What Came First, The Medium Or The Message? by Eugen Sakhnenko

I recently met with a documentary photographer and had a long discussion about a project she is developing. While trying to figure out how to convey a specific aspect through images, we started talking about what other media could better bring the ideas across. This is something I’ve been thinking about more and more in regards to my own work, and often comes up in conversations with other artists. Why photography? Why video? Why painting? Why whatever? What comes first, the medium or the message?

I feel that for the majority of artists – and perhaps this is more true for younger rather than older artists, or more accurately for inexperienced versus experienced artists – the medium comes first. There are many reasons for this. Most people enter the art world because they fall in love with a medium. If we go to school we’re (nearly always) forced to choose a medium to major in. After all, it’s easier to learn and teach a medium than a message – that has to come from deep within yourself. This leads us to become very proficient and comfortable with a specific medium, and often a specific way of working within in it. Thus, the medium prevails.
Once we leave school, or simply the initial exploratory stage of art making – the part where we learn our craft, the medium continues to lead us. After all, we are painters, photographers, illustrators – our medium becomes a part of our identity. But art is the realm of ideas, and ideas have little concern for weather we wield a brush or a video camera. We march out into the world looking for what we can explore with our newly found skill. At first we come across ideas easily conveyed through our, now long ago decided on, medium. We pick the low hanging fruits of our minds, the things we wished we could have done when we had neither skill nor experience. The reason we went out and painstakingly learned our craft. But then we encounter, usually midway through a project, an idea that is both more stubborn and more important than any we’ve met before. All of a sudden, without a minute warning, the message refuses to follow blindly in the shadow of our medium.

Our own realization of this might not be quite as fast. We begin to feel friction – something is missing from our work. We look around and realize the key idea doesn’t manifest itself quite as clearly as we’d imagined. Perhaps it’s not there at all. We wonder how we can bring it back into the centre of our work. Approaching it from various angles, our medium in hand, we try to figure out a plan of attack. We’re blind to the possibility that the issue is with our tool rather than the raw material. As the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

In order for our work to flourish, we must step back and reassess our tools. Our medium was once the guiding force, a safety line even, that kept us on track and held back distractions that would have been destructive in our period of early discovery and growth. But like an overly protective parent that refuses to relinquish control of their child, it has now become a crutch that holds us back from reaching our full potential.

At this point we, as artists, must sacrifice our cherished medium so that our message can thrive. Otherwise our work will continue to fall flat – we will be disappointed and everyone else, simply indifferent. From a practical view this means we must be aware of all the tools at our disposal and have a rudimentary knowledge of how they work. When working on project, we should, from the outset, approach problems by first considering what tools will give us the results we desire, aesthetically as well as intellectually. Perhaps even work with several tools at once so that when writing the tale of our journey we can see, rather than assume, which is best. Otherwise we’ll arrive at the end only to realize that the message that drove us to work has been smothered by an overly stubborn medium.


Eugen Sakhnenko is a Toronto-based freelance photographer and the co-creator of the Knock Twice blog, which is where a version of this post originally appeared. It's is an online resource to assist and inform budding creative professionals. You can visit Knock Twice here.


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