Be True to Yourself as a Photographer

I was reading an interview with William Eggleston and he recalled a time when he met Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was his idol, at a party in Lyon. Eggleston described that he was sat with Cartier-Bresson and a few other guests and his idol leaned across to him and said ‘William, color is bulls**t’.

After hearing this, Eggleston got up, left that table, and found another guest at the party to spend the evening with. He jokingly recalls “she never told me color was bulls**t.”

I find this encounter funny as well as empowering. We all have our idols — photographers we look up to as we find something in their work that speaks to us, and to be told by that person your work is essentially bulls**t would be a bitter pill to swallow. But what Eggleston did, and has done throughout his career, is stay true to the mantra of doing what he loves, regardless of public opinion.

In a separate interview, he stated the best photographs he had seen were his own, which I love.

Photography is now accessible to pretty much everyone thanks to the introduction of a camera on your mobile phone or tablet. The quality of these cameras has also grown massively over the past 5 years or so and now it is easier than ever to take an image and have it in front of hundreds, if not thousands of people within minutes via social media.

I know many photographers who see this as “lowering the art form.” For me, however, I see it as a good thing. It is great to see so many people using cameras and enjoying photography, regardless of the quality of the final image. However, what this also means is getting your head above the crowd is much more difficult as your single image can be quickly swept up in the sea of images put out there every day.

The question is, though, should you care?

For the rest of this article, I will use Instagram as my example ‘platform’, as it is the most accessible for us all and one you can probably all relate to in some way.

We are social creatures and we like it when people notice us. As photographers, it is a great feeling for a group of people to provide feedback on your work and say “this is great, I like this.” That small massage to the ego, that reassurance that what we are doing is good, we love it.

However, on the flip side of that, it can be damaging if we are used to that praise to suddenly find an image or two that we share receiving little to no feedback. “Was it rubbish?”, “Should I remove it from my feed?”, “Am I not as good as I thought?” Negative thoughts creep in and engulf you and it is a downward spiral that I have seen many go through during my time on social media.

It can be easy then to say, “Right, this image received a lot of praise and this one did not, so I will only capture images from now on in the same vein as the one that was ‘successful’.” This then leads to a generic feed with no creativity and a copy and paste image each day. The photographer stagnates and eventually the passion will dwindle.

The reason is simply that you are not being creative — you are being a slave to the crowd.

I think the truth is that you need to start shooting for yourself. Ignore the crowds, ignore what you see as being successful on the Internet (because being truthfully honest, what succeeds on the Internet is not always indicative of great photography, trends, influencers, whatever else is behind the image is usually what drives those numbers and that ‘success’).

Also, remember that not everyone will like your work. Eggleston mentioned in a different interview that if he met Ansel Adams, he would tell Adams that he ‘hated his work’. Does it mean Ansel Adams is not a great photographer because of one opinion? No. It just means that his body of work was not attractive to Eggleston, just like my work may not be interesting to you and yours to me and so on.

It does not take away from you as a photographer if one person or even a group of people (no matter how large) do not like your work. We pressure ourselves too much to be “liked.”

This need to get attention can get in the way of our creativity. If you shoot and post images purely for attention, you can often be left unfulfilled creatively due to your focus being on what sells and not what you want to say as a photographer. Individuality is lost.

Of course, perhaps you do feel that satisfaction from shooting what is trendy and what sells. If that is the case, then by all means continue. But again, take a second to think: are you trying to push the trend? Are you expanding on that style of shooting or are you just shooting in the same vein again? Even if you shoot something as trendy as, say, “light and shadow photography,” are you still trying to be creative with it and not just taking the easy option to get that attention?

Another side could be that you just do not care about the creative side and you just want the attention — you want to get your name out there, your numbers up, and want people to flock to see your images and the attention is more important than the creativity. Again, I would say nothing wrong with that at all if that is your intention. There are very few photographers I know who are in that mindset though and are much more creative-focused than audience-focused, but only you truly know what matters.

My belief is the same as Eggleston’s: focus on you and your photography and try to block out the noise of the Internet. This is the best way to grow and truly see your vision in a frame. It is not easy. I have felt it too, scrolling through Instagram and seeing image after image gathering praise and thinking, “Why is that image doing well and my images suck?” However, to go down this road is more damaging than helpful to your photographic path.

I have learned over time to ignore what number sits underneath an image on Instagram (to be honest I have trained myself to not even look and take it in anymore) and to look at the image and think about how that image can teach me something that I can add to my arsenal. How is that photographer using the frame through composition, light, color, subject choice, etc.? How are they doing it differently than me, and what can I learn from it to improve my photography? Notice that is all about me growing and developing.

Now I use Instagram much more as a purely social platform and not a contest of who can be the “biggest.” I love connecting with other photographers, sharing tips, advice, and stories, and really pushing each other to be better and to try new things. When I say it should all be about you, Instagram should be a place you take for yourself and for your knowledge and skill base, but also for you to give it back through supporting others and passing on any advice or knowledge you have.

You need to see other photographers as colleagues and not as competition.

William Eggleston getting up and walking away from the table, regardless of his idol sitting there, is a life lesson for everybody. We should only surround ourselves with those who can bring something of value to us and we should be strong in our own beliefs to know what it is we want to say with our photography. Even if it is not trendy or “popular”, that does not matter if it is fulfilling you as a creative.

You are better being true to your vision than cruising by as an imitation of a bunch of popular Instagram accounts.

About the author: Lee Thirkellson is a photographer and writer. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Thirkellson is the founder of The Northern Street Collective. You can find more of Thirkellson’s work on his website and Instagram.

Image credits: Stock photos licensed from Depositphotos