To make someone laugh or bring a smile to their face is one of the purest forms of entertainment. Successful comedy relies totally on creativity; just think of the last good joke you heard, what you liked about it, and why you laughed.
Arthur Koestler actually used jokes as the perfect example of the creativity of bisociation—joining two normally separate contexts. So why not look for humour with your camera? Succeed and you cut straight through the usual minefield of taste that has post-modernists turning their noses up at attractive landscape photographs and practical-minded sports photographers sneering at conceptual images. Everyone likes to laugh and smile.
All right, it’s not as simple as that. Jokes can fall flat. What may seem hilarious to some people comes across as crude to others, and if a joke is too clever for an audience, it’s an embarrassing disaster. The same goes for visual jokes, and there’s probably no such thing as a universally funny photograph. Only one or two photographers in the history of the art have succeeded in consistently producing an actual body of amusing work (Robert Doisneau and Elliott Erwitt come to mind), but the fact that they were able to succeed should be an inspiration.
Humorous photography isn’t complicated and it doesn’t depend on any special technique. One simply needs to possess a very good sense of humour and be able to spot it happening in real life. Probably the safest option is to go for wry or gentle humour, nothing too flashy or outrageous.
So, how exactly can you set about being amusing with your camera? Firstly, unless you’re brimming with self-confidence, please avoid even the idea of setting up a “funny” situation. It very rarely works and when it fails it is excruciating. The best visual humour—judged on general approval ratings—is of unintended events and moments. What this means practically if you want to do the same is:
- You need a sense of humour that meshes with most other people’s. If you can already make people laugh by telling jokes, you’ve probably got it. If not, forget the whole thing and move on. Don’t force it.
- You have to be constantly looking for amusing things.
- You must be able to shoot anytime, anywhere at a second’s notice. This is what makes a smartphone an excellent tool.
- Give your picture the stress test of showing it to some friends. If most of them laugh or smile, publish. If not, keep it to yourself.
Michael Freeman is Michael Freeman’s guide that provides the reader with 50 “paths” they can explore to think about taking photos, looking at subjects from cliché to zen, so you will be able to hit the right point in surprise, originality, insight and execution every time.