Voices, Part Two

In Creativity and Inspiration, Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons by David34 Comments

A cable vanishes into the clouds in a marble quarry high above Carrara, Italy, the place Michelangelo sourced his marble for David. Much of my own artistic journey feels like this, more of what I’m looking for is obscured than revealed at first glance. I spend a lot of time waiting for the mist to clear.

When it comes to the voices we listen to, I think there is much more to discuss than my short article could possibly cover earlier this week. Here are a couple more thoughts, some of them jarred from my head by comments left in response to the last piece I wrote.

One of the voices I touched on, but didn’t really address was that of mis-aligned ego (that’s what I call it, call it whatever you like, the name doesn’t matter). I mentioned the toxicity of a desire for fame or praise, which reminded me of a line from a Josh Ritter song – “I’m singing for the love of it; have mercy on the man who sings to be adored.” (Snow is Gone). It’s a strong voice and one many of us probably wrestle to silence for much of our lives. But fail to silence that voice and the inescapable result is work that is self-conscious and less a gift to the world than it is the photographic equivalent of fishing for compliments. I’m not saying the desire to be acknowledged is necessarily unhealthy, but that when that voice become the loudest voice, art suffers. How do you deal with that particular voice? Most religions have tried at length to address this same struggle, so you won’t find a simple answer here. But practically, I think it begins with learning simply to recognize that voice and then finding voices that speak truer things. This is part of what it means to struggle with the so-called human condition and the artist’s life.

If that voice of the mis-aligned ego might be described at times as arrogance, the flip-side of it is no less distracting. I don’t know a single artist that doesn’t wrestle with cycles of self-doubt, second-guesses, and listening to the radio station in our heads that Ann Lammot in Bird By Bird calls K-F*CK (the * is mine). We all wrestle with this one and it’s one of the reasons we need both fans and critics – to give us something closer to an objectivity that’s clouded by the collective voices of K-F*CK. Those voices come from the past, from unkind words spoken by people who ought to have known better. Parents, teachers, other kids. We know as adults that the cruel words of people from our pasts are only that, but they hold no less power subconsciously. Finding new voices to listen to begins a long process – perhaps life-long – of hearing truer, more positive things. They won’t be silenced, but they can be replaced. Until we do that those voices hold us back. “Ridicule,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “is a terrible whitherer of the imagination. It binds us where we should be free.”

What I do know is that this stuff is harder to work through than simply learning to chose an f/stop. It’s big picture and it’s lifelong and it probably looks like more navel-gazing than some people want to do. But folks, Art is hard. Art, to be art at all contains something of the artist within it. And to do that requires self-disclosure, courage, and a willingness to face these voices and intentionally chose truer ones. It won’t come through pretending the voices aren’t there, and it’s hard to hold a camera when your fingers are in your ears to stop the voices you don’t want to hear.

Vincent Versace wrote an article on Scott Kelby’s blog yesterday, and among the nuggets was a short discussion about the voices we listen to. I suggest reading the entire article because Vincent’s one of the rare voices of sanity in an art addicted to gear and technique, and when he’s this lucid ( Vincent gets hard for me to understand when he drifts into the academic) it’s worth a read. Here’s one of the quotes that caught my eye yesterday morning, and it offers a different solution to one of those voices.

“All artists hear a call to express themselves creatively, but too often, that voice fades with time and is replaced by one that says, “You can’t do that.” or “If it was such a brilliant idea someone else would have thought of it first.” The quickest way to silence that voice is to do exactly the thing that you think you cannot.”




  1. I find myself nodding vigorously whenever I come here and read what you have to say.

    I’m like “hell yeah!” this dude is like totally on my wavelength and very eloquently writes about things that I think are important, but can’t find the right words for.

    The War of Art has just kicked my a*se into gear as I realise that I’m very often my own worst enemy. It’s so easy sometimes to say nice things about other people and their work, their art, their lives, whatever… though very often hard to apply this same kindness to my own art, life etc.

    You’re right. It’s not about gear. There’s a lot to be said for vision. Some photographers I know seem to sometimes have this magical third eye that I just don’t have. Then I look at my photographs, they way they have changed and improved since I put a small digital camera in my pocket a few years ago and I know that I need to learn to trust that some part of me knows what it’s doing!

    At the risk of sounding like a groupie, I really appreciate your work. And your words.

    Hope you are doing well and healing up fast!

  2. Author

    @ Sarah Slade. Good. Would hate for us to not be cool. 🙂 Thanks for the reply, and the initial willingness to push and interact. 🙂

    @James and @Elis Alves – Thanks for the kind words. This community has been so encouraging to me personally lately. I’m grateful.

