On Authenticity, Again.

In Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons, The Life Creative, Vision Is Better by David42 Comments


Yesterday I wrote an article about authenticity. This is part two.

Photography can be a lens through which we look at the world, and in that world find wonder and experiences we might never have without the camera. But sometimes it’s a little too easy to see our own reflection in the viewfinder. And from there a little too easy to compare ourselves with others. It’s a short step from creating something beautiful, or honest, to looking around to make sure others have seen not just our photographs, but have seen us, the maker.  “Look at that!” becomes “look at me” pretty quickly. Twitter and Facebook make it easier than ever to feed the ego.

It’s a brutally tough balance to find, especially when there are so many voices clamouring for attention, a chorus to which we feel we must inevitably add our own. But some days it feels like it’s a chorus of voices all trying to out-sing the other and it’s exhausting. And it’s worse when we hope those voices are saying things about us. And we keep checking in to see if they have.

I wonder if listening to such a glut of voices doesn’t rob us of the space to listen to our own. I know I’m having a tough time finding a signal in all the noise. I’m distracted. I feel like my job has become more about “being a (well known) photographer” than making photographs. I love you all, and I care about you, but checking Facebook to see if you like my blog, my photograph, my clever little whatever, it’s exhausting and it’s killing my muse. It’s not about you. It’s about ego.

Julie Neidlinger said it well when she wrote, “I can’t be authentic, be original, be all these “true to yourself” kinds of existences if I care what you are thinking.”

Remember when every frame was golden and filled with wonder? Remember being so in love with the strange, beautiful alchemy of this craft that we weren’t looking for atta-boys or Facebook likes? When our joy came from the creation, not the feedback? Remember how that joy led to curious, creative play, and the way the hours would pass while we were on our knees with a camera in the grass, or watching images come alive in the darkroom?  Remember when the name on our gear didn’t matter because it was just all so mind-blowingly magical and we didn’t care what others thought about us? I do.

I want to go back to that. I want the first book I open in the morning, with my coffee, to be a book of photographs, page after page of the amazing work created by friends and mentors, past and present, not Facebook. I want the magic back. I want to look around at the photography world and be filled again with respect and awe, not fear that we’re all, myself included, sliding unnoticed into mediocrity, because we’re more worried about our image than about our images. I can’t be the only one.

Learning to be a photographer is learning to see. It’s about receptivity. Perception. An openness to the world around us. Wonder. Curiosity.  And yes, the growing ability to wield these clumsy black boxes to turn the light into an image. My biggest obstacle these days is not my lack of craft, or the need for better gear. It’s the noise from without and the noise from within. It’s distraction. It’s ego. Authenticity struggles and dies kicking for breath when we choke it by listening more to the voices of others than to our muse, our own imagination and voice.


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  2. Here here! The toughest thing is definitely sustaining, keeping the fire and amazement alive. I think it’s also bad to even recognize that stuff or entertain it, I try to just keep on blissfully keeping on. Facebook definitely is a double edged sword tho. Potent and also soul plundering.

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  5. A thought provoking article indeed David 🙂

    I think essentially what drives me to make photographs of the landscapes and the coast, is a fascination with the beauty of the world around our civilization. The few photographs I have made that I am really proud of have been made when something on my meditative explorations has really struck a chord deep within.

    I share my images primarily to encourage anyone interested to look, to open there eyes and minds particularly to the ‘out of the way’ places, that involve more than a two minutes of walking away from their car.

    The UK may have no true wilderness left, but there are plenty of ‘wild places’ left, if only we take the time to go and explore… a ‘a call to arms’ maybe that there is more to life than twee postcard images of the rural idyll, something more enchanting, visceral and maybe even numinous..and yes the atmosphere of these places cannot be understood totally until the viewer makes a journey to such a place! If a handful of our photos can make people go out and relish the wild places/ support their National Parks, etc… then we have done a good job – maybe one of the positives of sharing our work through social media?

    I use social to share this reverence for ‘the Great Outdoors’ and yes I had hoped it would help me sell more than one or two prints a month/ get someone to actually sign up for a workshop this year… but hey, I ain’t got any richer since I joined the social media highway (lost amongst the traffic along with a squillion others who dream of being able to give up their day job because they have ‘made it’ …. I have recently been taking longer breaks from the social media, a good thing I feel… time spent last week photographing the trees and waterfalls alone in an ancient woodland has been the perfect antidote to it all, I don’t care if someone doesn’t like something about my images from the place… all I say is that I cared enough to photograph this place, I photographed what I felt a connection with and for that I am happy and content.

