In the world of photography, how do we find our own unique voice that will stand out amidst the sea of sameness? I wrestled with this question in the early years of my journey as an artist. I had so much to learn as far as business skills go and certainly technical skills too. So, I soaked up everything I could by looking at other photographers, industry magazines, what was getting the most likes and affirmation. But it all felt empty to me.
I knew what I was looking at was mostly mediocre, and though it might have been pretty it didn’t speak to me in any meaningful way. It wasn’t interesting and full of life. I wanted more than pretty pictures. I knew that I was drawn to something different than what I was seeing in the photography community, but I didn’t quite know how to translate what mattered to me, much less offer it to the world. When I first photographed a baby, I put the baby in a basket. I thought that was what you had to do when you photographed a newborn. But it wasn’t authentically me (or the baby, I might add). Luckily I was able to find a path that was more true to who I am and how I see the world. And now I’m passionate about refining my own creative voice and helping others do the same.
WHO ARE YOU? Matching who you are as an artist with who you are as a person
IN A SENSE YOUR PHOTOGRAPHS ARE YOUR AUTOBIOGRAPHY- DOROTHEA LANGE
In order to understand yourself as an artist, you must first know yourself. This requires some digging deep into your story. These questions are useful tools in the process of self-examination. Grab a few blank pieces of paper and some of your favorite pens for these exercises. Set a timer for 3 minutes for each of these. GO!
- What are words that people use to describe you? (go ahead, ask them! But I recommend only asking people who really know you, not throwing it out on your social media platforms to the masses. Take it from me) What are words that you use to describe yourself?
- What are areas of loss, sadness, crisis or tragedy in your life? Write down specific events or general themes that emerge.
- What are your areas of interest and curiosity? Passions? Write them all down.
- What are your goals and dreams?
Step back and take a look at these maps. What surprised you? What themes emerged? Where do these maps overlap? Circle the things that you want to explore more or that you feel strongly drawn to. Take some time to write about how these things influence you as an artist and what you might be motivated to do differently. Is there a personal project you might want to pursue based on themes that emerged?
Resources: I highly recommend the book Strengthsfinders. It is a detailed personality inventory that will determine the natural areas of strength in your personality. Focus on those strengths and let go of your weaknesses. You will grow fastest where you are naturally strong.
Another incredibly helpful tool is the book Start with Why. You can watch the TED talk here. This is such an important step for any artist or entrepreneur, or really for any endeavor. Things will become so much more clear if you have a strong sense of WHY you are doing it all in the first place, and then you can communicate that story through your art.
WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT? What you see is what you get!
YOU DON’T MAKE A PHOTOGRAPH JUST WITH A CAMERA. YOU BRING TO THE ACT OF PHOTOGRAPHY ALL THE PICTURES YOU HAVE SEEN, THE BOOKS YOU HAVE READ, THE MUSIC YOU HAVE HEARD, THE PEOPLE YOU HAVE LOVED. – ANSEL ADAMS
I believe that if you focus on becoming a more interesting person, you can’t help but become a more interesting artist. Where are you looking for inspiration? Who are you looking at for comparison? If all your photography heroes are on Instagram, you need new heroes.
- Take a social media break for at least a week (you won’t die, I promise). You cannot make authentic work if you are copying what everyone else is doing and filling your creative tank with someone else’s vision. Stop looking at peers and following industry blogs. Notice how you feel without all that noise. You absorb what you see and can’t help but reflect that in your own work.
- Look to the masters of your craft and learn what makes a truly GREAT photograph, not just one that gets a lot of likes. Here’s some ideas of where to start: Magnum contact sheets, photojournalists, Sally Mann, Sam Abell, Annie Leibovitz, Cig Harvey, Jessica Todd Harper, Alan Laboile, Vivian Maeier, Craig Semetko, Robert Frank, LensCulture, Cartier-Bresson, Elliot Erwitt, Nat Geo photographers, Petapixel.com, openculture.com (free art book downloads)
- Look outside your genre to nourish your creative soul- some things that inspire me are Dutch masters, Caravaggio, Wes Anderson, Chef’s Table series on Netflix, Start with Why- Simon Sinek, Big Magic- Elizabeth Gilbert, The War of Art- Stephen Pressfield, The Artist’s Way- Julia Cameron, Fire Starter Sessions- Danielle LaPorte, Steal Like an Artist-Austin Kleon, The Untethered Soul, Brene Brown, documentaries, Norman Rockwell, erikkim.com, movies, music, nature, FOOD, TED Talks, cookbooks, poetry, podcasts
BE DARING, BE DIFFERENT, BE IMPRACTICAL, BE ANYTHING THAT WILL ASSERT INTEGRITY OF PURPOSE AND IMAGINATIVE VISION AGAINST THE PLAY-IT-SAFERS, THE CREATURES OF THE COMMONPLACE, THE SLAVES OF THE ORDINARY. – CECIL BACON
Finding your unique creative voice is a lifelong journey that will change as you change. You can cultivate and grow your own vision the more you invest in nourishing your soul through this process.
Just as nourishing your body with whole food takes more time and intention than eating convenience food without real nutrition in it, finding your voice takes time and intention, and sifting through a lot of noise. Most of all, remember “A GOOD PHOTOGRAPHER MUST LOVE LIFE MORE THAN HE DOES PHOTOGRAPHY.” – JOEL STRASSER