  3. David, I got to say I LOVE your posts. Thank you for your honesty and for listening to your guts. But most of all thank you for your humility in bringing us other great photographers and their inspiring words/work. Bless you lots as you heal and hope this will be (in spite of the situation) a very inspiring time for you! :c)
    http://www.elisalves.com (since I can’t seem to change my website through normal channels!) :c)

  4. great thoughts David, it’s amazing how something so little can be so crippling to our creativity and art. The beauty of art is, as you stated, that it has a part of us in it. So when it comes to the voices we listen to, if we are focusing on the negatives and allowing them to shape us in that direction, the art we produce will also be shaped by them. Criticism is good and it has a place (as you talked about in your earlier post) but balance is needed. Glad to hear you are getting to do some moving around.

  5. hi david, thank you for picking up on what i wrote. you’re absolutely right – i did misinterpret what you were writing, based on my absolute sympathy for you being stuck at the civic, and it coloured my perspective of what you were saying. we are definitely on the same page: this blog has been all about people’s expressions of their struggles to overcome their blocks. i respect your photographic work and your writing, and appreciate not only your comments, but also the supportive and thoughtful forum that you have created in which people can express themselves openly, and voice their fears and yes – angst at times, without fear of judgement and dismissal. on the other hand, i felt the need to open up the discussion by injecting some positive energy, and try to revitalise the path of introspection, which can become an overwhelming blanket of fog if not balanced by an appreciation for what we have achieved to date, and by our awareness of our goals for future growth. i think cj put it in a nutshell. and yes, we’re cool 🙂

  6. @Colleen – my 2 cents? Do what you like to do – because the people that are drawn to you – your clients – come to you because they like what you do. I used to worry when i would process client’s images that they might not like the way I’m editing, or the textures I might add, and then I realized that I was worrying for nothing. My clients found me because they already liked the work they see. They know I’m not a snapshot overly posed kind of photographer. I take a much more candid approach, and try to capture real personalities – without the stiff, uncomfortable portrait approach. So you have to learn to trust yourself and go with your creative side – let it guide you! Your clients will tell you what they like or don’t like. And usually I let my client know that I will be adding some more artistic, creative, edgy portrait editing to the batch. If they don’t like it, they don’t buy it. They can buy the less artsy, edgy version. But to be honest – many times my customers buy the more artistic versions. AND – you must portray confidence and calmness to your customers – I swear, customers can smell fear a mile away! Hope that helps! 🙂

  7. What a great topic David. I have all your books, most of the ebooks (of yours) and generally follow philosophies of art making because that in itself is the struggle. I tend to be a lurker as my words never express what I really mean, but here goes…
    When I began photography in earnest it was with this crazy abandoned passion and the stuff I was putting out was actually kinda good and edgy and got some attention in my tiny world. Then someone said to me you should try to sell this stuff and don’t abandon the look and … I died. Froze. Oh no, now I should sell this or it’s not worth it … So I took classes, and classes …and that’s now all I do. Because I’ll never get ‘good enough’. But in actuality, in the beginning, when I was having fun and doing it for the passion it was actually really good. It died with the technical and it died with the profit. To rid my mind of the need to do it for a ‘career’ would probably free me to get creative. You touched on a lot of this in the two blogs as far as raising the questions. I am at a point I might need to see a shrink to figure out what wall I hit between having a blast and not functioning.
    Has anyone been there?

  8. I think the self doubt is expressed in a lot of photographers in another way – that of copying someone else’s vision rather than their own. How many nature photographers, for example, when visiting Yosemite, don’t want to place their tripod in the same holes as Ansel Adams. We see great photography, we want to make great photography, so we copy the great photography we see rather than listen to or trusting our own voice. Copying is easier than finding our own way.

    In some cases, this is the result of self doubt, we may not believe we are good enough to do great photography. Or it may be from not listening to our own voice, rather than self doubt. I believe you have written on this particular aspect before, David.

  9. @Heather – got it – I read it differently than you meant it to be read! I agree with you though – my voice tends to be the most critical of them all as well. And sometimes the most insecure…

  10. @Melissa I was saying I never disagree with my voice in the context that my voice is the most critical of them all. I am my own worst enemy….

