Exploration & Expression

In Creativity and Inspiration, Life Is Short, Pep Talks, Vision Is Better by David17 Comments


It’s been a while since I wrote about vision. Lately I’ve replaced the word with intent or intention. Almost every time I wrote about vision someone told me how frustrated they were about the whole vision thing. Inevitably it ended – or started – in tears. I can’t remember a workshop that didn’t include someone in tears over this. Sometimes it was me. I like the way Seth Godin put it, that it’s not art if we’re not prepared to cry or dance about it. I’ve done both. Sometimes at the same time.

Have you been there? For a moment pretend that we’re sitting down together over a cup of coffee and you were telling me that you’re frustrated by a lack of vision; or maybe that you have vision but it’s fuzzy around the edges. You know you need vision to become a better photographer, and you’re starting to wonder if you should just give up.

Don’t give up.

Drink your coffee. Take a breath. This is art. It’s not life and death, at least not literally. No one’s going to die if you take a while to figure this out. Patience, my friend.

Our vision is a reflection of who we are, and since who we are is always growing and changing, our vision is a little bit of a moving target. No wonder there’s some frustration. Let it out. Then go find your camera, go out in the rain, and make some frustrated photographs. You might not like them but they might be the most honest images you’ve made in a while, now that you’re free to feel the way you feel.

Our vision almost always outpaces our craft, which is to say that our vision – when we finally do get enough of a glimpse of it – will always be one step ahead of our ability to express it. Depressing, right? Not at all. It means we’ve got a lifetime of exploring ahead of us.

Art, whatever else it also is, is about questions. It’s about exploration. Yes, we use our tools to express our vision, when we’re clear enough to recognize it, but we also use them to explore our vision. We move forward in a cycle of exploration and expression. Sometimes we fail completely to get it right, but the failures have always been better teachers to me than my success. We move forward. Try again. The photographs may not be what we wanted, but if we’re listening, they’ll teach us something – and that’s progress. New questions and a few honest photographs that, for whatever reason, don’t quite work for us, are better than perfect photographs that are responses to questions we’ve long ago stopped asking ourselves, on matters we no longer care about enough to feel this deeply.

What if your photographs are not the point? I know, they matter. They’re important to you. They are to me too. Like Godin, I’m ready to dance or cry about my work. But what if the photographs are the byproduct? What if they aren’t only the expression of our vision but also the means by which we explore that vision? And by “what if..,” I mean it is. Dorothea Lange said it beautifully: the camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.

We all have vision. We see the world in a particular way. It’s an extraordinary pressure to feel that we could express that vision in a series of photographs, never mind just one. So despite all the many words I’ve written about vision, in which I still believe, I now wonder if it’s not sometimes a little like one of those things that’s easier to see in the periphery; you see it better when you don’t look straight at it.

It’s been a little while since I wrote an article that seemed to be about photography. But when you believe that photography is about life, almost any subject touches it, and becomes relevant. For me, photography is not the point of any of this. Life is. Photography is the means by which I explore life, and find my vision. Sometimes, though not as often as I’d like, it is a means by which I express that vision, but the longer I do this the more important the exploration is, the more excited I get about new questions.

It’s good you’re frustrated. Too few people have something burning inside them that matters this much. But be gentle with yourself. Treat the artist with patience. Learn your craft, play with the camera, and take it out into your life and let it show you how the world looks through your eyes. Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing. Live a big story, full of honest emotion. Photograph that.

Vision and intent, despite what I’ve written before, aren’t quite the same. You already have vision. Intent is what it takes to put the camera to your eye and try, and to keep trying. Sometimes it’ll come out better than you imagined and will express that vision beautifully. Other times it’ll fall heart-breakingly short and instead of the window to the world that you wanted it to be, it becomes a mirror. Sometimes you work on the art, and sometimes you work on the artist. Either is a victory. Both lead to better work and a larger life. Both take time.


  1. Another wonderful and valuable article, David. Many thanks. In many ways it’s another angle on that special Emily Dickinson quote: “Ignite the imagination and light the slow fuse of the possible”. The vision thing does the igniting and then in must come the intent if the fuse is to be lit. Also reminds me a bit of the Helsinki Bus Station Theory by Arno Minkkinen (http://www.fotocommunity.com/info/Helsinki_Bus_Station_Theory), one of the best and most encouraging articles I’ve read. Thanks again and best wishes for the Easter weekend.

  2. I made me coffee and read this. Love that you allow me to make mistakes on my journey. It is not what is before us that matters, it is what we see. I find that my photography journey is much like my yoga journey. Some days are difficult. I can’t get it right, I get frustrated, angry even. Some days its just flows. Some days it’s emotional.

    I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It’s who I am.

    1. Author

      Allow you to make mistakes? I insist you make them! 🙂 I’m making coffee now. It’s my fuel for the day ahead – full of skinned knees and attempts at this and that, but oh! the lessons learned and the new windows opened because of perserverence! 🙂

  3. It’s kind of like a new years resolution, David. I don’t believe in them – you never know what opportunity may come your way. Photographs are the journal of my life. I’ve kept written journals in the past and have been so disappointed when I don’t make time for them…to the point where it becomes stressful to do so. Photographs, in some regard, are the medicine for my soul in which vision, art, and therapy all come together. 😉

  4. Is vision the chicken or its egg? Is the chicken just the eggs way of making more… eggs?

    I’ve gotta point… um… I think. “I conclude therefore I envision.” Or… or… “I envision therefore I conclude.” Or…

    My point… An artist I admire is powerfully adept at describing visions of a dystopian world that is filled with sterile but muscular… high key… images of machines, buildings, infrastructure… yet only one, shadowy, strongly striding man seen either in the distance or from the back, his head coverered by a homburg he wears a trench coat and frequently carries some sort of sack or briefcase. Point is that the artist has a singular vision that he expresses in conclusive images through a POV.

    Are they ambiguous? Well, artists ask questions, but it’s above our pay grade to answer them. Vision, it seems to me, is in presenting the questions… whether in music, poetry, video, a paint, stone, or pixies – whatever – with as little ambiguity as we can muster.

    Problem is, most of us aren’t quite aware of the questions ourselves and the consequent guilt is our burden.

    Or not… 🙂 Great essay.

    1. Author

      “Well, artists ask questions, but it’s above our pay grade to answer them. Vision, it seems to me, is in presenting the questions… whether in music, poetry, video, a paint, stone, or pixies – whatever – with as little ambiguity as we can muster. ”

      Brilliantly worded, Ted.

  5. One of my favorites quotes are,
    “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”
    -Pablo Picasso-

    And when you get stuck in a rut,
    “God is really only another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant and the cat. He has no real style, He just goes on trying other things.”
    -Pablo Picasso-

  6. Thank you again David for a couple of profound posts this week.

    I like how you summed up that photography is a about life and therefore you feel you can address so many different topics – some closely related to the craft, others related to life.

    I feel like you are talking about almost everything that is really relevant to my life these past few months. Coming here is like having a personal mentor. Please keep up the good work. You’ve got a lot of things figured out, you are trying to figure out many more, you are an excellent writer and above all a generous soul. Thanks again for sharing your talents.

  7. “The way to do is be.”
    ~ Lao Tsu

    If we “become” ourselves, our work will reflect that. Don’t say it’s easy, but what are the alternatives?

    That’s a very sweet image. Is that Cynthia? Love the small area of light on the artist’s work against the fading twilight.

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  9. Thanks, a very beautiful and thoughtful piece. For some time I have tentatively been trying to explore ‘I’, in a photographic sense, as a dynamic entity which connects ‘my’ perception and ‘my’ expression.

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