I’ve always been jealous of people who know where they’re headed. They’re like greyhounds chasing a rabbit, absolutely certain of what they were put on this earth to do, and doggedly (pun intended) pursuing their purpose. When I first picked up a camera, I took photographs of everything. Bees, power lines, babies, weddings, families, anything I could point a lens at became my subject. It didn’t take long before I had people asking me to photograph them, and soon enough I was dragging families through shrubs and fields looking for that perfect outdoor shot. I was posing brides and grooms in the golden rays of sunset and watching them cry during their reveal slideshows. I was helping women feel sexy and empowered. People were paying me to capture memories for them, and they were delighted with their photographs, so why did I feel so bored and unfulfilled? It took me almost two years to realize the truth: I wasn’t interested in capturing memories.
Some photographers build their entire careers on their passion for helping people document their lives. They might pose their subjects or shoot candids, choose strobes or natural sunlight, but the idea of “capturing” remains the same. Many photographers will make this their selling point; they capture memories and immortalize moments. As a photographer who is also a mother, I value this. I want my family documented, and I want my kids to look back through photo albums of our life. However, this approach did nothing to fulfill the creative side of me that was dying inside at producing the same kinds of images over and over. That was when the truth became apparent. I didn’t want to capture, I wanted to create.
Capture versus creation has become a defining dynamic for me, one that is even now changing how I approach my art and my business, but it didn’t occur to me until recently that there may be other photographers who fell into a genre and don’t know why they aren’t happy. They may not know why boredom is creeping in and passion is dying out. The excitement of getting a good shot has matured, with skill, into the complacency of knowing the work will be good, but the joy is gone. When I started teaching, I made the distinction to my students, and I want to make it now. Any avenue in photography that fulfills you is valuable. Candid wedding photography is an art. Posed family portraits are beautiful. But if you are avoiding post-processing because you feel indifferent about even looking at the images you took during your last session, if you feel no spark of excitement when planning your next session, then it might be time to consider whether you are approaching your work with the right philosophy.
A camera is a tool, like a paintbrush, that can be used to create just as easily as to record. If you feel like you’re producing the same old tropes, then I would encourage you to consider taking a step back and asking yourself why you are a photographer. Don’t respond quickly with what you think is the proper answer. Take time to contemplate why you want to press that shutter. What makes you feel the most excited, the most fulfilled? There is no harm or virtue in loving the act of photography simply for itself, but anyone in marketing knows this truth: people don’t buy things, they buy what things do for them. A handbag isn’t just a piece of leather or fabric with a handle, it’s a status symbol. A writer doesn’t write just because words look nice, but because we want to communicate. As a photographer, if you find yourself feeling unfulfilled, maybe you’re chasing the wrong goal.
Having come to this conclusion myself is difficult because it means that I spent years walking down the wrong path. I don’t regret giving people records of their precious memories, and I certainly learned skills that have been and will continue to be valuable to me as I pursue the next stage of my career, but there is a part of me that will always wonder where I would be at now if I figured this out earlier. What would my career look like now if I had begun it, all those years ago, knowing why photography was valuable to me?
If fashion has become cold and every shoot feels like a chore, maybe you should be photographing the joy of a mother looking at her newborn with adoring eyes. If taking family portraits feels like cranking out copies on a conveyer belt, maybe you should be taking all those wild ideas inside your head and turning them into surreal artwork. If you feel like your passion has dwindled, then please do some soul searching. Don’t be content to stay where you’re at just because that is where you happen to be. I’m not saying quit your job today and ride off into the wild blue yonder, but take some time to understand yourself and figure out why photography means something to you. Don’t spend so long on the wrong road that you tire out and give up. Make sure your feet are on the right path, and if they’re not, then turn around and get moving in the right direction.
Realizing that you’re pointed in the wrong direction is scary, but it doesn’t mean you’re trapped. You can move toward fulfillment by slow degrees if you need to. Start creating passion projects on the side when you have the time. Build yourself a portfolio of new work that makes you proud. Phase out the old stuff that didn’t make you happy, or at least stop openly advertising it, and chase down your new, ideal client with all your strength. Marketing will get easier because your joy will permeate everything you do, and your passion will spill over into your conversations. Once you rest solidly in who you are and what makes you tick as a photographer, you’ll have placed a cornerstone for a solid foundation.
So the question is: do you want to capture or create?