  11. “Mis-aligned ego” is one of the most brilliant phrases I’ve heard used on the interwebs, and as always your insights are interesting and food for thought. Hope you continue to feel better and that the fogginess lifts…

  12. This is a very interesting discussion.

    I have been following this blog and reading your books for quite a time now and I would have to say you have a bit more “angst” than your average photographer/artist. Not a bad thing, if we don’t constantly feel we have room to grow, we seldom do.

    Artists are a diverse group, however, consider the differing attitudes of VanGogh and Picasso, one full of doubt the other full of confidence, at least in the later stages of his life, and both such great creative souls.

    What I like about this forum is that it causes people to think and consider and allows a world of different views to be expressed. Mostly w/o judgement and hostilities.

  13. @Anita-great comment! I think it is a very valid statement and good observation with the photo-made me stop and take another look! 🙂

  14. @Heather-you never disagree with your own voice? You are lucky-I disagree with mine from time to time! 🙂
    @Sarah Slade- I don’t get angst ridden when I read this blog and I don’t think this point of view has anything to do with being laid up. It is merely stating a fact I think. I think every true artist that is producing art as had that feeling if they are honest with themselves. I was on a photoshoot a few months ago, and even though my customer really likes my work, I was listening to those voices and they almost had me paralyzed for a few moments-I was filled with self doubt. I got over it, but I think no matter what you level of success in the industry is you are going to feel that way from time to time. I mean, Joe McNally is phenomenal and all, but I bet if you asked him, he still has moments where he strugglesnto hold the camera and block out the voices at the same time. Self doubt is normal. And in my opinion, it contributes to us becoming better at what we do because we step back and look at our processes, our mission, our “vision” (sorry David, I stole your word! Do you have it trademarked yet? Hee-Hee!)
    In all seriousness I value this blog post and the previous one because it makes me aware that I am not the only one that deals with this issue and it puts these feelings into a form you can pick apart and digest to better understand.
    Just my 2 cents. Maybe pain meds makes me braver! 🙂

  15. Author

    CJ – These are great words. Well spoken. I’ve thought much about living in the present this year and I think your perspective is exactly right. Thanks for sharing that. You’re like Yoda, only larger. 🙂

  16. David,

    Yes, this does sound like navel-gazing (not a bad thing). A good analogy might be creating art is like living in the present. Voices from the past are playing on K-F*CK and future glory and praise comes from thinking of the future.

    When you are working in the present, you take with you what you have learned (skills, techniques) and what you want to create (your vision) and do your best to make it happen, leaving the voices behind.

    Anyway… I was glad to hear you were crawling around.

  17. Author

    Sara Slade – I think you misunderstood me, and I’d invite you to re-read my words. In particular you singled out my comment that it’s hard to pick up the camera with both fingers in our ears. Your reaction was, Lighten up. I believe you used the words angst-ridden. But my point was that we need to do just that. That we need to replace these negative and besetting voices with positive ones – the lighter ones, the ones that encourage us.

    You mentioned the hospital bed and that what makes me think you’ve read me wrong. Yes, things are hard for me right now, but I’m happy to tell you there’s no angst. In fact I’m pretty damn happy right now. But it isn’t always easy for people and your comment, “there needs to be a balance between awareness of these issues and getting into being blocked by it.” shows me I’ve not communicated clearly. Sarah, I was writing this to those who are already blocked by this issue. I know a lot of artists for whom this issue is exactly that: blocking. I see no angst in telling people there are better voices out there, that this stuff doesn’t have to block them.

    Anyways, I think you and I are very much on the same page but suspect you began reading with one assumption when in fact I began writing with another. Being an artist can be hard because so many of us create from the most honest human places within us, and those places are messy. I’m just trying to communicate to those who for whom the mess of voices sometimes stands in the way.

    We cool? 🙂

  18. such a fascinating image to go with this post, David. The cable appears to stop in mid-air, but we know it really connects somewhere beyond the mist. ..or we believe that it does.

    While I completely understand and agree with you about mis-aligned ego, I also see the challenge because while some of us are motivated by external rewards, (prizes, awards), others of us are motivated by recognition and sincere appreciation. It can be an undeniable part of what drives us. For those people, attempts to silence that voice, might be de-motivating. So I like that you’ve challenged us to become more aware of that voice and the weight we give it.

    Thanks for the link to Vincent’s article. I especially liked the cooking story with the conclusion that “Everything matters and everything dovetails into everything else.” ..like vision and voice, …and expression…

    We’re celebrating with you in your continued progress. Keep climbing.

