Feeling lost on your photographic journey is common. So are being in a creative rut or having periods of low motivation. At times, we can all struggle to feel inspired to pick up the camera and get out there. A lack of direction, purpose, and reason can be the culprit for these aforementioned photography ailments. So, let’s dig into these questions and uncover the possible “whys” behind your keen need to capture.
1. Who Are You Shooting For?
Some people thrive off others and strive for a positive comment or a compliment from a peer or mentor. Others exist in their own, more introverted worlds and prefer to share with select people or maybe none at all. My partner and I are both photographers in our own ways, and I assure you, we could not be on more opposite ends of the scale when it comes to how we value our work, how we wish to share it, and the intent behind creating it. I am very much a person who thinks of the end product and gets excited to show it off. I thrive in the spotlight, and I want and need to be recognized. My, shall we say, better half prefers to keep his light under a bushel and creates from a very different place. He shoots for the process and has the camera and settings in mind, enjoying the ergonomics, using the machine to its full potential and thinking less about the aftermath and more about the whole experience.
So, the question here is: do you shoot for you or do you shoot for others? Obviously, we can blur the lines and do both, but it’s good to have a rough idea of the why around the act of your photography and who you create for. Self-awareness around one's work allows for evaluation, and that lends itself to evolution and growth, which is something we all need in order to stay fresh and relevant in the photography space.
2. What’s Your End Game or Goal?
Human beings naturally work towards achieving something. When we don’t, we become complacent, demotivated, and bored. This is true of creatives as well, and I think a photographer without purpose is a lost one. So, let’s get you found! Above, we discussed who you are shooting for. Now, I’m asking you why you are shooting?
Often, a photo project can give you a sense of direction and an end point to work towards. This doesn’t have to be a Robert Frank type project where you shoot 27,000 photos over the span of a few years and then narrow it down to 83 (god knows how he did that.) Your answer can be simple and with low stakes, like: "photography is my hobby. I enjoy it. It gets me out of the house, and I love the community aspect." Or, your answer might be the opposite: "I am striving to create a meaningful body of work that I would like to see exhibited one day." It can be anywhere in between these two as well. This isn’t about being put in a box but more so defining where you are at right now in your work and where your energy is best spent.
Thinking about what you want in the long term or where you would like to see yourself in a few years’ time could answer this for you. For me, being shown in a gallery or winning a competition has never been high on the list, as it doesn’t really align with my style of photography or match my personality. However, I have dreams of becoming a full-time content creator in the photography niche. My “why” is so different than someone else wanting to get their work published, or aiming to become a professional portrait or wedding photographer. These are exciting questions to ponder, as it really invites you to envisage your dream scenario when it comes to succeeding in the realm of photography. Making a list, or looking at the artists you admire, and why that is are helpful ways of uncovering your desires.
3. Are You Creating the Same Work Over and Over?
This is a difficult one. Everyone harps on about finding your style, and us photographers are forever hoping our work has a certain unique quality to it that stands out and is definable to just us. This is something that takes a long time to cultivate or other times, seems to just evolve naturally within an artist's work without really thinking or trying. We are all jealous of the latter, that’s for sure. So, how do you know when your work has a consistent style and when your work is just repeating itself?
Well, it’s a hard question to definitively answer, as you, the photographer, are the only one that really knows that. The reality is someone will always think your work is repetitive or derivative or simply not like it. But that’s the thing about art: like beauty, it is subjective, and there is a huge element to it that exists only within the artist themselves. When you are truly content and proud of your work it won’t really matter what others say or don’t say. You know deep down if your work is just a direct recreation of something you saw online or if it’s something you chose and were drawn to for authentic reasons.
