Why do you create photographs?
That seems like such a simple question, but in all reality, is tougher to answer than you would think. It’s also a question that all too often gets lost in the noise that comes when any creative pursuit starts to be taken more seriously. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t seem to realize that having a clear understanding of why you do something is instrumental for both progress and fulfillment.
Why would you need to actively think about the reason you pursue photography? You just do it because you enjoy it right? Sure, that could be a reason, but it’s not going to do much for you if that’s as deep as you’re willing to dig. Your why needs to be stronger than that, and it has to be authentic. It’s something that comes with experience and needs to be evaluated on a fairly consistent basis.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my why lately, to the point where I can say that I’m quite confident in my understanding of it. I know that might sound a little crazy because you’d think it would be such a simple thing to figure out. But, to gain a deep understanding of why you truly pursue something takes time and awareness.
“To Inspire People”
That’s the simple version of my why. It really does sum up both the reason I create images and the reason that I write/run this website. A more detailed version would go something like this:
“I create images to help connect people with the wilderness in a way that they wouldn’t normally experience, helping them realize the amazing gifts that are waiting to be discovered outdoors, in hopes that they are inspired to take action and create their own experiences. I write and teach about photography and the creative pursuit with the goal of inspiring others to create more fulfilling and authentic work, realize how capable they actually are and take action on their goals and dreams.”
So why is this seemingly simple statement so important? In my opinion, having a clear understanding of your why is beneficial for two reasons.
1. Helping Overcome Adversity
As an interest in photography starts to become more serious, things get complicated. We set new goals, expect results, take risks, become vulnerable and put more pressure on ourselves. All of those things can take a toll on us, both creatively and mentally, but they’re part of the process, and instrumental in growing as an artist. That being said, they need to be dealt with properly, and your why is the one thing that you can always turn to when you’re facing adversity or stuck in one of the inevitable low points throughout the journey.
We’ve all been in similar situations before where something didn’t work out as hoped. Maybe it’s as simple as an image you were really excited about not having the impact you thought it would with your audience. Or maybe it’s something on a larger scale like a book or other creative pursuit that didn’t engage the market and eventually fizzled out. As creatives, when we put time, effort and passion into our work, it can be tough for us to stomach defeat, often times leaving us questioning our ability, or even worse, our worthiness as artists.
That’s where understanding your why comes into play.
When you’re doing something for a reason that is in line with your personal values and at the same time incredibly important to you, failure doesn’t sting as bad, because you have a meaningful reason for doing that thing in the first place, wins or losses aside.
In my case, I sometimes suffer from self-doubt. This springs up during all sorts of different tasks — creating images, writing, networking, etc etc. As an example, when I first started creating Image & Rhythm, almost every time I’d contact another photographer to see if they’d be interested in being featured, I’d question both the importance and the direction of my idea.
“Are people going to think this is stupid?”
“Is anyone going to actually even care about what I’m asking?”
“This is a terrible idea, I know it!”
Those are just a few of the things that would constantly go through my head, and they can be exhausting! With that being said, having a clear understanding of my why pushed me to go ahead with the idea regardless of my doubts. I figured that if something didn’t work out as I’d hoped, or someone honestly thought my idea was stupid, then so be it. All that matters is that my intentions behind the website have always been to help other people. If I make some mistakes along the way then at least I know that it was while I was doing something that’s important to me.
What’s ironic is that facing “defeat” without a clear sense of why almost always leads to that exact question: Why am I even spending time doing this?
When you understand your why, and it’s important to you, you’ll be able to push through adversity, even if it’s self-generated. Your why is your engine. It’s what moves you forward and keeps the passion burning inside of you. Without it, you may experience moments of satisfaction, but they’ll be overshadowed by a general lack of direction leaving you without a strong foundation to keep you supported.
All organizations start with WHY, but only the great ones keep their WHY clear year after year. Those who forget WHY they were founded show up to the race every day to outdo someone else instead of to outdo themselves. The pursuit, for those who lose sight of WHY they are running the race, is for the medal or to beat someone else.Simon Sinek
2. Moving Forward In The Right Direction
Not only does our why help us deal with adversity and make progress with our work, it’s also what defines us as artists and helps us stay on course.
A lack of direction is inevitable in the first few years of a photography career. It only starts to become a problem when the novelties of technology and initial discovery start to wear off. Having a clear understanding of why you create images and what your interests are will help you feel confident and comfortable creating authentic work, even if it may not be what’s most popular with the public.
A lot of people (including myself at one point in time) fall into the trap of consistently changing their approach and style based on a number of outside influences.
Maybe the hottest images on social media at the moment are of dramatic and bold landscapes with highly saturated colours, so that’s what you try to create in hopes of receiving praise for your work. But maybe a month later you start to dislike where you’re headed and you tone down your style. Shortly after you start to second guess specific creative choices you’re making because they don’t seem common with other photographers, so once again you change your ways.
Again, at the start of a career, there’s nothing wrong with experimenting and being influenced by others, but at some point, you need to create true and honest work that interests YOU.
I’ll use myself as an example again. I’m to the point now where before I share my work I can tell which images are going to resonate with the general public on a larger scale. Some of my more “intimate” style of images aren’t typically the ones that receive the most engagement.
These “intimate” images play a large role in my photography career. They excite me in a way that’s different than the grand landscapes and have without a doubt played a large role in shaping my creative vision. That being said, there was a time where I almost stopped creating them because of the mentioned lack of engagement.
The clearer I understood my why, the more comfortable I became creating for myself. If the reasoning behind my images is “to help people connect with the wilderness in a way that they normally wouldn’t”, then even sharing my “intimate” landscapes with one person and having them become inspired to look closer is enough. On the flip side, if I didn’t have an understanding of my why, and the main goal of sharing an image with an audience was to get likes or comments, then it’s only natural that disappointment is going to set in and approaches are most likely to get changed to try and achieve those results.
Discovering your why takes time and effort, but it’s one of the most valuable things you can do for both your art and life in general. It may not jump off the page at you, it may even take you months or years to figure out, but in the end, you’ll be glad you took the time to put the most important things first. If you haven’t already yet, at some point in time you’re going to need to figure out the why behind your art.
So in closing, I’ll leave you with this question. Why do you photograph?