Sometimes, you can find great advice for photographers in unexpected places. I found that writers and photographers share a sizable overlap in an area that's famously addressed in writing, but a little less so in photography.
When you embark on any sort of creative endeavor, hobby or otherwise, you invest some of you in that work. It might be your vision, your experiences, or your ideas, but something of yours — often many things — is going into that work. Every shoot I conduct, I am incorporating things I've seen and enjoyed, whether consciously or not. You really have no choice; that plastic memory box you aim and prod will only do what you tell it, so you need ideas. This can lead to fantastic work filled with inspiration, or unfortunately, it can lead to well-intentioned near misses, or a jumble of concepts that didn't quite gel. The difficulty with the latter is you may have mentally invested a lot in a losing horse and taking it out back and shooting it is unpalatable.
Kill Your Darlings
Stephen King's book "On Writing" is a part memoir, part tome of knowledge on being a writer, which makes it an easy read. In this book, he reminded me of a quote I hadn't heard in over a decade, one by William Faulkner: "In writing, you must kill all your darlings." King unpacked it a little further — but only a little — by saying: "Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler's heart, kill your darlings." What do they mean by killing your darlings? What are your darlings?
Well, as a writer, your darlings can be anything from a turn of phrase through to an entire essay or chapter that you just love. However, they may not work well for what they were originally intended, but you don't care; they're staying put. As a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, I've had to make a conscious effort to combat my defensive nature when it comes to my darlings, but I soon realized that writers aren't the only people with darlings; so are photographers.
What Are a Photographer's Darlings?
Like writers, us photographers create something from scratch, and the results are multifaceted. It's easy, therefore, to create images you love but that don't serve your purpose. It might be an image you love because it's technical perfection, or it's a compositional masterpiece, or it's just a stunning image you're proud of that doesn't fit the brief or your objective, but you love it anyway. These images, the ones that don't work for the intended purpose, but are great images, are a photographer's darlings. I'm not suggesting you delete them; I'm suggesting they ought not to make the final cut. That final cut could be for a multitude of things.
One area I've always wrestled with is the selection of final images for a client, where you have to make sure the images tick all the boxes and no darlings sneak through the gaps just because you love them. It happens easily, and we all do this, but it doesn't serve the greater goal. For the good of the project, kill those darlings and keep your work refined and on target. I used to believe that a wider selection gave my client more of a choice, but it's often your job to make the creative selections, as it was in my case. Rather than delivering all sorts of different images of different styles, I started to hone collections so that the images looked to be related to one another, and my final product was much improved by this.
Our portfolios are the most obvious area where darlings ought to be slain. Portfolios are the business equivalent of a Tinder profile: you show the best of you, you summarize yourself in the most flattering light, and you open yourself up to contact. Your portfolio must be refined, synergistic, and strong in direction. A loose portfolio with all sorts of images you're proud of doesn't serve your goal of being hired for a particular area, or save that, even being known for it. If there are images in your portfolio that aren't relevant to what you're trying to project as a photographer or what you want to achieve, they need to get the chop. A wedding photographer's portfolio isn't going to be as appealing if there are some fantastic images of water buffalo in Southeast Asia among the brides. Print that image large for your house — enjoy it — but don't let that darling creep anywhere it doesn't belong.
If you have no interest in being seen as a certain type of photographer, being known for a particular brand of shots, or being hired by clients, then you're free; the darlings can live. Just remember if that mindset ever changes, if your goals ever shift, your darlings may have to be executed.
It's easy to get attached to the images we create and bloat projects, assignments, photo series, and even our portfolios with photographs we love, but that don't serve a purpose. These surplus images are your darlings and can have a detrimental effect on your chances of being hired, the success of a job, or the sort of photographer you are perceived to be. So, enjoy those images privately, but kill those darlings publicly.
Where have you had to kill your darlings? Do you struggle to narrow down a selection of images for a client? Is your portfolio too diverse? Do you need to kill these darlings at all, or am I mistaken? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.