The Gift of Time in Photography

A key lesson for photographers attending the Missouri Photo Workshop, and for all documentary photographers, is that time matters. It’s just not possible to drop into the lives of people and expect that your pictures will honestly reveal the character of your subjects. The pictures may show what people look like, but they won’t necessarily show how people live and relate to each other in the absence of cameras.

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The Guardian of Grundy County, by Carlos Gonzalez Sheriff Herring works the front desk in the early morning of September 24, 2013. It’s a small community with limited resources, but he welcomes the multiple responsibilities that come with his job. He states, “I would never ask my deputies to do something I wouldn’t do myself. Especially as a small town sheriff, I’m the cook, the chef and the waiter”.See full story»

But time can make a difference. A photographer can learn a lot just by spending time observing daily rituals, expressions and gestures, and the way people connect to their family, friends, and colleagues. But observing this kind of unguarded behavior—which can produce honest, un-posed pictures of real life unfolding—requires an investment of time and patience.

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Getting Back the Life We Had, by Ryan Dorgan While Daniel helps Lynnsey dig through an empty lot in Trenton, Mo., for found objects, Lynnsey’s four-year-old daughter Harley, left, keeps herself busy with a garden spade. Lynnsey began making art pieces using found objects as part of a rehabilitation program and hopes to start selling them to supplement the couple’s income. See full story»

I’ll often say to students that the best pictures come on day three of the workshop, but only because a photographer has been willing to invest day one and day two watching and waiting. Only after a subject has become familiar and comfortable in the presence of a photographer can real pictures begin to happen. This requires a photographer to just “be there,” willing to watch, not necessarily talking, and often not taking any pictures at all.

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Vernon’s World, by Sam Wilson Vernon Foster, 18, says that it was his fault that his biological family kicked him out of their homes. Now estranged from his family, he sleeps in a restroom stall in Trenton, Missouri, and has entered his own world. See full story»

This is a difficult lesson for photographers in a time when all digital cameras have virtually endless memory storage, and motor advances that make them more like machine guns than tools for quiet and sensitive documentation. This is why we also have a 400-image limit on photographers for the week. Limiting the number of pictures requires students to think through what each picture means and how each advances the visual story of their subject.

44 picture stories were completed during the course of the workshop, which came to a close last Saturday. Four photographers received awards: Carlos Gonzalez, Sam Wilson, Ryan Dorgan, and Brendon Stuart. You can view theirs, and all of the stories, here:

National Geographic executive editor Dennis Dimick was first a faculty member for the Missouri Photo Workshop in 1995 when it was last held in Trenton, site of this year’s workshop. Follow Dennis on Twitter, Instagram, and Flickr.