation of how you see your world. As a professional who is truly passionate about his work, you have always inspired me. And your voice is always in my head when I make my very amateurish attempts to capture the beauty of my family on film. “Shoot what you SEE, not what’s in front of the camera!”

  29. Ben- I never get tired of looking at your work. Your words and work are truly inspirational. Thanks for sharing all of the old family memories…this was the bright spot of my day!

  30. So inspiring to see how childhood influences our lives. Ben had a great foundation to become such a insightful photographer. Thanks for sharing, Ben!

  31. Ben –
    Great blog! Just like your photography, your writing is a true representation of how you see your world. As a professional who is passionate about your work, you have always inspired me. And your voice is always in my head when I make my very amateurish attempts to capture my beautiful family . . . “Shoot what you SEE, not what’s in front of the camera!”

  32. Ben, it’s always amazing to see your creativity at work. The most simple of images you photograph become pieces I can find myself staring at for hours. Incredible.

  33. I’m jealous U actually got to meet Pelé. Great insight into your beautiful [art] work.

  34. Ben,

    You are an inspiration to us all. It has been a pleasure seeing your work and reading your insightful perspective. What I enjoy most is working with you. When are you going to call?

  35. Very inspirational. Your photography and video resonates from the heart.

  36. I have had the pleasure of calling Ben a friend for nearly four years now. Aside from his amazing work ethic, he is one of the finest human beings I have ever known. I’m blessed to know him as I do.
    His work truly reflects HIM

  37. Ben,

    Thank you for such a wonderful post packed with very ‘real’ imagery.
    Reading your words reminded me of a conversation I had with Photographer Tim Wallace of Ambient Life who has also appeared here as a Guest Blogger…

    Tim believes that every time we press the shutter, we are photographing ourselves; all our life experiences come through in the pictures we take and although at first this may sound quite heavy, I very much follow his thinking.

    All the best to you,
    Glyn

  38. Ben,

    I loved looking at your work and reading what you have to say. Your words reflect my views on photography to a great extent, and it was a pleasure to see them expressed so clearly.

    Thanks for the inspiration.

    Best wishes,
    Stephanie

  39. Ben – Great blog! Your writing is just like your photography – an honest representation of how you see your world. As a professional truly passionate about your work, you’ve always inspired me. And when I make my amateurish attempts to capture my beautiful family, your voice is always in my head: “Shoot what you SEE not what’s in front of the camera!”

  40. Ben,
    Your work just keeps on impressing, your a visionary. You are leaving behind a world of photos for the young people to see how life should be. You can be very proud of the legacy you leave for the next generation.

  41. Great insight and incredible work Ben!

  42. Something about this post really struck a cord with me… I grew up in a very very small town, I always felt very isolated and spent a great many hours alone. Where I grew up has had a very large impact on me, and I feel my photography is just starting to show my personality a bit. well said sir

  43. Ben, a photo editor is only as good as the photographer he or she hires for the assignment. You always made me look like a good photo editor. There was nothing like getting a call back after the assigned shoot and hearing you say, “We nailed it.” From Earl Woods, Michelle Wie, Jack Nicklaus, Justin Rose, Paula Creamer, a topless Laura Baugh and a hatless Sam Snead–you remain one of my favorites to work with. Thank you for sharing your blog.

  44. Really enjoyed the article and the film. I’m having some medical problems right now and believe me, watching the film after popping a couple percocets is a treat.

  45. Amazing work, these photos are so inspirational!!!
    Thanks for the great read!!!

  46. Ben,
    This was spectacular and gave me goose bumps all the way. Loved the family pictures along with the new. The one picture of you and Herb (Herb is standing) and you are hugging your dog next to JC – you look just like Sydney – it is like she has melted into you and Cheryl…amazing the smile is identical. Looking forward to seeing you all in October (and hopefully in December as well)…
    Love to all.

  47. Ben,

    I really enjoyed reading your post and looking at the wonderful photos.

    It seems like yesterday that our family stopped in Georgia on the way to Florida to check out the cotton fields. I can remember that day very clearly. I am so glad that our Dad took the time to take pictures as we were growing up, even though I know we complained about it at the time.

    Thanks for making my day. Keep up the great work! I am so proud of my “little” brother!

    Love, JC

  48. It reminds me of my childhood and how my Aunt got me started with photography. She always had her camera and took some great shots of family and surroundings.

    Thanks
    John

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