Reading – Sally Mann Memoirs “Hold Still”

Following on from comments about my photography, working with what you know and what is close to you and similarities mentioned with me and Sally Mann (both being photographers who often choose their loved ones, especially children as the subject of their art). I wanted to get to know more about the life of Sally Mann, and chose to read her memoirs “Hold Still” whilst on the plane to Egypt.  This book was an interesting read, as she explained her life and her art.

What I found most interesting is how she dealt with and what she thought about the way some people viewed the photographs of her children. To Sally Mann, her photography was innocent and her pictures sometimes came with fantasy scenarios, usually depicted in the titles of each photograph. It was never meant to be perceived as sexual or degrading in any way, but this way certainly the way some people described the images, making her work quite controversial at times, which is never what she intended. It’s interesting to note, that you as a photographer, really have no way of controlling the way every person will view you art. Sure, you can steer viewpoint in a certain direction but ultimately, the result is down to the individual who sees the picture with their own eyes and with an already composed set of opinions, frame of mind and perception.

Questions arise from this for me, should we censor our work so as to not offend? In a current environment where there seems to be someone who will find offence in anything and everything and will shout this opinion wherever they please, all over social media for instance, sometimes gaining a digital Lynch mob, who jump aboard with their imaginary pitchforks and fiery torches and tear people down within the comfort of their own homes, hiding behind their keyboards. It is hard to imagine to consequences and outcomes of being seemingly controversial today and I think this can be quite a scary thought.

However, as an artist, I don’t feel you should constipate your creativity, simply based on the fact you may offend someone. Whilst I do believe it is something that should be considered, if your work suddenly makes no sense to you because of censorship, and it loses it’s meaning, then I think that is a very sad thing.

I wonder how Sally Mann’s work would be received today if she had only just begun with these thoughts in mind? I feel that there is a possibility that some of her work might never have been made and her vision would have never come to fruition. She is a mother after all, and no one wants their children’s images to be attacked in any way.

In my eyes, her work is beautiful, intriguing and thoughtful. The subtleties in her images are well thought out and I enjoyed reading her process when she chose to create an image. I see no problem in the way her children are depicted at all, the images are quite innocent in my eyes, we base too much on nudity and the indecency of nudity in general and again, this takes me back to the original point of how you cannot control the way your images are viewed at all.

I saw similarities in her process as I do my own, when I shoot with my own children. They are most certainly willing subjects who love to take part in the process of my photography, it is never forced and they are quite used to it now and there is a process of evolution that you find with the images until you know that you got it right. Maybe, this is perceived in a different way to different people. But, I am aware through this, that it is most important as a photographer to simply hold onto your own truths.

Some of my favourite quotes which resonated with me were:

“The hardest part is setting the camera on the tripos, or making the decision to bring the camera out of the car, or just raising the camera to your face, believing, by those actions, that whatever you find before you, whatever you find  there, is going to be good.”

“All perception is selection, and all photographs – no matter how objectively journalistic the photographer’s intent – exclude aspects of the moment’s complexity.”


  • Mann, S. (2016) Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, Back Bay Books