The Aspiring Photographer 5 | Concept & Meaning

Today’s a fun one, friend - we get to talk about the core message of your photograph - the concept and meaning behind it. What you’re trying to say, who you’re trying to connect with and what the hell the point of its existence in your viewer’s life (harsh, but good to acknolwedge).

If you missed the first few parts to The Aspiring Photographer Series, you can read ‘em here - Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

The Aspiring Photographer 5, concept and meaning in your photographs

What is a concept in a photograph

The concept (or meaning) of your photograph is what you want your audience to take away from viewing it. If you’re a wedding, maternity, newborn, etc. photographer - this will be fairly simple. The event took place, this couple got married/pregnant/had a baby - this is straightforward for other portrait photography sessions as well (seniors, bands, you name it).

But let’s say you were planning an artistic session to flex your mind creatively. You might want to create a scene that reflects a new experience in your life, a photograph that speaks to current cultural events, or just art for arts sake. The concept behind your photograph is what drives its meaning, the reason it exists, and why your audience can relate (and should care about it).

Why you need a concept

Why should your audience care?

I had a teacher say in a critique “Why are we spending class time to look at this?” which definitely stung at first, but forced me to consider the reason I was showing them my work. There’s a difference between creating something for yourself that you’re doing just because you want to, and creating something that you plan to show others (either in person or online). Personally, I feel as artists and creators, if we’re photographing something that we plan to share we have a responsibility to create it with the audience in mind. I could photograph my boyfriend, but who’s going to care about that other than me and him? There's got to be a deeper and more universal meaning behind the photograph of my boyfriend for it to be relevant to anyone other than us - perhaps the photo of him reflects the modern views on long term relationships for young millennials, or has to do with the journey entrepreneurs our age are going through to find ourselves. Whatever it is, your audiene won't care unless you give them more of a reason to than "this is my boyfriend he's so cute".


Having a concept creates a powerful photograph

Photographs that were created with the audience in mind speak to us as the viewer on a deeper, relatable level. They make the viewer connect with your photograph and relate it back to their own experiences.

Take Kyle Thompson for example - I’ve been following his work for years and I have always felt a massive connection to his work. His photographs for me speak to emptiness, abandonment and solitude. They’re beautiful and haunting and took time and care to convey the concept he created for each one individually - I think they’re fantastic and engaging to look at as a viewer because I can input my own relationship to solitude and loneliness and feel that I can relate to this image on a deeper level.

Another amazing example is Rosie Hardy who I’ve been following (and adoring) since I started photography in 2009. She has an incredible way of weaving her stories into her photographs, inviting the viewer in to empathize with her sorrow, joy, or wanderlust. She’s so open about her experiences and amazing at creating a photograph around them that it doesn’t feel like you’re intruding or that they’re unrelatable - but rather that she’s telling you firsthand what she’s feeling and inviting you to delve into your own emotions.

How to visualize your concept

Alright friends, we’re going back in time for this example. I’m going to walk you through a photograph I created back in 2013 when I got my acceptance letter to The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and show you the steps I went through to create the concept and final image.

Concept: In the Clouds

When I got the letter to SAIC that I'd been accepted I was in complete shock - I’d honestly never wanted to go to college and didn’t truly think it would happen. This was the only school I applied to and if I didn’t get in I wasn’t planning to go anywhere else, so it was a bit of a long shot. The day I got the acceptance letter I felt like my head was full of helium - I was surprised, happy, scared and excited. I felt like I was dreaming and I couldn’t wake up. I felt like my head was in the clouds (ha ha, get it). I decided to create a photograph that represented these feelings of starting a new journey and feeling like you can’t even comprehend what’s happening.

I focused first on creating a relatable way to share my experience - this was such an exciting thing that had happened, but not everyone got admitted to college today likely, so how could I help my audience connect? I decided to highlight the feeling of having your head in the clouds - that feeling when your dreams align with reality, because that’s definitely a more universal feeling. Once I was set on the cloud concept, I brought in cotton, my friend as a model and the woods where I started pursuing my dream of photography.

Major life changes are always a good source of inspiration because whether or not your audience has all been accepted to college this year (or whatever your inspiration comes from), most people can relate to having great news that makes them feel like they're floating in a dream.


Where to source inspiration

An incomplete list of places you can draw from to create concepts for your photographs

Draw from your own experiences

  • New career, school, or a move

  • Heartbreak, new adventure, or lesson learned

  • Your emotional state - feeling alone, crowded, or at peace

Recent cultural events

  • Politics, the state of the planet, newsworthy topics

Look at the world around you

  • Music, movies, books

Homework: Start finding ways to create concepts that relate to your audience

Katharine Hannah

Katharine’s work has graced the walls of institutions such as The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, The Harold Washington Library of Chicago, and local galleries such as Dreambox Gallery, Siragus Gallery and Blick Art Materials. She has also been featured on websites such as the Huffington Post, Phlearn, Fstoppers, Tigress Magazine for Girls, Bitchtopia, and Golden Boy Press.

In addition to photography, Katharine has been a mentor and educator in the arts since 2013. She has worked with students in various organizations and projects over the last two years, including Hive Chicago’s PROjectUS initiative and Digital Youth Network’s Digital Diva’s and Chicago City of Learning programs.