Finding Purpose In Photography
Photography is tough. Not just because of sensor dust, either. You never really seem to arrive. The goal of your work is hard to define and even harder to get to. And if you do experience it, like getting a role in a movie, when it’s over, you often just go back to where you were — hustling and trying to get to where you just were.
Making it even more complex these days, social media has created a kind-of fictitious success ladder, rooted in a generalized hierarchy of followers — a number that can be easily gamed and which rarely equates on a one-to-one level with talent. I’ve felt it myself — I’ll have made it if I get to 5k! I’ll have made it if I get to 10k! I’ll have made it if I get to 15k! I’m at 20k followers currently and the number doesn’t define me as a photographer any more now than it did two years ago. Because purpose comes from inside.
I see a lot of photographers who can take fantastic images spending a lot of time reevaluating photography in their lives. Many photographers struggle with this — it’s part of the life of a creative person. Hell, it’s part of life as any person. But since I really know the plight of the creative, and little else to the same degree, maybe I can add a bit of advice on the subject of finding your purpose within this medium. Non-shooters welcome, of course.
Step 1: Understand Narrative.
Narrative is crucial to purpose. It is the through line to all (or most) your work. When you truly understand what your themes are and why they are your themes and how they tie together and into your view of the world, you are well on your way to having a supreme sense of purpose to your photography. All the great artists had a sense of the themes that drove them to create: their blue periods, their pop movements, their relationships with time, with the human form, with culture, with water lillies, with ballerinas, with Provence. It’s about what you care about. The narrative of your work intertwines what you work on with your relationship to your surroundings and your own feelings. And that’s what gives purpose to your shoot days.
Most photographers today abhor narrative. Instagrammers, especially — but students as well. When you choose your shots based on external goals, it leads to image after image that have only one thing in common: they look awesome. And there is something pretty great about making an awesome-looking image, as it gains you immediate appreciation. But the high wears off quickly and doesn’t quench that inner burning for purpose. It’s very difficult to move beyond the image-to-image approach to photography, as there is a morphine drip response, but when you do — when you can give up immediate gratification for something that only starts to make sense within a series or body of work, or even in relationship to other artists — then you are dealing with your narrative, and a far deeper satisfaction.
The artist lives and dies by his/her themes. To be able to answer the question: “what are you working on right now?” with something half-way interesting.
Only because the images are on my computer in front of me, here’s a few shots from my Metamorphoses series, by way of an example. I’m not shooting that stuff anymore (the narrative can shift), but during the few months I was, it was exciting and interesting to me to be able to say I was “turning buildings into bugs in a kind-of Kafka-esque display of what work does to people.” It’s just one example of a narrative, but I can speak firsthand to the empowering feeling it gives to know the theme of what you are shooting.
My latest endeavor, End Of The Shift, is entirely based on a narrative. In fact, it’s based on a story — which is different — and which I’ll spend a bit of time soon tearing apart the differences. But, again, speaking firsthand — and as a person who has also done quite a bit of just nice-looking-image-making — it’s far more rewarding to work off of a narrative. And honestly, I think it leads to more interesting images. I never would have taken this shot without the narrative concept behind it.
Having a narrative also leads to more interesting conversations: “what’s the meaning of this shot,” rather than “how did you get this shot?”
Step 2: Stop Calling It A Hobby.
“Oh, are you a photographer? Or is it more of a hobby?” How many times have you heard that? People don’t realize that the word “hobby” marginalizes what you do. What’s more, it plays into an ongoing internal debate we have with ourselves, over whether we are defined by our passions or what pays us. The question alone seems to want to place your photography in the realm of scrapbooking, model airplane building or being in a bowling league.
Reject that. Even within your own family. Your children. Your boss. Anyone.
Things turned around for me with a very simple act: I made business cards. Mine say Josh S. Rose, President of Photography — partly to be funny, but partly to make the statement as hard as I could. More importantly, the act of making them, having them and handing them out was a legitimizing act that helped me put my photography in the right place. I have a full-time job that I’m extremely serious about and I’ve done well there, but in fact, it has made it even more difficult for me to claim to be a photographer. It doesn’t appear to be what I “do.” Giving myself permission to say “Yes, I’m a photographer” added the kind of weight to what I was doing that helped it establish a foothold in my life, as something important.
It’s not a hobby.
Step 3: Be Actually Successful.
I always think this one goes without saying, but then I remember just how hard it is to be successful at something. And how easy it is to give up on it and try to have purpose without success. It can be done, of course, but by-in-large, very few people who create for an audience can find real value to their work without feeling they’ve successfully reached an audience. And not just any audience.
Being actually successful in photography means a success beyond people agreeing you have made a great image. Whether 100 people agree or 100,000 people agree, it’s the same validation. Real success happens with honors and distinctions from people who have established themselves as experts, and who you trust with their honest, critical eye. One extremely well-regarded art historian’s opinion of your work is going to fill you with more sense of purpose than 100k followers liking it.
This doesn’t mean that you have to enter award shows or try to get published — those entities have flaws, too, and can be highly-inconsistent in their choices. But you should probably try to get your work up in a gallery, at the very least. The most fulfilled I’ve ever felt as a photographer was having three pieces in the trunk of my car, driving through downtown Los Angeles to go hang them in a gallery for a show. In that moment by myself, with the pieces just printed and framed, for a moment, all the doubts were lifted.
But that’s what works for me. The important thing is that you are submitting your work to something legitimate, over and over, until your work reaches people. Aligning your work with certain high standards and seeing it pay off will fill you with purpose like nothing else.
I hope that’s been some help in the pursuit of your purpose. I’m interested in how others have found purpose in what they do (in any medium). Feel free to share your successes in the comments!