    The quote below, from Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’ book, sums up my feelings rather more eloquently than I could attempt to do about my reverence for the wild places and why if never I never ‘make it’ or even sell another print , that I shall continue to go out on walks with my camera….

    “He stood breathing, and the more he breathed the land in, the more he was filled up with all the details of the land. He was not empty. There was more than enough here to fill him. There would always be more than enough.”

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  8. “Learning to be a photographer is learning to see. It’s about receptivity. Perception. An openness to the world around us. Wonder. Curiosity. And yes, the growing ability to wield these clumsy black boxes to turn the light into an image.”

    I am a photography teacher at a high school in Virginia. I used your quote today to begin my class, and wanted to say thank you. My students are still at that eye opening stage of photography and you summed it up nicely with those words.

  9. Hi David.
    This article makes me want to hide in a hole a little bit. Because honestly, I think this post is not so much about photography as much as it is about human nature – people wanting to belong, people wanting approval from others. You could substitute “photography” with “creative writing” or “being a mom” or “baking cupcakes” or “having a kid on the little league team”. Whatever vehicle we use to gain acceptance from others, we want to feel a part of something.

    It is the rare individual who TRULY does not care about others opinions; and I say rare because some people love to be liked but I believe there are also many who love to be hated. And that, too, is a person who cares about others opinions. Whether we are making people say “YES! That’s great!” or “NO! that’s horrible! how can you make that and call it art?!?!” then it’s still eliciting a reaction. But like I said, I rarely meet a person who is comfortable creating their craft and truly is nonplussed by external reactions.

    I guess it’s a form of higher consciousness to be able to do that. I haven’t reached that place yet. Maybe one day. And until then, I sheepishly admit, I keep hitting “refresh” to see if I’m getting any more likes. 😉

    1. Gretchen, I don’t think it’s truly about not caring – you’re right, it’s the rare person who doesn’t – I think it’s about whether we allow that concern to change the direction we want to take, the one that’s genuine for us. It’s like courage – not an absence of fear but the will to act despite the fear.

  10. Thanks, David, not just for this two-part article, but for other things you have written at other times. It has been therapeutic.

    I struggle to maintain a love for photography. Most of my “clients” are are women who have been battered, bitten, bruised, and/or choked. When I un-pin my badge for the last time, I hope I will still want to pick up a camera.

    I re-read _Within the Frame_ a few days ago.

    I pray your injury is healing nicely!

    Thanks again!

  11. Great read! I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Trying to figure out what my voice really has to say. I’ve spent the last 5 years escaping through my photography, escaping the trauma of the daily dealings of caring for a terminally ill husband and then the loss of someone I loved so dearly. My photography allowed me to forget all that, for a time, and just be in the moment. I now find myself wanting more. Want to learn more, to understand more and create more. Really wonderful and really came at a time when I needed it.

    1. Author

      You’ve had a tough road, Sally. I’m so sorry you’ve had to go through that. Stay in the moment; it’s all we’ve got. 🙂

  12. David, as always a post to make me think and reevaluate what I’m doing on a daily basis. I’m certainly no rockstar but I have been growing tired of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Klout, etc. and miss just shooting for me. Sometimes I want to just shoot and print it for my own wall, the physical kind of wall that holds my roof up, and not show the world and worry if they like it.
    I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a few rockstar photographers (Scott Kelby, Scott Bourne, Trey Ratcliff, and Brian Matiash) and they are all pretty down-to-earth normal people. That also means they are just as insecure as the rest of us about their art. The difference is, the number of critics is larger by an order of magnitude. In my mind, that makes their lives much more difficult. than mine.

    1. Maybe. Or differently difficult. To be frank, it’s not just the number of critics. It’s the reliance on all these empires we build. We create these things and they need feeding. We worry one day we’ll wake up with nothing to say, and the audience will leave and we’ll be back at square one. We all have our fears. The only thing to do is face it, make great art, share it when we can, and repeat. All part of the adventure. But insecure? Hell yes.

  13. Bloody hell. I needed this. Brilliant. (And no, the irony isn’t wasted on me – here I am, ushering positive feedback on you, over a blog post about freeing yourself from the noise of others. I know. But still. Thank you, mate. Gave me something much-needed to think about.)

  14. David, I presume the axe-to-foot incident in September has interrupted your Left & Found project started back in June, no? In any case it seems the idea born at that time could only originate from someone who exhibits the opposite of the “look at me” attitude you describe here. Perhaps this can be attributed to some form of cabin fever brought on by your healing down time? From all the positive attitude encouragement you’ve thrown at this reading audience for so long I can only assume this is a temporary state of mind that will clear up shortly. In any case thanks for shedding some light on the subject as it is a sobering wakeup call needed by many of us. Lastly, care to share some of the results of your Left & Found project?

