How do you make your photography more meaningful, moving and unique?
Lately, I’ve been fascinated with the idea that our motivations significantly influence the quality of photography we create.
This sentiment is expressed particularly well in The Foutainhead by Ayn Rand. The character is an architect, rather than a photographer, though his lessons apply to any artist who wants to create great work:
“Nothing can be reasonable or beautiful unless it’s made by one central idea, and the idea sets every detail. A building is alive, like a man. Its integrity is to follow its own truth, its one single theme, and to serve its own single purpose.”
Pleasing Everyone Doesn’t Work
In the novel, the hero makes a strong point that, when artists attempt to fulfil on competing needs they tend to create uninspiring, soul-less compromises.
In the context of architecture it might look like this:
- A building gets an impressive facade, because the owners want to impress the neighbours.
- It adheres to rules of traditional architecture, because that’s what the architect’s boss wants.
- It features a striking look, because the architect knows its a good way to attract some publicity to himself.
- Its materials are dictated by the budget, rather than their suitability for the task.
And so on.
The hero’s point is that the most beautiful building is one which follows a single, unyielding purpose: to create most liveable space for the people who will inhabit it.
Why Do We Take Photos?
I think as photographers, we often fell into the same trap. We are either unconscious to our motives, or we consciously lose focus because we try to satisfy too many ends.
In doing so, we cease creating art and start creating generic commodities.
What Drives Us?
I’ve been paying a lot of attention lately to what drives me and how it affects the photography I create.
For me personally, I notice that photography serves as a means to these ends:
- A way to escape from something.
- A way to get approval.
- A way to challenge myself.
- A way to make a difference.
Neither one of them are right or wrong, better or worse. But some are more conducive to a more powerful focus. Which, in turn, brings about stronger results.
Let’s say I have a day off and I decide to spend it taking photos. Where do I go? What do I photograph? Who do I show the photos to?
If I approach the day from a space of needing approval, for example, then my focus will be extremely broad. Anyone or anything which gives me recognition will satisfy that need.
I am free go take snaps of everything from the Opera House to my neighbour’s cat, and show off what I did to my friends, family, other photographers on online forums and so on.
However, if I consciously decide to make this day about making a difference to someone, then my focus narrows significantly.
I can still go take a photo of the Opera House, for example. But a pretty picture, which has also been taken by millions of people, won’t do now.
If I’m going to hold myself to account and really make this day about making a difference to someone through my photography, I’ll need to dig much deeper.
I’ll probably look at the issues surrounding it today (art vs politics, need for funding and redevelopment, modern society vs art, budget cuts, people who make it all work) and attempt to take photos which tell those stories in a powerful way.
My audience would also be much more narrow – I’ll have to connect with people who have a need for such photos and offer it to them as a gift.
In the end, 99.999% people in the world would never see, or appreciate those photos. But those who do, because they really have an interest in the story I’ve told, will be touched forever.
Default Isn’t Good Enough
If left to our own devices, our brain will pick a purpose for us, depending on the wiring from our past.
Because we’re human, most of the time we default to the “escape” and “get approval” kind of space. Unfortunately, that headspace gives rise to generic kind of results.
Escape is a powerful motivator, but it’s vague. You can escape anywhere, doing just about anything you’re trying to escape from.
Desire for approval is even more powerful, but it comes hand in hand with a fear of disapproval, which makes it difficult to say something original.
I find that I produce best photography when I consciously come from “challenge myself” or “make a difference” type of mindsets.
Purpose Is Changeable
We are in control of our motives – not the other way around. Which means we’re entirely in control of the level of photography we produce.
The first step is awareness. Moment by moment, we can ask ourselves – what’s driving me now? What end am I serving?
The second step is change. If we discover that we’re serving too many masters, we can change our purpose to one which gives us a more powerful focus.
So, what’s your photography assignment for today? And, more importantly, why?