  19. I’m so grateful you adressed self-doubt David, thank you. “They can’t be silenced but they can be replaced” was the nugget I’ve needed this week. Your timing rocks 🙂

  20. The part of that article that I liked was “A discussion about photography should be about why we are moved to create the images we do, and how to best practice the things that will help our voices be heard in the clearest, truest way. ”

    Photography is communication. If we listen only to our own voice we run the risk of speaking in terms that no one else understands. If we take the criticism of others too seriously we run the risk of losing our own voice. To succeed we have to walk the tightrope into the mist, trying not fall off either side and not knowing where it is leading us.

  21. This reminds me of the movie “A beautiful mind” where a genius scientist has to learn to deal with (in his case) inner visions. At the end it seems he kind of accepts them and lets them be.

    Learning to deal with the inner voices can be as hard as you write. They often drive me crazy. It’s good to hear that I am not the only one 🙂 I tend to isolate myself in these situations of struggle. I also belive that I have to learn or even train to let them be. Learn to be aware and be able to focus your mind.

    Now I work in another area, I don’t depend on photography. But when I take pictures, from the heart, there are no voices. It is as if I AM only seeing. That is the best. That is why I love photography.

    But although I write how much I love the silence please do continue to blog, even for non-professionals like me. I love your noise 🙂 It crushes like waves from a distant shore into my own waters and mixes everything up, keeps it alive. And then come all the other waves from everybody else contributing. White splashing surf in the mind. You provide that. Thank you.

  22. The haunting of self-doubts can whip away our passion. They tend to lurk in the darkness of our room but if we pick up our camera and step outside into the light…they weaken and flee! We then become the artist and the intellect that has the power to turn the self-doubts upside down.

  23. sorry – i’m going to take a different approach here. i was fine until i got to the line” it’s hard to hold a camera when your fingers are in your ears to stop the voices you don’t want to hear”.c’mon david! lighten up. enjoy the beauty of the world around you. enjoy lining up your camera with your eye, and enjoy the results! i may not be the photographer that you are, and you may not be the photographer that someone else is, but knowing that doesn’t stop me from appreciating the work that i do that is good, wanting it to be better, and working on this, without turning my mental gut into knots over it. thinking about these issues is good, as it helps us look at what we’re doing, and keep on a path of vision and creativity, but this is getting a bit too angst-ridden! hard when you’re stuffed into a hospital bed, i’m sure, but there needs to be a balance between awareness of these issues and getting into being blocked by it. be well!

  24. Bravo! This is a great topic. It is our life work: learning to listen to and trust our own inner voice – and then finding the courage to follow it.

  25. Yeah! That was a great post, I also wrote about it on my blog.

    I really loved these two quotes:

    “Emotionally full and technically imperfect trumps technically perfect and emotionally vacant every time.”

    “Everything matters, and everything dovetails into everything else.”

  26. From the Vincent Versace article mentioned above…’When your effectiveness becomes effortless, your images will move the viewer solely by the power that caused you to be moved.’ Simple but at times so difficult to do. Be one with the moment (and your creative self) and let the images come.

  27. I have always struggled withnwhat voices to listen to. I am only just finding my creativity again but strugglevwith being my worst critic. Know it will be a long journey and I know I will just have to keep moving forward.

    Will say my first real inspiration was your Within a Frame. My itch only grew louder after reading your book and blogs.

    Glad to see you are feelling better!

  28. I always disagree with the outside voices, I never disagree with my own, and I am my own worst critic. The thing about artists in general is that we are typically melancholy people. Google the melancholy personality and I guarantee you will find a TON of things you identify with.

    I digress.

    All introspection aka navel gazing needs to be done in small doses, it most certainly should never last more than a day. This is something that God and I are currently working on together. His voice by the way, guides me in my artistic process. It’s really very vital actually.

    I think I am done preaching now lol 🙂 thank you David. Hope you had an awesome day today!

  29. Wow, another great one David! I have found that voice to be receding into the depths the more I push past it and feel I have grown even more with every push. I have gone through some life changes recently and am still struggling and in the beginning I felt I didn’t know where to go or it was the wrong decision. I am the happiest I have ever been and it is because I pushed passed the “I can’t,” and the doubts and turned it into the “I might” then the “I can and will.” It is all about how we see things and our perspective changes as we go through life, but it takes work to get past those demons. It is totally worth it though. Keep pushing on!

  30. That’s a lot of talk about me, myself and I. Not saying self-reflection isn’t important, but I find I get lost going down that path too long and trying to balance the voices in my head. And I’ve also found, while being focused on doing something for someone else, you might accidentally hear them sing in harmony and come across yourself clearly – as if the fog has lifted 😉

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