Sometimes, to grow as a photographer, you have to take two steps back to go three steps forward.
I’ll start today’s article by repeating a quote by Les Brown. Okay, “repeat” might be a strong word. I don’t remember the speech word by word, so I may butcher it, but I think you’ll get the gist. He was speaking about progress in life and how, when it comes to excelling at your chosen profession, we are often our own worst enemies. It’s not that we lack talent or hard work. Rather, we hold ourselves back. Not due to lack of desire, but due to an excess of fear. Many of us have reached a 9 out of 10 in our career aspirations. We are almost there, whatever “there” means for you. We are oh so close. But getting “there” requires us to take a big risk, to lay everything that we’ve accomplished so far on the line, in order to take that final step that will allow us to reach the pinnacle. That next leap is right there, but we are so afraid that, by taking that leap, we will lose our status as a 9 and risk slipping back down to an 8 or a 7. So, rather than risk that mild step back, we instead play it safe and focus on maintaining our position. It’s not that this leads us to be unsuccessful. 9 out of 10 ain’t bad. But with just a little bit of risk, with pushing it just a little bit further, we have it in us to reach even higher.
I warned you that I wasn’t going to get the quote exactly right, but I’m sure you can see the connection. The journey of a career in photography is a treacherous one. Levels one through five are pretty smooth sailing. This is the point where you are first falling in love with the craft and, little bit by little bit, gaining the technical skills to start taking photography seriously either as a career or as a main creative outlet. Not to be too negative, but, in many ways, this early half of your journey is more than likely also going to be the most fun. Even if you’ve done a job here or there, it’s not yet likely that you have to depend on photography to make a living. You’re probably taking on a number of different types of jobs, still working out where you fit into the grand scheme of things. Your portfolio is growing by leaps and bounds at this point due to simple mathematics. If you start with zero in your portfolio, then every time you add a new skill set or a new type of shot, it can feel like you’ve made a major breakthrough. By the time you reach the level 5 to level 10 range, you will have already arrived there with a pretty deep bench of images, experiences, and skillsets. By this point, it’s less about proving that you can take a technically proficient photograph and more about finding your artistic voice and figuring out what differentiates you from an incredibly competitive market.
In order to stand out in an oversaturated marketplace, you have to bring something unique to the table. And as much as it would be nice to reach that goal simply by purchasing the best camera or watching every YouTube tutorial ever made to be able to imitate and photographic technique, at the end of the day, that special thing that will make your work stand out above the others will have very little to do with specific aspects of your craft and everything to do with specific aspects of your character. You have to dig deep to find what makes you unique. Anybody can learn how to properly expose flash or how to adequately operate a camera. But what absolutely no one can emulate are your own personal particular lived experiences. You can reverse-engineer pretty much any image ever created from a technical standpoint. But you can’t walk a mile in the artist’s shoes. At least not literally. And it is the mileage on those shoes which gives that artist their own very unique view of seeing the world.
So how do you know what’s buried deep inside of you and how it relates to your photography? Well, this is the reason why I said that level 1 through level 5 is a lot more fun than 5 to 10. The first half of your journey is all about learning to see through a camera. The second half is all about learning to have the camera see through you. It’s as much a psychological journey into the self-analysis as it is a matter of learning new technical tricks. It’s scary. It’s not always predictable. And it’s really, really hard work.
Of course, what makes the journey to find oneself in one’s art so vexing is not only that truly understanding ourselves is much harder than it sounds. But layered on top of that frustration is the fact that the definitive version of who we are, no matter how hard we work to find it, is a moving target. Until the day they come to carry us out boots first, we all have the capacity to grow as human beings. We all have the capacity to change for the better, sometimes for the worst. Unless we barricade ourselves in a cave outside of society, it’s likely that we will all continue to encounter new experiences. These new experiences will continue to inform who we are as human beings and how we see the world. As artists, this change in perception will continue to add layers to the way we envision our art. There will be subtle shifts in what we consider to be good artistically. There will be shifts in the stories we want to tell and the concepts we want to translate to an audience. In short, we change. And so does the art we create.
But how can you afford to change when you’ve worked so hard to get to where you are? You’ve put in the technical hours in levels 1 through 5. You’ve done the deep self-analysis required to differentiate yourself from the market and have taken your work to an extremely high level of quality in 5 through 9. Your clients know you. They know your work. They know that when they come to you they will get a consistent product time and time again. This consistency is one of the main reasons they have been hiring you repeatedly for the last decade.
