I wrote the following article on Serendipity and Photography as an introduction to the catalogue of PhotoTWENS 2017. Here, you’ll find the English translation of the article.
Taking place every year in Leuven, PhotoTWENS shows the work of 20 talented young photographers. The exhbition takes place at 30CC Kapel Romaanse Poort in Leuven from 8-24 september. Plan some time this month for a visit, entrance is free.
In the 18th century, British writer and politicus Horace Walpole invented the word serendipity in a letter to one of his friends. Almost a century later, photography was invented. Who could’ve thought that this specific word would fit so well to that specific activity?
Serendipity – or the art of making an unsought finding
Horace Walpole was an interesting man. He differed from his contemporaries by his sensitive and timid personality. He had interests that other found weird or trivial and combined ideas that seemingly didn’t belong together. Still, he wasn’t considered a lonely excentric. He had the talent to cultivate his weird interests AND to communicate them to others in an original way.
In his time, Walpole was expressing his originality through language. In our time, he could’ve been a good photographer. Isn’t photography similar to this: Diving into one’s own (peculiar) interests, making new associations, looking at things in an own unique way and then express it to the outside world in such an enthusiastic way that others spontaneously follow along in that interest or the story?
In one of Walpols’ letters, we find the word serendipity. The word was deduced from Walpoles memory of an old Persian story: the three princes of Serendib (the current Sri Lanka). The three princes first received a prestiguous and elaborate education. Afterwards, they went travelling, to complement their book wisdom with practical wisdom. Throughout their stories, the observation powers of the princes becomes apparent. They observe carefully, make subtle inferences and, thanks to these abilities, experience several adventures.
Thus, the origin of the word serendipity seems to come from a story celebrating attentive observation. Isn’t this also the most important skill of a good photographer? Photography always starts with observation. It’s also experiencing the pleasure of being able to record a specific observation or a series of observations, colourful and unique as they are.
Walpole used the word serendipity for moments where coincidence and perceptiveness result in finding valuable information one wasn’t looking for. Later, the word ‘serendipity’ leads his own life. Usually, a combination of the same elements is cited. Therefore, sometimes it’s described as the art of making an unsought finding.
Still, it’s not only coincidence. You also have to be open-minded to recognise the value of a certain observation, to see a connection others didn’t see before. Again, attentiveness is playing a role, but also the intelligence or creativity to combine several sources of knowledge.
Photography and serendipity – or how only courageous people find what they weren’t searching for
Overall, serendipity seems to be a cocktail of intelligence, knowledge, preparation, observation, openness, coincidence and intuition. I think it is within this field of forces that the best photography also resides.
On the one hand, there’s preparation and knowledge. They make sure that, later on, you’ll be able to recognize the value of a coincidental discovery. Control the techniques, learn to use your camera, know about the history of photography or the place of photography within a larger context, learn what you have to learn. These tips are often used for beginning photographers to encourage them to make their work better.
However, is this all? Is a technical correct, well-composed photography everything we strive for? Is that the magic of photography? I don’t think so.
This preparation, knowledge and technical power should be combined with that other, at least equally important aspect, of serendipity. Coincidence, openness and intuitiion. Being open for happy coincidents, seeing possibilities in what is different from planned, combining elements that others don’t combine.
Prepare yourself, absorb the knowledge, learn the techniques, but don’t let this be the focus during the act of photographing. Keep an open mind, experience the pleasure of observing, see coincidental combinations, use your intuition.
Deciding to allow serendipity in your photography work is a brave decision. This path is only for the courageous. Everything kan go different than predicted. You can, despite all your preparation, never be certain what result you will get or how the world will react when you share your work.
Therefore, trust is key. Trust the whole of knowledge, skills and experiences that determine your unique way of seeing. Trust that things, even when they don’t go as expected, will lead to something. Something new, something unexpected, something you never knew you were looking for.
Photography is a wonderful activity, just like serendipity is a wonderful word. I hope you will often find what you weren’t looking for, and that we can be part of the interesting photographic work that will be the result.