Ok, so I promised myself no more ‘binge posting’. No more posting 5 times a week and then nothing for a month. But rules, like the rule of thirds in photography, are meant to be broken as long as you break them well. So, I’m breaking my own rule about only one post per week…. because I just have to.
My reason for breaking my own (newly legislated) rule is inspiration. You know – you just read or saw something and it got the thoughts and creative juices going and so now you just HAVE to say something or you’ll burst! It’s like being in grade school and the teacher asks a question and it’s one of the few that you know the answer to and so you’re just bouncing up and down in your chair, shoving your hand in the air thinking, “pick me, pick me!” It’s that kind of ‘I’ve just gotta share’ moments.
Where was I? Oh yes, back to inspiration. I follow David du Chemin’s blog. If you don’t know David, you should. He’s an incredible photographer. Check out his photo website. Has made a career out of humanitarian photography. Quoting from his blog, here’s how he describes himself: “David duChemin is a world & humanitarian photographer, best-selling author, and international workshop leader. David uses his powers for good and not for evil.” How can you not love a photographer who describes himself as one who uses his powers for good and not evil? Ok, I’m digressing… Back to my point. Not only is David a fantastic photographer, he is also deeply passionate and philosophical about his photography – two thing I admire and that are extremely important to me – so David’s perspectives often resonate with me…. sometimes to the point where I buzz… like today.
David’s blog post today is short and sweet and hits me to my core. It tweaks a nerve in me. In a good way, though. He’s posted on a topic that (as I posted on his blog today) I have a real ‘bee in my bonnet’ about. It’s about originality. ORIGINALITY. His point is that “There is much talk in artsy circles about being “original”.” As he says, what exactly does ‘being original’ mean anyway? And why should we be so hung up on it? Don’t sweat it so much. Just do what you do. I love his statement, “If you aim for originality you may produce work that is indeed original. It’ll be unlike anything else, including you.” Well said, bro!
So why does David’s post today make me buzz? Because it’s something I feel so strongly about, myself. I think pressure to be ‘original’ is nothing but belly-button lint. Fluff. You know, like the stuff you’re supposed to clean out of your dryer filter once a week and don’t. It’s soft and lacks substance. I hear it all the time and I’m SO sick of hearing it. Why? Because firstly, it’s an exercise in futility, in my opinion. Secondly, it puts undue pressure on photographers, particularly new photographers who are just starting out and are just starting to develop their vision. I think it can derail people by driving them off into a fruitless pursuit. What is a fruitful pursuit is finding your own vision and style – something that will drive your photographic passion and help your photography evolve. I’ve been doing photography long enough that I have confidence in what I do. Am I saying my images are so great that they should be hanging on every wall in the country? Absolutely not! What I’m saying is that I have confidence in my photography and I shoot what makes me happy. I shoot what makes me buzz. I shoot what gives me that ‘high’ when I’m looking through the viewfinder. And I feel very, very strongly that, that is all you should be striving for – making the very best photos you can (technically) and shooting what your heart tells you to shoot. The rest will fall into place after that. If you shoot to please someone else, it will soon turn into nothing but soul-sucking drudgery.