    1. You presume correctly. I’ve got time slated this week to resume that project. it’s near and dear to me. It’s dying to get out, but I have a tough time walking around right now, let alone dragging a bag of prints. As for results – nothing beyond what I intended – just the joy of putting the work out there and wondering what kind of life beyond me it’s having.

      Thank you for the encouragement. The cabin fever will pass. 🙂

  15. While the first post seemed to be about “finding yourself”, this one is about the futility of fueling the ego with social media. But, “finding yourself” is just another form of ego. If ego is the problem, then less of both is probably a good idea. Question is, after you remove the ego, what is left…. what do you put in your ego-shaped hole?

    1. Jules – To be clear, what I was trying to say in my second post was not about social media. It was about ego, and concern about what others think, getting in the way of us hearing our own voices. I’m not suggesting we remove ego, just control it, and know its place. And most of all, know when it’s getting in the way.

  16. There’s absolutely something to be said for tuning out and turning in. As someone who has a very small social media ripple, but yet is entirely too involved in Facebook and whatnot – this is an excellent reminder to let it go sometimes. Similar to the advice to be careful who you let critique your work – be careful about who you surround yourself with, and whose work you watch.

  17. As usual, you hit the nail square on the head David. Thanks for managing as usual to articulate something I didn’t realise I needed to read until I read it. I often feel after reading your posts that you bring me back to the place I ought to be, and from which I have strayed, or am in the process of straying. Not sure how you do it, but I’m glad that you do.

    1. Author

      By the way, I’ve been meaning to tell you, your black and white photographs from Zion are beautiful.

  18. Once again thought provoking and nerve touching…

    .. We have all been caught in that “response” mode.. recently I have taken to posting images on our local club site that were “adventures” and sometimes just “photo play”… this week it was an image of an old rotten fence post with a little bit of rusty chain… I never intended it to be an “art” piece… my caption on the thread was called “Post Production” and I filled the comment with emoticons… because it wasn’t about my processing in software or editing… it was about producing posts for the fence… several members had fun with it…. and as I eventually replied… one of my beliefs is, that for most of us. we have to have FUN…. this was JUST about fun…

  19. Well said sir. The irony is that the unwashed masses (ie: the non-famous photographers that will never be heard of that most likely make up the fast majority of your audience) will only ever see the “famous” photographers that already have thousands of likes, plus ones, followers, etc, so that seems like the logical next step.

    It’s hard to say “look, it doesn’t matter, go out and make art” because it’s being sent from the place of someone who is already “famous”, and they’ll never see the people who *are* working and making beautiful art in complete obscurity and not caring about likes and followers. It’s almost a catch-22. The proliferance of “rock star photographers” who create decent images 10% of the time and blog posts, gear reviews, classes, and photo tours the other 90% of the time can really skew the impression of what one things they “should” be doing.

    Now if you want to take my great “10 steps to understanding your DSLR and make images as great as Me(tm)” class, please sign up on the included form….. *

    *(a joke, forgive me).

    1. Author

      Yup. You’re not wrong, Alan. I don’t know what the solution is… All I can do as one voice to this audience, is keep honestly calling people to what I believe is a better option. Being human is the starting place of being an artist. Rockstardom, from what I’ve seen from afar, and what little of that I’ve felt myself (but with me it’s more like quirky folk-rock-stardom, right?) only adds complications, it doesn’t make it easier. We tend to need to learn the hard way, I guess.

      1. > (but with me it’s more like quirky folk-rock-stardom, right?)

        Of course, real non-quircky folk rock don’t get convinced to hang out with normies do they? 🙂

  20. I really appreciate it if someone likes one or more of my images, but being selfish about my work, I wouldn’t change a thing if someone told me it was junk.

    I work for myself, I do what I like and experience has taught me that if I am true to myself, some people will relate to it, because it comes from a place of sincerity.

    As I have said before I have just accepted that some will like what I do, some will hate it (they often are the loudest) and most will be indifferent. I work for myself and the love of creating. I want to be successful in a monetary way so I can feed myself and put a roof over my head, but most of all, so I can afford to continue to create my work.

    I love this quote by St. Augustine:

    “Love, and do what you will. If you keep silence, do it out of love. If you cry out, do it out of love…”

    I would like to add, love and create what you will!

  21. Yes David I agree, I’m trying to find a solution through this noisy world myself.

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