Only you can look at your work, study your process, and decide this. Since I’m asking you to get so self-reflective here, I will jump in and publicly reflect on myself, so we are even. I am a huge fan of the color red, and it features consistently in my photography. I’m aware that it comes from certain films I have seen in my formative years, namely Paris Texas, and also photographers like William Eggelston and Ren Hang who used this color extensively in their imagery. I try my hardest to use that as inspiration rather than simply just trying to recreate their amazing photographs, and obviously sometimes it reeks of derivative intent because, well, everyone does that sometimes, and that’s okay. Overall, I am happy with the red theme in my work and think it defines my style well, but I certainly know where it came from and am conscious of that when making images.
On the other side of the coin, I am partial to a classic car shot on film, probably the biggest trope of the last few years in analog photography, and that is okay in my books. I am not the photography police here to fine you for another corner shot of a headlight on a classic American vehicle. Rather, I am here to raise the question of stagnant repetitive work and when to check yourself before you repeat yourself again.
If you are happy doing this, then, by all means, just go for it. This isn’t an audit on your photography or choice of subject. I do, however, think it’s important to ask yourself when presented with these highly photograph-able moments and scenes, or cliches, if you will: "why am I shooting this and what is it adding or achieving?" Now, you might say: "um, shut up, Lucy. I don’t need to add or achieve because I am just having fun and taking some photos of what looks pleasing to me." To that I say: well done and go forth. The whole point of this article was to get you thinking about why, how, and for whom you are making work, and who better than for yourself.
I really want to stand out as a person and a photographer, so I like to be aware and think before I fire the shutter, especially with film. My inner dialogue is always asking the question: "do I really need this shot and why am I taking it?"
4. Where Do You Need Improvement?
Tyler Durden once said that self-improvement is masturbation. As much as I love the movie Fight Club, I’m afraid Tyler/Brad Pitt is wrong on this one. Developing oneself, especially in an area of passion and interest, usually comes fairly easily, but there will always be an aspect of photography that you aren't so super keen on learning about. We can’t have all our fingers in all the photography pies, now can we? I’m not asking you to either, but I do think there is always an area in which we can improve, and this doesn’t have to be technical.
Maybe you struggle to talk about or critique your own work? This is a highly valuable skill that could help you to grow and flourish as an artist. Up-skilling or seeking advice in that arena may just help you improve and experience a breakthrough in an otherwise stagnant lull. Are you kind of lazy with your social media and possibly leaving valuable connections on the table? Improving your online presence could be the much needed push to photograph more regularly, get more clients, or find a new photo buddy in your area.
Improvement doesn’t have to be technical or take a linear path. Everything has a knock on effect and often improvement in any area of our lives, be it photography or not, will spill over into the others. Now is such a great time to learn too. YouTube is awash with free tutorials, and other learning platforms are abundant if you want to invest in yourself and your photography. After all, you’re worth it!
5. Are You Burnt Out With Your Photography?
With so much access to everything nowadays, it’s easy to burn out on a topic. I think we all experienced this in the pandemic with constant updates and rising anxiety around reading the news hourly. Sometimes, you have to switch off, and photography is no exception. I have a YouTube channel, podcast, newsletter, and this writing gig, all centered around photography. I love it, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes, the last thing I want to do is talk, see, or even take photos. It’s freeing sometimes to go out without a camera in my hand, even though I know there are two or three in the glove box because I’m a total photo junkie, and let my eyes rest and my mind wander outside the realm of “that’s a great composition over there. Hang on, I’ll be right back”.
You can have too much of a good thing, and checking in to make sure your photography isn’t suffering from too much time together could be the answer to a creative rut or low motivation. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I know when I have some time away from photography I suddenly have new ideas and concepts that I’m excited to try out next time I pick up a camera. It’s worth mentioning that if photography is your job in any capacity, it can be easy to lose it as a personal interest as well, which is why diversifying your hobbies or taking breaks can reinvigorate you for your future photography adventures.
I hope these questions and musings have helped you to look within and be surprised at what you find. A community can be really helpful in times of questioning one's ability and purpose, so I invite you to comment below for a continued conversation.