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I have a degree in photography. Here's the most important thing I learned that I still use nearly a decade later.

Joey Hadden   

I have a degree in photography. Here's the most important thing I learned that I still use nearly a decade later.
  • I went to photo school and now I work as a reporter, documenting my travels around the world.
  • I learned that the power of an image doesn't necessarily have to come from the subject.

One time when I was very sad, my dad introduced me to photography.

I was fresh out of high school and living in Austin, Texas. My band had just broken up, and I needed a new creative outlet to refresh my soul. That's when my dad visited me, camera in hand.

I fell in love with taking pictures that weekend, and in the years that followed, I went to photo school. My dad visited me every so often, and always with his camera.

I was with him when I took the photo above at the Capitol building in Austin, Texas. He asked what made me think to put the garbage can in the frame. I told him that in my image, it was not a trash can, just like the man in it was not a man, and the leaves were not leaves. I told him that everything is just lines and shapes and colors and light, and that when you think about photography like that, your images can become quite unique.

A year later, I was in a class called History of Photography, where I learned about William Eggleston's "democratic" approach to photography, in which he resisted hierarchy in his subject matter. Eggleston, who would later become one of my favorite artists, said in his book, "The Democratic Forest," that "no particular subject is more or less important than another."

Power to feeling

I thought this was a unique concept and instantly applied it to my work documenting Western American landscapes. Instead of subjects, I gave the power in my landscapes to the way I was feeling while taking them. This is hard to explain, so I'll do so with an example.

These images above stood as one work in a project I called, "Thank you from half of my heart," where I paired photos from a traumatic road trip exploring Western America with images from the time I spent healing in Guam immediately afterward.

During the capture of the top image, I felt anxious and trapped with a dangerous individual. I took this photo because the trees have sharp tips that stab the air, and there are so, so many of them. When I look at this photo, I think to myself, "Each tree is something that I'm worrying about, and the thin path across the top is all the room I have to breathe." It is an image in which so much is there, but the composition is so simple, because it is a lot of the same thing — which is exactly how I felt about the person I was trapped with.

The bottom image is quite the opposite. It's new growth. It's hydrated. The plant in focus has room to breathe. The leaves and trees that frame it also protect it. When I took this photo, I felt safe.

Now that I practice photojournalism at Insider, subjects have to take hierarchy in my photos, so I can't always use this concept. But in my favorite recent images, I've been able to capture both.

For example, in the image below, I am the subject and the setting is the inside of a sleeper train cabin, but I used a high-angled, wide lens, as well as my facial expression, to capture how cramped I felt in the space.

On the way home from this trip, I booked a larger room that made it easier to relax. My position in the image below reflects that.

No matter what you're photographing, I think there's always room to evoke a feeling.