I wrote recently about the importance of developing your own style. One of the worst things any creative professional can do is to get sucked into thinking about what work we should be doing or how we should be doing it. When was the last time you looked at someone else’s work and thought “Wow that’s really good. I really need to be doing something like that”? For me, it was earlier this morning. It’s totally normal and intuitive behavior.
We really need to stop doing it.
Push People Off The Fence
Comparing ourselves to others and allowing us to be influenced by other’s work (subconsciously or otherwise) is dangerous. Seeking out inspiration is fine, but once we cross the line of being inspired to thinking we need to emulate that work without putting our own stamp on, it is a slippery slope.
When someone looks at our work, they should form an opinion of it. An opinion can then lead to a connection. If they don't even form an opinion, why would we get hired for anything? Making your work look like someone else’s might help give us a degree of comfort around hitting certain technical goals, but it doesn't lead anywhere creatively.
Rihanna found herself at the center of a lawsuit raised by fashion photographer David LaChapelle a few years ago. He claimed she was directly appropriating his creative works in her music videos (see image below - LaChapelle's images are on the left, Rihanna's comparison shots from her videos on the right).
There is a certain comfort level we all feel with being perceived in the same realm as those we look up to or aspire to be like. The problem is that when our work looks like someone else’s, we just commoditize what we do even more and it’s a race to the bottom to find the person who can achieve ‘that look’ for the cheapest price possible.
We need to do the opposite. We need people to form strong opinions on our work. Strong opinions divide people and forces them into one of two camps – those that like our work, and those that don’t. We can start to build up a small camp of people who like our work and support what we do. It doesn't matter if it's photo or video. The point is that if you are creating some form of opinion on your work, you'll be resonating with someone, somewhere which mean you have the makings of a sustainable business model.
1.) Commercial Work Really Succeeds When You Have An Opinion
A few years back, Patrick Hall highlighted a discussion that was raging about whether Adidas was using too many lights in their latest campaign in it's shot (below) featuring soccer superstar Leo Messi.
The point of that discussion was not about whether there were too many lights used. That post was simply a commentary about where an aspect of commercial photography was headed, and what sort of reaction the advertisement was provoking as a result of a lighting technique.
If the success of a commercial campaign is to get people to sit up, take notice and start talking, then you could argue Adidas got 95% of the job done simply by bringing something to the table that left people with an opinion. The lighting and overall effect got people talking. Somewhere deep within the Adidas HQ marketing department, a light bulb must have gone off because in their latest video campaign, they've used lighting again as a key talking point to sell product.
This new video was shot with a Phantom at 1000 frames a second using a suit covered with LEDs then processed out to show light trails in smooth slow motion. Again, the application of light is the talking point here.
We don't need a Phantom or a Tron-like body suit to be noticed. Adidas has the budget to roll out all the toys but fundamentally they are building the concept on what raised a reaction last time, namely using lighting technique in innovative ways to get people to take notice. The key here is to recognize what you do to get people interested in your work and play to that strength.
2.) Trust Your Instinct: Follow Your Heart Not the Crowd
So how do you make people sit up and take notice in the first place? Focus on what is close to your heart.
This is very much a personal and subjective aspect of what we do but it’s critical. It goes back to how to define the style of images you've made before and where you see yourself going with that in mind. It goes back to what you are passionate about expressing in your imagery.
A great and recent example here is Justin Timberlake’s ‘Mirrors’ video.
'Mirrors' is a video tribute to his grandparents, who were married for 63 years before his grandfather passed away last year. What's surprising is how understated and touching it is and how strong the narrative of the story is. It was crowned the Best Music Video of 2013 at the MTV Music Video Awards last week. While Justin Timberlake is undeniably a hugely successful pop star, this video won because it was his very personal message that was dear to his heart and the message resonated with the judges.
Put your heart and soul into your work. It won’t touch everyone in the same way, but it will leave some people with a clear sense of what your purpose is, what you are all about, helping them to form an opinion over your work much more easily. Personally, the last year has been very much about following my heart and seeing where it will lead. Today, I'm working with people I really want to work with on projects that are exciting on both a professional and personal level. It's not easy to cast logic aside but sometimes it's necessary to ignore it for a while and listen to our instinct to get us to where we really want to be.
3.) Stop Thinking, Start Doing
The topic of opportunity and converting opportunity into paid work is something we'll broach in a separate post, but there is a lot to be said for seizing the bull by the horns and getting out there and just doing it.
Ashton Kutcher made a great point about finding opportunity when he accepted a Teen Choice awards a couple of weeks back.
His point that opportunities and hard work are inextricably intertwined is highly relevant. We only get to proceed to the next stepping stone through hard work, and the application of what we are doing into other areas. If we aren't doing the jobs we want, if we aren't shooting work that divides or provides opinion, we need to get out there and go and make it happen.
Shooting personal work is critical to this step, and Joey L set out very good reasons why this is so important (and how the pay off is it leads to you being hired for the work you really want to shoot). I ended up shooting personal project work as I spent a long period traveling last year and it gave me a much clearer idea of where I should be focusing my time and energy now. Personal work is imperative to growth, we have to make time for it and we have to realize how significant it is to finding out voice, developing our style and self expression.
It’s easy to talk and think about what we want to do, it’s much harder to do it, but the rewards for making the leap and doing it are immense, particularly when it’s work we are passionate about.
Leaving people sitting on the fence is bad for business. You've got to get up there and use your work to push them off, and that means pushing your creative boundaries. Not everyone will like your work, but that’s not a bad thing.
When your work is dividing opinion and is strong enough to do so, you're moving forward. Work that leaves people thinking about you or what you are doing will get you hired. Understanding why they like your work helps you understand your own qualities of style and self expression and provides direction. Cultivate this at every step and if it's not happening, take on personal projects to develop it. Shoot from the heart and be clear about the opinion you are trying to form as you go.
Sarah Greenough, who authored 'Looking In: The Americans by Robert Frank', summarizes the importance of Frank's change away from purely documenting what he saw, to a different intention - to simply expressing his opinion on America and Americans.
“Frank recognized that in the last few months not only had his style and approach changed, so too had his intention. No longer striving for poetic effect or even beautiful photographs he now openly sought to express his opinions about what he saw– his anger at the abuse of power, his suspicion of wealth and its privileges, his support for those less fortunate, and most of all, his fears about the kind of culture he saw emerging in the country.”
“America is an interesting country, but there is a lot that I do not like and that I would never accept. I am also trying to show this through my photos”.
We may not like or agree with an opinion, or even like it, but when you shoot with intent to show what you care about and how you care, our work is stronger because of it. Force people to get off the fence and they will sit up and take notice. Make time to shoot the work you want to be known (and booked) for because to do otherwise is not a viable option for a sustainable business. Just my opinion.
If you have thoughts on this article, I'd love to hear them in the comments below. Please feel free to share with the community and let me know what you thought.