It’s been a while since I wrote about vision and voice in the life of the photographer. Recent conversations have pulled me back into those old discussions we used to have here on this blog. One of those recent conversations was with someone wrestling with the idea of authenticity. Was her voice authentic? And how much mucking around with new techniques could her work handle before it was no longer so? If this were a friend who lived here I’d take her for a much needed stiff drink and we’d talk. She doesn’t. So we can’t. So if you’re listening in, pour yourself a whisky, or a cup of tea (but make it stiff).
Voice is the way we express our vision, or our intent. Authenticity in voice – or use the word integrity if you prefer – is about one thing: honesty. Is it you? Tough question, I know. Who we are is always changing. And that’s the thing about both vision and voice: they change. They evolve. Because we change and evolve. It’s why I call bullshit on the idea of chasing a style. Style is a legitimate by-product of finding your evolving voice. Authenticity is doing that in ways that most stir your imagination, doing it your way because it pleases you and feels right. Make style the point of it all and you might find it just in time to find you’ve moved on.
There are a couple important words in that last paragraph, but I think the most important one concerns evolution. Life happens, we change. Martin Luther once said that this life is not about being but becoming. It’s splitting hairs, I know, but it’s helpful to remember that we are growing into ourselves as humans, and artists. I used to snicker when artists said their work was an exploration of this or that. But now I get it. All our work is an exploration. And exploration changes us. It opens our eyes, changes our minds, makes us think new thoughts. I am not the person I was. My vision changes. And then, necessarily, so does my voice.
Imagine a writer. The stories he writes in his childhood will be about different struggles than in his teens, young adulthood, and the late years of his life. So too will the words change. He may, in his thirties, switch for a while to poetry. A different voice, to be sure, but not necessarily less authentic. In fact he could discover in poetry his most authentic voice because it allows him to say things in ways he never could in his novels. Any of my favourite writers, like the characters in their stories, change with the arc of their lives, So too does their voice. But the best of them, the ones that resonate, remain authentic. Genuine. To be authentic is not to be homogenous.
“It’s as easy to be inauthentic by not keeping up with who you are, as it to be so by copying others.”
Chasing authenticity is like chasing originality. Spend too much time doing it and you’ll lose site of the thing you were aiming for. Explore. Play. Follow your gut. You’ll know when it’s you and when it’s not. But don’t mistake the goal. The goal is to make work that is consistent with who you are and are becoming, not who you once were. Repetition is not the same thing as consistency. It’s as easy to be inauthentic by not keeping up with who you are, as it to be so by copying others. And, by the way, copying others is OK, even necessary, as we learn, but not so helpful when it comes to making our art. You just have to know the difference. Learn to write like Hemingway. But when you write your novel, adapt what you learn to who you are, not the other way around. Learn to play guitar like Bruce Cockburn, but then write and play your own songs, which will be better for what you’ve learned.
In the end it comes down to your gut. You conscience. Whatever. That inner you that knows you best. I wish I could give you three steps to guarantee authenticity in your work, but that’s like telling you I can teach you to be honest. Look at your best work: is it consistent? It’ll change, for sure, and this year’s work won’t be like work you did 5 years ago. But does it look like it came from the same person, or is it all over the map? Do you see yourself in that work? Do close friends see you in that work? Do you love making it? Does it feel right? That’s probably as good a sign as any.
Oh, and one last thing: don’t think for a moment that this stuff gets any easier. Most of us still worry we’re repeating ourselves, worry we might be creating the mediocrity we criticize, or that we’ve moved past old ways of expression only to find our work less authentic that it once was, less alive. And then you play catch up. Don’t let it paralyze you, or steal your joy. We’re making beauty and telling stories, we’re not saving the world.