You Are Still a Photographer, Even If No One Likes Your Images

I think we have all been there. After the culling, editing, and sweating over every detail we post our latest masterpiece only to be greeted by three likes. One is from our mother, the other two from our friends that know nothing about photography. It is demoralizing.

It often brings up questions like “why am I doing this?”, “Do I suck?”, “Why the hell did that photo of a cat get 1.3 million likes and I only got… three?!?!” Ok, maybe that last one is just me, but you get the point…

I think that it would be reasonable to say that we creatives live in a completely new paradigm. Social media has given every photographer a platform to shout from, and everyone has. Some say that the market is too saturated and that there are too many voices.

There are countless articles, YouTube videos, Skillshare courses, and in-person workshops dedicated to growing your photography business with enticing titles like “5 tips to growing your photography business”. Those have their place to be sure, but I think we as practitioners may have deviated a bit and have flipped our priorities.

Everyone at some point in their career needs a recalibration to bring them back to a healthier, happier, and more fulfilling place. Maybe that is you right now. If so, I would like to offer some encouragement and a few tips that have helped me.

Recall the Love You Once Had

Think back to the moment that you fell in love with photography. If you are old like me, you may have to settle for a moment that you loved photography, but think back to what made you abandon reason and pursue this art form. Maybe it was a specific place or subject. Maybe you suddenly had a mechanism to scratch that creative itch that was driving you nuts. Whatever the inciting incident, think about how you felt.

This may feel a little bit like a hippie love-in, but there have been so many times when I have gotten tied up in the business and practice of photography that I totally lost the love of photography. The problem for me was that when I lost the love of the artform, everything else suffered.

I am willing to bet that whatever thing that has popped into your mind represents a moment of deep fulfillment. I think this is the key thing that we have lost. We worry too much about the application of photography and too often tie our worth as a photographer to it. Did I make money? Did I get published? Do I have gallery representation? Did anyone other than my mom like my image? Money and fame are not inherently bad, but they can be toxic to the photographer’s soul when put first.

Inspiring Quotes from Magnum Photographers

In 2011, an article offered advice for young photographers from the Magnum Photo cooperative, and two quotes have served as wise guidance over these past years. The original Ideas Tap article has since disappeared, but you can find it on the Wayback Machine.

All of these quotes have been inspiring and helpful at one time or another, but there are two that stand out for this conversation. The first is from Christopher Anderson:

Forget about the profession of being a photographer. First be a photographer and maybe the profession will come after. Don’t be in a rush to make pay your rent with your camera. Jimi Hendrix didn’t decide on the career of professional musician before he learned to play guitar. No, he loved music and created something beautiful and that THEN became a profession. Larry Towell, for instance, was not a “professional” photographer until he was already a “famous” photographer. Make the pictures you feel compelled to make and perhaps that will lead to a career. But if you try to make the career first, you will just make sh**ty pictures that you don’t care about.

While I love everything about this there are two specific phrases that I want to unpack here.

#1. Being a Photographer

When I was younger, my father was frequently ill and while he was seeking treatment, my sister and I spent time with our maternal grandparents. My grandfather had learned photography from his mother and in an attempt to get me out of his hair, taught me. He would send me out into the woods of south Arkansas and tell me “Not everyone can paint a picture or make a sculpture, but everyone can take a picture.” I can recall countless hours spent wandering the woods with a camera, completely immersed in the joy of exploration and discovery; just taking pictures.

Gary Winogrand once said, “I photograph to see what the world looks like photographed.” There is something magical about the camera, it gives us the opportunity to steal a small piece of reality and hold it for our own. Just about every photographer I have ever met has been an explorer at heart. If your photograph with the measly three likes excites you, that is all that matters.

#2. Pictures You Feel Compelled to Make

This leads to the second phrase. Whatever it is that you love, go and photograph it, not because it is trending, or fits your understanding of what “photographers” do. Go photograph what you can’t not photograph. The things that upset you to miss. Each image is your opportunity to capture the world for yourself and those to whom you choose to show it. One of my favorite Cig Harvey quotes is “The camera is just an expensive pencil, what do you have to say?” Don’t worry about who does or doesn’t love what you have to say; just say something.

In the same article, Alex Webb says:

Photograph because you love doing it, because you absolutely have to do it, because the chief reward is going to be the process of doing it. Other rewards — recognition, financial remuneration — come to so few and are so fleeting. And even if you are somewhat successful, there will almost inevitably be stretches of time when you will be ignored, have little income, or — often — both. Certainly, there are many other easier ways to make a living in this society. Take photography on as a passion, not a career.

For our own sake, pursue the reward Webb alludes to. Think back to the moment you fell in love with photography. The process of doing it is often the thing that engrains the love of photography in our souls. It is important for our development that we are fulfilled by what we photograph. If we aren’t we don’t do it and photography is a skill developed, not a skill inherent.

What to Do If Your Joy for Photography is Gone

If you are in a place where the joy of photography is gone. Do not panic. There are only two types of photographers. Those who have lost the love and those who will. What matters is how we regain our love and our confidence. Here are a few actionable things that I have found helpful in my career.

1. Spend some time re-assessing what you want out of photography. Be specific and set kind goals for yourself.

2. Find the subject matter that brings you the most joy. Rocks or riots, it doesn’t matter because this is just for you.

3. Once you have found that thing that you love, create a small series of images and don’t show it to anyone. It could be 10 images, the number doesn’t matter because this is an exercise in working for passion, not for prominence.

4. Set time aside each week to photograph what you love. Some of you reading this might be working professionals. This is particularly important for you. Burnout happens when the camera does not bring any fulfillment into our lives.

5. Learn from the greats. Listen to podcasts, YouTube videos, read books, whatever inspires you. Creativity is a monster that must be fed. If you don’t know where to start, watch Alec Soth’s photobook reviews. His talk on Eggleston’s book Democratic Forest is really awesome.

6. Finally, be kind to yourself. That does not mean lying to yourself, however. There is a difference between being honest about areas of growth and telling yourself that you are a failure. Be confident in your work because you love it.

As trite as this may sound, pursuing photography is an ever-moving goalpost. Whether through new subject matter, new equipment, or new understanding, we are all chasing the same goal, personal growth. Some photographers are further along in their journey than others, time and talent determine how far along you are. Do not be discouraged by where you are right now, just keep making the work you love.

About the author: Kyle Agee is a photographer and instructor based in Northwest Arkansas. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find Agee’s work on his website and Instagram.

Image credits: Stock photo from Depositphotos