The path of the photographer and artist are unique ones in that very few other professions ask workers to define themselves by themselves. Most industries come with their own borrowed attributes that all constituents can share in. Airline pilots don’t have to each define their style of flying an airplane. We don’t expect each mechanic to bring something entirely unique to car repair.
It is both the photographer’s curse as well as our privilege to be able to ask ourselves the kinds of deep questions that make us each unique, but can also drive us insane.
In this article, I will tackle what I see as the defining questions of our profession; the ones that will force you to really think for a bit. Maybe even a full year. And some tend to these questions their whole lives. These are the big questions that all up-and-coming artists contend and struggle with, and which all established artists can finally answer. Indeed, these questions are exactly the distance between where you are and where you want to be as a photographer or artist. Let’s explore…
Who Exactly Are You Creating For?
It’s all well and good to make imagery that satisfies your own tastes and fills your photo albums, but nearly all great artists at some point start to aim their work toward others, even if only in a portfolio, book, feed or website. But how we narrow our expertise and hone it toward a specific audience helps define us and our work. By considering your audience, you transform yourself from an adept shooter to someone with a marketable asset. The demands of a specific audience, with tangible needs, forces us to consider more contemporary issues, personal themes as well as the landscape of other photographers tackling the same subjects.
So, aside from the general wide audience of the entire world, who exactly are you making your work for? Do you know? Most people don’t, opting to think of audience as some kind of nebulous entity of others; a wide swath of art-lovers, photo editors and Instagram followers.
But who, specifically, are you creating for? You must start to understand this group as a real one. One you may know, or should get to know. This is the harder thing to figure out. Is it the photo editor at National Geographic? The New York Times? Do you want to be in Vanity Fair? Vogue? Do you know who takes submissions there? Do you do fine art work that will ultimately end up in a book? On someone’s wall? If so, who would buy that book or print? Can you picture the person? Better yet, can you email or market to them?
It may not be as specific as a single individual at a magazine or outlet, but it’s important, at some point, to have a pretty specific sense of who your work is supposed to reach. Without knowing this, it’s easy to get lost in a forever-changing portfolio and a meandering approach to what your next shoot should be and how to shoot it. It’s also easy to find yourself swayed by the opinions of anyone who looks at your work.
Contrary to what it seems like it should be, in every category of photography, the audience actually narrows as you get better and more purposeful with your work. For example, my own style is black and white photography with a very documentary-style aesthetic. The better I’ve gotten at that specific kind of photography, the more I’ve come to realize how defined my audience really is and what they want. This is true of portraiture, nature and travel photography, too. Photography covers a lot of territory and people who aren’t photographers don’t consider all photography — they have preferences. As you start to achieve more in your own genre, coming to know who the people are who truly love and admire your kind of work will be essential to finding success and a place for your art.
One of the relieving benefits of knowing your audience is letting go of the abstractness of creating for everyone and the ongoing push of social media content with the intention of reaching everyone. I liken it to fishing. Instagram is like racing around the Pacific Ocean with a line in the water, trolling for a big bite. Knowing our audience and sending your work to specific people who really appreciate it is like having a great fishing hole that only you and a few others know the location of.
Why Do They Need Your Work?
You don’t need to be the very best at what you do to make a living, or even to make a mark on the world, with your photography. But what you do need to accomplish those things is to fill a void in the world somewhere. After answering the question above — once you know who you’re doing it for — is to figure out why they need it. Why they need your specific images.
This one is hard to get a grip on as it takes an extreme amount of empathy; stepping outside yourself and trying to think about someone else’s needs.
There’s a lot of potential needs, though, in the world of photography. People need images to illustrate articles, to promote products, to build a brand, to make their houses look nice, to get inspired… many many reasons.
But beyond why they need any images, why do they need yours?
This means the answering of this question is really two parts: what are the general needs of the people who use your type of work and what about your work, in particular, will get them to choose you over someone else?
And the tricky thing about this question is that it can easily lead back inside yourself to other questions or even trigger some self-doubt. For example, let’s say you’re a fashion editorial photographer and your dream is to have images in Vanity Fair. You thumb through the pages and see a set of images from professionals with long-standing relationships with the editors there and an ever-growing portfolio of celebrity-driven editorial work. Trying to contemplate how one might break into that world, much less do work at that level, can be discouraging. So, perhaps you aim a bit lower; toward a local magazine with some local talent and start to build that book.
This kind of ruminating is typical no matter what your genre of photography is. And it often leads us to fear we might never establish ourselves or be successful. But I think it’s important to try to define this need because it causes us to think long and hard about what we’re doing and why. Out of our own heads and into the heads of someone else. This can be enlightening.
You’ll find any number of feel good articles pushing you to just do what feels right to you and be lead by your own instincts. And that might seem like the artist’s path to some. But in my experience, the most satisfied photographers are the ones who have found their audience and for whom their work satisfies some kind of need in the world. A deeper sense of purpose emanates out of the relationship you have with those who want your work. And while it can often be difficult, your patrons can also push you to go out of your comfort zone and evolve.
What Is Your Impossible World?
I talk about this part of photography a lot. It’s one of the first things I discuss with younger photographers and those seeking advice on their portfolio and career. Look at any great photographer and aside from beautiful images you’ll also notice that their entire canon of work is its own world. And it’s not like our world. The light is their own. The way people move is unique in this world. The clothing, the atmosphere, the architecture, the colors… photographers (with the help of many other people, usually) have a distinct set of characteristics to their images that makes its way into nearly every one of their shoots.
I call this the impossible world because when it’s done really well it seems to mystify us. We often ask, “how do they do that?” And defining this starts to answer the question above: “Why do they need your your work?” Once you have your own defined world, it’s own-able territory that others may want to seek out. And they likely won’t be able to get it in very many places, if anywhere but with you.
And this question is difficult to answer because nearly all photography that is this well defined is so because of a lot of pieces coming together. It’s not only the photographer, but the wardrobe, makeup, location, lighting, casting, direction and retouching. Take a look at the impossible world of Gemmy Woud-Binnendijk, as shown above. This kind of painterly portraiture is reminiscent of old master painters and it takes an entire process that is involved and time-consuming.
Your world needn’t be as complex as Gemmy’s, but it ought to be as well-defined, at least in your own mind.
And don’t get too caught up in who else is doing your style. Lord knows there’s plenty of other assignment photographers who can shoot as well as me. Just continue to further and further define your world for yourself. Think about how you can keep elements from one image to the next. This is often a process of elimination; deciding what kind of backdrops you’ll use primarily, or kinds of outdoor locations you prefer. Lighting set-ups and casting will start to be driven by your world, too. It’s not just about your camera and lenses, but how you direct what’s in front of them.
But by far the thing that will help define your impossible world most will be what’s going on behind the camera — in your head. And this is perhaps the hardest part of answering these questions. They cause us to truly dive into our own psyches in ways that no other profession does. What drives you to create? What are the parts of life and the world that you’re most fascinated with and that you want to be part of your created world? Understanding your photography can be as deep and complicated as understanding yourself.
Which is why photography can be so difficult and, sometimes, so rewarding. Good luck on your search.