By this point, some of you are probably wondering where I am going with this and, to be frank, I am not sure myself. Instead, I will let the words take their course. Hopefully.
The first thought that comes to mind is the importance of honesty and fidelity. If your work is not your own, but an amalgam of imitations, how can you take any real pride in it? I completely reject the idea of formulaic work designed to pander to current trends, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, trends come and go, but your work needs to endure these relatively short-lived cycles if it is to be credible in the long-run. Early on, I was discussing my photography with a German photojournalist, who commented that he liked it and that he could see my influences in a few photographers we both knew of and respected. He then went on to comment that this was very well and good, but if I wanted to ‘succeed’ I “needed to learn to shoot in the contemporary way and do some courses to teach me how”. I nearly choked on my own spit, but due to the fact that at the time he was successfully working photojournalist, I spent time questioning the wisdom of the direction I was going in. In the end this introspection ended when I simply recognised that I ‘did not like’ the sort of work he was referring to, did not relate to it and had no interest in shooting it. While this might sound an obvious conclusion, I was wondering if pursuing my own faithful path I was wasting my time and everyone else’s. Years later, when Russians and Royals was finished, I recounted this ‘guidance’ with some of my mentors and they were horrified. I knew I had made the right decision, but at the time I thought ‘who am I to stick to my guns when this accomplished photographer is telling me to take a different approach’. At this early point, I had not yet figured out that I was not producing, nor aiming to produce, commercially viable photojournalism.
On a similar note, I was interested to see how similar a great deal of work at the 2013 Les Rencontres d’Arles was, as shown by a particular influential institute. This institute, which is regarded as a cornerstone of Les Rencontres, had managed to show the work of ten photographers whose work could all have been intermingled without making any difference to the slideshow. It was glaringly obvious, to me and to my hosts, that photographers were clearly being churned out of various establishment with exactly the same brief on what ‘good photography’ should look like (today); cue naked man in the woods, log pile in a misty clearing, blurry scrunched up black and white faces, bizarre animals in the darkness…. They had ALL shot almost exactly the same series and had been subject to the same process a footballer might when learning the various techniques for a good corner kick.
My second point is that it is your only chance of standing out from the crowd. It’s a bit like people who think that shooting great landscape images starts with figuring out where Ansel Adams stood to take ‘X’ photograph and placing their tripod in the same spot. Fifty thousand people have had the same thought and even if, once in a while, the resultant image – side by side – is better than Saint Ansel’s, it doesn’t matter, because the shot is simply a refined version of an image Adams did 70 years prior. I heard from a mentor that there is a reasonably well known photographer (Mr Y) who was upset at being rejected by Magnum and commented to one of its members that he did not understand why, because his images were every bit as good as and indistinguishable from Henri Cartier-Bresson’s. The response is said to have been, ‘well this is very true, Mr Y. Your images do look exactly like HCB’s; however, while people will see your shots and say that they look just like HCB’s, nobody looks at HCBs and say ‘hey, they look just like Mr Y’s’. Quite.
By following your own path and being completely faithful to what you feel and do, you are taking a huge gamble. The formulaic approach may improve your odds of getting attention, but it will not amount to more than a bit of interest from the local paper. I am not knocking this and for many photography is just a casual hobby, but if you are aiming higher, it has to be your own work and you have no choice in the matter.
Doing all of this takes real guts. Its ambitious and some will envy, or even resent you, because you will be doing what they do not have the courage to do themselves. This makes me think of the very overweight man woman or gentleman jogging down the street, buttocks and breasts wobbling all over the place. One can either laugh at the superficial, or admire the serious determination and emotional strength it takes to go out jogging in full knowledge of the many outbursts of ridicule you will generate. I’m batting for the overweight runner every time and woe betides anyone who tries to poke fun at that runner in my company…. Have the courage, ignore the doubters and banish fear of failure. It’s a learning experience and a journey, which the armchair critics never make. Those who understand what it means – the sort of people you probably already have deep relationships with – will not let you down. These people, the people who matter, will be with you all the way. This is you and your work. It’s your chance to share what it is to be you and to be alive.
Another facet of the above ramblings is that worry is something that has to be controlled. You cannot flourish under a climate of fear and self-doubt. I have learned to worry less when it comes to my work and, while this may be interpreted by some as arrogance, it is not. It is simply a diminished concern with regard to what other people think until I am ready to hear it. The creative process needs that kind of isolation. When the work is finished, then I am ready to hear everything; good and bad.
So where have we arrived at? My sense is that this entire process is about recognising your true self and allowing your photography to be a vehicle for its expression and development. It stands to reason… and it is ironic that, if you embark upon this journey, you may not be the same you upon arrival 😉