I remember when I joined my first camera club in New Zealand. It was great. Being with like-minded people once a week. Folks passionate about photography. The club has a lot of competitions and I was encouraged to submit images for competitions because I was told it’s a great way to get feedback and consequently, to improve your photography. And they were right! I did compete. And I did improve. Immensely. I started to get acceptances and then, some honours. As these accolades started to accumulate, I caught even more of a ‘bug’ for competing. And then I took some photography courses, including one of Freeman Patterson’s workshops. And I really started to develop my own vision. My own ‘feel’ for the kinds of images that I really loved making. Freeman’s course forced me outside my comfort zone. Excellent! Just what I needed. So I started shooting more of those images – the ones that made me buzz. I had a blast! I was on cloud 9. And then I started entering them in competitions. No honours. Huh? The acceptances started to dwindle. Eh? And my confidence started to dwindle too. But then I had a long, hard look at my images as well as the ones getting honours in our club competitions. And it finally clicked. The images getting honours (at least back then) seemed to conform to a certain style. Sure, technically they were very good. And some of them made me go, “WOW!”. But a lot of them made me shrug my shoulders and think, “enh….”. Let’s be clear here. I am not criticizing my colleagues images or their approach to making images. Not at all! There are a lot of talented people in that club. What I’m saying here is that I broke out of the mold and did what made me happy. I had a choice. Either shoot the stuff that tickled my brain or shoot the stuff that the judges liked. I chose the former, not the latter. I chose to be true to myself. I chose to do what I loved to do, rather than get more paper certificates to stuff in my drawer. And looking back, it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
So what does this have to do with originality? I think sometimes we get so hung up on pleasing other people or trying to fit into the latest fad or buzz word that we forget why we make images. In my opinion (ya, I know… who asked. Aren’t blogs great? ;o) ) the originality is already there! As I mentioned in my post (aka rant) on David’s blog… each of us is unique – our DNA, our personalities, our experiences and our perspectives on life. Why do we need to TRY to be original? We already are!
The key to ‘originality’ is to just do what comes naturally to you. Make the images that tickle your brain. As you shoot and accumulate more and more experience under your belt, you will start to see your ‘style’ develop. The hallmark of an experienced and confident photographer is that their ‘style’ emerges. People can look at your image and say, “Hey, that must be a Shelley Ball image – sure looks like one of hers” (by the way, I’m still working on that, but I’m getting there). When you’ve achieved this, you know you were being true to yourself the whole time- shooting what makes you tick. Will your style always be the same? Nope, not entirely. Style is fluid, dynamic, not static. You’re interests will shift. But there will still be core elements that stay with your photography throughout your life. And so it should be – the ebb and flow of interests, foci, experiences, moods, philosophy, periods of your life….. they are all reflected in your photography, whether or not you are aware of it.
One of the arguments that I’ve heard, in favour of ‘originality’ is that, well, in the super saturated and competitive photography environment that we have today, you need to make yourself stand out. You have to be original. Otherwise you’re just like the other 1,297,301 photographers around the globe and nobody will buy your prints for their wall or hire you to shoot commercial work or portraits or whatever and you’ll starve and you’ll send up working at a place that has you saying, “would you like fries with that?”. My response… BULL! Shoot was you love, fuel your passion and you will find a way to make it work, to make a living at it, if that’s what you want. As I said earlier, if you’re so concerned about bringing in dollars that you’re willing to sell your soul to the devil and do nothing but shoot in a style that someone else wants or… if you’re so bent on finding your ‘originality’ that you’re forcing it and making images that are not what you want to make, then you will be stuck in a hollow, soul-sucking endeavor. Take your pick. Shoot what you love to shoot and find a way to make it work or force yourself to be someone you’re not. I know which one I’m sticking with! It’s a bit like that movie, Field of Dreams – “if you build it, they will come”. I think photography is the same. Do what you love, shoot images that come from the heart. Be true to your inner vision, and the successes will follow. That doesn’t mean you become a couch potato and wait for success to fall into your lap. Nooooo…. you work your butt off! But you stay true to yourself. And as your style develops you will find a way to set yourself apart from the hordes of other photographers, not in shooting the way clients want, but in the way you market your images and your style. There’s a big difference between gearing your photography business toward a niche market or marketing yourself in a way that stands out vs. forcing your images to be ‘original’.
Ok, I’ll end my rant. Enough said. But I feel a whole lot better now that I got that out! Wew! There aren’t a huge number of things that ‘get my goat’, but the ‘originality’ thing definitely does. And I hate the effects it can have on inexperienced and emerging photographers. I think it can totally derail their path to success and happiness.
Life’s short. Do what you love to do. Do what feeds your soul. You’ll never regret it!
Here are a few of my images that I think define my my style. My style is still evolving, but I enjoy what I do and I’m always challenging myself and pushing myself in a forward direction.