Shoot what you love; love what you shoot.
Hands up if you've ever taken and published a photograph on social media because you thought it would gain you more Likes, Followers or Faves. Hands up if you've posted an image on social media (Facebook, Instagram etc) and received unsolicited feedback that's made you go "Hmmmm...?". Hands up if any of the above has affected how you take and make photographs, or even curate the photographs that you choose to share online.
It's increasingly challenging in this era of social-media driven photography to remain true to what drives you to make photographs in the first place.
We see more and more of it everyday, as photography enthusiasts create work that's more derivative than visionary, more crowd-pleasing than expressive. How else can you account for the popularity of those bundles of presets and actions that you can purchase for a "90% discount"? At a click of a button, you can make your work look like someone else's... someone whose own images have garnered them a hefty following and profitable customer base! Or account for the vast numbers of image clones; the very same image created by different people all aiming to replicate the successful formula of a previous photographer.
As some point in your journey as a photographer, you need to pause, think and ask yourself: "Am I really shooting for myself? Am I really shooting what I love? Am I giving my critics and detractors way too much credit and control over what I do?"
The answers may surprise you.
I've shot and published stuff that made people go "WTF" and "Not my cup of tea!". I've received messages and email from folk who decry the imagery I've produced. Their reasons are many... the images make them feel "uncomfortable"; the subject is "unphotogenic"; the colours are "whacky", the lighting is "unflattering" or, perhaps most ubiquitously, they find the content of the image "offensive" for various reasons. Now, let's be clear -- these are images created with intent, deliberately put together because I had a particular idea or vision I wanted to explore. What's at stake here isn't the quality of the images; it's what the images are about.
If you listened to your detractors, if you follow the "safe path" of doing what others do for likes, faves and followers, how can you grow as a visionary, as a creative person, as a photographer?
Perhaps it's time to turn down the volume of what others say and, in the silence that follows, listen to your own voice, your own heart.
If, let's imagine, you lived in a society where you are completely accepted for who you are as a person, as an individual, as a creative soul, if there are no boundaries around what's deemed to be acceptable or non-acceptable when it comes to content, and you are not judged for what you create... what photographs would you make?
Not long ago, I embarked on a minor photographic portrait project. For want of a better name, I call it the "Bluey and Lantern" shoot. In a nutshell, I get friends to pose wearing a blue singlet and carrying a lantern, within which is placed a CTO gelled speedlight. The effect created is a portrait of a "working class" person holding a lantern bearing a yellow glow. Depending on the subject, the story which unfolds in each portrait, evidenced through the expression and pose of the subject, changes. It's a bit nonsensical and makes no real sense... it works primarily as a visual and, hey, it's always nice to try minor variations of the same theme. Just ask the classical musicians (Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky) and artists (Monet, who painted water lilies and the Rouen Cathedral ad nauseam). But I love doing it: it's a lot of fun and has pushed me a little further to be a bit more exact and expressive with my lighting and editing.
But... there are those who look at these pictures and wonder what they're all about. It's as if it's important for them to tease out some kind of authorial intent from the portraits (to be honest, I'm sure I can write some kind of artist's statement about them, perhaps about "the way these images are re-mythifications of classical art manifested in a visual adage that hearkens back to gothic fairy tales, replacing the vulnerable characters in these tales with tongue-in-cheek representations of Australian masculinity"... but I won't. 🙂 ). The truth is that these images were created because I had a fun visual in my head and decided to follow up on it and see what happens. More than a dozen images later, I'm still having fun creating them.
Perhaps it's time to not worry about having to explain your work. Perhaps it's time to just create the work, put it out there for what it's worth, and if the work connects with others, great! And if it doesn't, well, that's okay. And you can continue on with your next project. Something that excites you, sustains you, makes you happy -- as a creative person!
I think, as creatives, we are often too obsessed with the notion of "what will people think". Or, to translate this into the language of a social-media obsessed society, "will this picture get me 100 likes"? We self-surveil our creativity and create parameters and boundaries around what we create, in order to please others, making pictures that others will like or love or approve, pictures that won't rock the boat and won't allow us to explore the random and meandering nature of our thoughts and imagination. And if we continue in this manner, we won't be creating anything new, anything that we love deeply, meaningfully, truly.
In many respects, perhaps the way forward for us as creative photographers is to create a "cone of silence" around ourselves, where we can only hear our own thoughts, free of judgment and the noise of "critical commentators". We should give ourselves the permission to create within this environment, to conceive of themes, ideas, characters, moments and stories we want to tell, because it nourishes us, because it makes us excited and happy and energised. And no matter how outlandish, whacky, idiosyncratic, out of this world your ideas are, you should make photographs of it. There need not be a reason to it, no "method to its madness", apart from the sheer, unadulterated, unmonitored joy of creating it.
Shoot what you love.
Love what you shoot.
Bugger everything else.