Authenticity is the holy grail of being an artist. If you’ve managed to find your own authentic voice, you’ve achieved more than most photographers will ever do. I won't lie to you: it takes time to find your own authentic voice. Here are some steps that you can take to find yours.
There is nothing new in art; everything has been done before. At least, this is what we hear all the time and don’t think twice about it. I know photographers who have built a career on copying others' work and have no problem with it. One particular photographer from my old market is copying a girl from Ukraine and is using Lara Jade presets. She’s one of the biggest names in that market. While her work is nothing special or unique, she is a profitable photographer. Then again, as an artist, she is basically living in the shadow of Lara Jade and everyone else that she chose to copy.
Being fully transparent, I was also accused of copying others, and for good reason. At one point, my work flew too close to another photographer, and the market I was in claimed I was the second version of the photographer I was close to. This disappointed me but also prompted me to find something authentic and true to myself rather than trying to do a style that is profitable and sellable. The reality is, photography styles have few clients, but the clients that they do have are willing to pay what it takes to have their products shot in the style of the photographer they are hiring.
I dug deep into why I became a photographer in the first place. This is the part where I'd like to get personal with the reader and share my story of becoming a photographer. Without giving the cliché “from a very young age” start, I will be real. I did not like visual art, photography, or anything else from a young age. I was supposed to be an engineer, and after high school, I had two offers to go study at Imperial College London, as well as other offers for the top 10 engineering schools in the world.
What I did enjoy and find interesting from a young age was ballet and music. And I still do. Ballet, for me, was the perfect opportunity to escape to a different world that’s full of wonder. Fortunately, my family took me to ballet performances from the age of three. These ballet performances were one of the formative experiences to my photographic vision.
A while back, my work was called too theatrical. Instead of embracing this authentic part of my voice, I neglected it and tried to shoot like everyone else. It was only when I had a moment to reflect on my own work that I realized that theater is something that is a core element of my style. So, how do you find your own authentic voice in photography?
Analyze Your Early Influences
A significant number of people cite nostalgia as one of the foundational parts of their work. This is seen in both the visual trends, as well as subject choices of various photographers. Take something as silly as film presets and early digital cameras. The reason the film look is so popular is not that it was revered for the image quality it delivered but rather for the aesthetic it gave to the photos. The same can be said about the digital cameras and disposables. It’s not the image quality; it’s the nostalgia of a better time. Consider the formative experiences you had as a child; perhaps there's a specific color scheme that you like, or maybe you were exposed to a lot of baroque painting, or perhaps your childhood was difficult and you search for an escape. Anything and all can be a source of authenticity for you.
Don’t Look at Other Photographers
The biggest pitfall I see photographers make is looking and trying to copy other photographers' work. I made this mistake as well. The most common ones I see in people photography are copying Annie Leibovitz, Peter Lindbergh, and less so Helmut Newton. There are whole articles on how to light like Leibovitz, and how to edit like Leibovitz, etc. Canvas background businesses have sprung up all over the world because Leibovitz uses them. But have you stopped to consider what made Annie Leibovitz so authentic? Besides a style of photography she pioneered, her work can be regarded as documentary. She photographs people in their respective settings, rarely using light that looks unnatural. There’s a certain realism to her images. According to my analysis, this comes from her beginnings as a documentary photographer. She would have to photograph people appearing in front of her. There’s a lot you can learn about a photographer by analyzing their early works. Looking at other photographers will allow you to soak in the visual element of their style, and you will be known as a “cheaper version of” rather than your own authentic self. While there is money to be made doing this, it’s hardly anything that will make your photography respected and valued. But hey, they always need jacks of all trades. Looking at other photographers is a dangerous endeavor that will hinder your own creative voice.
Thinking beyond nostalgia, there is a lot to be said. Your style is unlikely to be simply nostalgic for older works. A style also comes from artistic influences beyond photography. One of the most eye-opening conversations I ever had was an interview with Platon. He referred to sculptors, designers, and architects as his influences. For example, it’s easy to see how the work of Rodin influenced Platon to photograph people in the same monumental style. Going to visual art exhibitions, theater, and other non-photography related events can boost your visual taste as well as open new directions for your work. Analyzing beyond admiring also goes a long way. Anytime you see artwork that speaks to you, stop and think why. Just looking cool won't cut it.
Finding your authentic voice is a never-ending process. There isn't a photographer in the world that has a style which stopped developing. There will always be a new influence that will further hone your visual language. Being sensitive to the influences you have will allow you to be more observant of the world around you and your photography to become more authentic.