But, if you’re being honest to yourself, you start to realize that you aren’t the same person you were a decade ago. Sure, you can continue to pump out this type of work in your sleep. And, because you did the hard interior work beforehand, it’s not that the work you are currently creating doesn’t speak to you. You love your work. You love your clients. You love your life. Yet, still, you want something more. You’ve reached level nine, but deep inside you know there’s a level ten inside of you just waiting to emerge. The only problem is that you fear exploring the type of concepts required to make the journey might take you too far adrift and confuse your customer base. What will they say about you? Will you ruin your reputation for consistency with a single Instagram post? Will those clients who have been dutifully paying you all these years to take exquisite food photography think that you have lost your mind when you try your hand at a fashion shoot?
Once you have taken on photography as an occupation, growing as an artist ceases to be nearly as simple as it sounds. You’ve worked hard to reach a point where you have clients fully aware of your every single step. But, because of that reputation, your next step now takes on a seemingly dire significance. If you get it wrong, might you open the door to the competition and risk bumping yourself down a level? It’s a real concern.
But ask yourself this question. Are you the type of person willing to rest on your laurels and accept your current creative level as a permanent fact? Just happy to have achieved a certain level and content to hold on to your position. Or did you become an artist at least partly because it is a profession that allows you to constantly grow and develop and the only real limits to your success are the limits of your imagination?
Despite my flowery word choice, I don’t want to give you the impression that either option is easy or that there is a definitive answer for everyone. All of our circumstances are different. We have different ambitions, different specialties, and different financial situations. There is no one size fits all response to a question as big as this.
But one thing that is beyond debate is the simple fact that in order to grow, you have to continually seek out new experiences. You have to push yourself beyond your limits. Otherwise, they will continue to limit you. Of course, there are a million and one different ways to push those limits. Just because you’re a food photographer who wants to explore fashion doesn’t mean that you have to fire all your clients overnight, replace all the food images in your portfolio with fashion images, and position a placard above your workspace that proudly proclaims “Steak is dead.” Even if you do want to make that shift, you will want to come up with some sort of logical transition plan.
And exploring new layers of creativity doesn’t always have to be so drastic. Perhaps you slowly bleed a fashion image into your social media feed on an occasional basis to test the waters. Perhaps you start to realize that people are starting to dig your fashion work even more than your food work. Perhaps eventually the balance of food versus fashion clients starts to tip in the latter direction.
Or perhaps, you explore a new type of work without any intention of showing it at all. Last year, during the height of the quarantine, I launched a self-portrait series. I don’t consider myself to be a self-portrait artist, but when one is state-mandated to spend so much time alone at home, my options were somewhat limited. Though I have no intention of making a career change, the simple practice of creating these daily self portrait shoots allowed me to explore different artistic approaches than I ever get the opportunity to do with my actual clients. Due both to my increasingly limited athletic ability and my inability to sync up the camera self-timer with my flashes and my less than a balletic attempt at a jump lunge, my self-portraits were necessarily devoid of the same athletic dynamism I bring to my work in fitness and activewear advertising. Robbed of my usual models and my usual tricks, I had to find new ways to create interesting images with a less interesting subject.
The result was a rather extensive fine art series of portraits that went on to win several awards and exhibitions. I even dared to show some of the work to my existing clients. I knew that self-portraits of myself were a far spell from the dynamic action shots they pay me to produce. But, given the fact that my clients were also confined to their homes, for the most part, it seemed like the best possible time to try something new. The end result was a deepening of my relationship with my clients, as I allowed them a greater window into me as an artist, as well as a chance to prove that I can be considered for various other projects those clients might assign that previously they may not have thought of me for. This is, of course, only a limited example. But it is an example of how pushing my own limits allowed me to both improve my technical craft and find a deeper understanding of what it is that I wanted to say as an artist. This deeper understanding leads to deeper and more personal work, whether I’m trying something new or applying that deeper understanding to my existing work.
Continuing to climb levels as an artist isn’t necessarily about throwing out the old altogether. It is about giving yourself room to grow. It is about not being so afraid to lose your place in the pecking order that you accidentally end up denying yourself the opportunity to reach even higher. There is a risk of reaching for more. But there is just as big a risk at staying stagnant. So, as you continue to grow as a person, allow that growth to inform your growth as an artist. You never know how far a little change might take you.