Lessons Learned on Making Something from ‘Nothing’ as a Photographer

One of the most constantly joyful aspects of photography is the ability of the medium to allow the creator to make something from nothing.

Nothing doesn’t mean forgetting and leaving the lens cap on but instead studying things that are not epic or poetic in a way that renders them aesthetically. I’ve seen beautiful photographs made of leaves, folds in newspapers, overflowing bins, and many other things we would otherwise pass by.

This idea that photography can visually elevate the mundane is nothing new, and plenty has been written and discussed about the ways this can be practiced. It is central to many genres, including street and still life, where the everyday can become larger than life. However, I am not so certain that the same can be achieved when it comes to telling a story in a way that accurately describes what happened when what happened wasn’t too interesting.

Sometimes the everyday is just the everyday, no more, no less. Sometimes you can put poetry and artistry into a photograph, but the story it tells does not become more interesting by association.

I recently spent some time in Bulgaria, which was necessary for me to transit onwards to work on a project in the United States. The decision to spend this time in Sofia, Bulgaria, was not directed by any specific project or goal beyond running down the clock before I was able to head onwards to the States, which left me without a narrative to guide my day-to-day routine there. I had just spent a very hectic summer focused on a number of documentary photographs, so to be thrown back into undirected street photography was a bit challenging.

I did not find it difficult to make interesting observations to photograph or to find “uninteresting” things to make interesting through photography, but what was difficult was the reconciliation that the story I would eventually be telling through these photographs was not an inherently interesting one.

Sofia is a beautiful city, although a lot was restricted due to pandemic safeguards, which left me to a simple daily exploration of the outdoors as I worked with whatever situations I happened across. Although I am happy with the collection of photographs I produced, they do not make for a riveting sequence in the way that some of my more energetic documentary stories with structure as simple as beginning, middle, and end, might.

The sequence I ultimately decided on for the body of work shot while there was roughly an outline of this daily routine, moving from point of interest to point of interest. There are a couple of vignettes highlighting the time I spent around the skate community, and the photographs I shot on Christmas day at the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral.

This is not a substantial narrative and is closer to a collection of street photographs and personal journal than my more intimate documentary investigations. In this way, my publication, Transiting Bulgaria, very much feels like it is something from nothing. There is not a lot of groundbreaking introspection, not enough anecdotes for it to be a diary, not enough investment in any particular story beyond my own to consider it anything other than a document of a place at a particular time.

For some this is enough. Plenty of street photography publications seem content to simply present a highlight reel or portfolio style body of images, bound to the photographer more than to a story. I want to be able to say that this is enough to me, and in the case of Transiting Bulgaria, it almost has to be, to exist as a personal chapter which will either interest people or not but, without anything to really tie it together overall, with no ultimate point or conclusion to be found.

I am happy with the work, I really am – for a focused and dedicated amount of time I am proud to have produced the quantity and quality of work that I have, but my lesson was that I needed to accept that not all of my projects will be some decade-spanning feat or extreme deep dive into a culture.

Instead, it’s about allowing these quieter editions to exist alongside those other works and accepting that these are as much a part of my work and life. The less-interesting bits in-between the high-energy sprints are healthy and allow me and my career to breathe in a natural, peaceful, way.

P.S. If you’re interested in purchasing a copy of Transiting Bulgaria, it is currently available to pre-order from my website at a reduced list price of £22 until the end of June, at which point pre-orders will be fulfilled.

About the author: Simon King is a London-based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work through his documentary collective, The New Exit Photography Group, and on Instagram.