Subjects Choose You

Subjects choose you. The Canadian photographer Geoffrey James said this. It has stuck with me because I see it happening in my work. Despite my intent to work a certain project I often find myself taken by subjects I did not anticipate.


Most of us have been there. We set out intending to shoot a certain subject or work a certain project, but we find ourselves sidetracked,

I know some photographers are totally disciplined and do not do anything without a plan. And they seldom do anything off the plan. Of course, if you are doing a corporate shoot and you have hired models and a crew and rented a venue and arranged lighting and equipment, insurance, permits, etc. then you have to make sure you complete the assignment and make your client happy.

I am happy that that is not the world I live in. It is great to have the luxury of being completely self-directed. I pursue what interests me, so I am very vulnerable to getting sidetracked. I love it. 🙂

But even I sometimes go out with intent to pursue certain subjects or projects. If I keep my focus and actually work the project, I may get some images I like. But if I come back with almost nothing I set out to do, is that a wasted day? Usually not.


I usually characterize myself as an explorer. But even so, it is not necessarily completely wide open exploration. I am often focused in a certain direction, say a project I am working on.

Human psychology is such that when you fix on an idea or you are looking for something particular, most other things are blocked out. An extreme and humorous example of this is called the “invisible gorilla” experiment. Watch the video before reading the article. You can learn something interesting about perception.

These perceptual blinders are true of almost everyone, even “professional” artists. I don’t claim to be immune. But I do try to examine what is going on sometimes and see if I have blinders on and if that is bad.

Since I am exploring I try to look around and allow myself to be drawn to new ideas or to perceive new stimulus. Quite often these take me completely out of the mode of the project I was working on. I actually enjoy that! It means I was drawn to something that interested me more.

Can’t control our mind

The mind is amazing. It is constantly taking in the stimulus around it and filtering and analyzing it to make associations and meaning. This is not artificial intelligence, it is actual intelligence, and is much better.

Sometimes your mind tries to help you by filtering out things you don’t seem to be interested in, like we discussed before with the invisible gorilla. But if you loosen the restrictions and allow it to associate over a wider range it can recognize interesting possibilities we did not consciously see.

I like to work in this more free, wide ranging mode. I have spent decades training my mind to recognize possibilities I might want to pursue. After all that time I should have the confidence to give it the chance to run free and do its best. It is not unusual for my mind to bother me with a recognition of something I want to see, but am overlooking.

I should let it go, because it will anyway.

The subconscious is strong

“The force is strong in this one”. Actually, that is true of most of us. If you have examined your art and the work of others you admire, if you have spent a long time training yourself to recognize scenes of interest to you, your mind will do it subconsciously. You actually have to work to shut it off.

One common model of competence has 4 stages as we progress up the scale. When we are operating at the unconscious competence level, we are not even consciously aware of what we know and what we are doing. It is “second nature”. We operate on an instinctual level.

This is awesome for someone like me who relies on an instinctual recognition of scenes and compositions and possibilities. My subconscious is always analyzing my surroundings in the background. Sometimes it triggers a recognition of something I should see. I can’t describe the how or why. It is just that, without giving it direct thought, a light or something goes off and I realize there is another scene I should investigate. This is subjects choosing me.

It is very related to a state of flow. That can be a great place to be. The art just seems to move through me. I can’t explain it and then is not the time to analyze it. If I have time, if the stimulus is not coming too fast, I can try to being my conscious mind up to speed by expressing to myself why I was drawn to a scene. Sometimes there is no time and it would kill the flow.

Go with it

If I am smart I will recognize what is happening and just go with it. Let my subconscious lead me to things I know I am interested in but didn’t see. I almost feel guilty calling myself an artist. It seems I am just a vehicle for something larger that is expressing itself through me.

But I am not claiming any spiritual or supernatural basis to this. I recognize that my incredible mind, after long training, is just doing its job. This wonderful machine is helping me recognize things I would have wanted to know about, even if I was not consciously paying attention.

Let me mention the image with this post. I was searching for great scenes on a beautiful fall afternoon. I was racing through the forests, surrounded by peak color leaves in upstate New York at sunset. Suddenly I was compelled to screech to a halt and turn around and backtrack. My subconscious had recognized this scene even though I thought I was only interested in leaves. I’m very glad I did. This was the keeper. I do not remember any of the leaf images.

It is joy. It is instinctual. Letting go and following the flow often leads to things I love. Subjects choose you, and it can happen in the most wonderful ways

Go with it.

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