For Jennifer, Whomever You Are.

In A Beautiful Anarchy, Life Is Short, Pep Talks, The Life Creative, Vision Is Better by David40 Comments

Jennifer is a composite of all the students who’ve asked me to look at their work online and offer some advice. My advice has changed over the years.

Dear David,
I’m a second-year photography student. Would you look at my work and offer me any advice?

Dear Jennifer,
Thank you for the invitation to spend some time with your work. I know you meant for me to look at your work and give you advice based on that, but I only know how to struggle with the making of my own art, not yours. I could make suggestions about colour or composition but they’d only bring you closer to making your work look like mine, and no one needs that. Only you can discover what your art will look like. So here’s what I’ve got. It’s what I wish I’d heard sooner:

You’re young. I still think I am too, but it’s relative. You’re at the very beginning of this process and much as you think you are beginning to know who you are now, well, Life has a way of changing that person, and with it her art. You ain’t seen nothing yet.

So since you’re at the beginning, spend more time working on the artist than the art. Be patient with her. Allow her to express her wants and desires and chase hard after them. They’re likely to change along the way. Chase them wherever they lead. Learn to listen to, and trust, that voice.

Take risks. Take more risks.

Be heartbreakingly vulnerable with the world and your art.

Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Be curious.

Call bullshit on safety and face your fears daily. Don’t be afraid of the unknown. Discovery only happens in the unknown.

Do your work. Always do your work. Even when it’s shit. Keep doing it. Because making lots of bad art is the only way to get to a place where you’ll one day make great art. Failure is a much more faithful teacher than immediate success (which usually isn’t what it seems).

Look at, and study, the work of the masters. Form strong opinions about that work, and be willing to change them.

Look at the world with all your senses; seeing is about perception and that’s a whole-being kind of thing. Experience life, don’t just shoot it. You can’t photograph well what you haven’t experienced.

Colour outside the lines and ignore the so-called rules. Look for principles instead; they last longer and serve us better.

Lastly, through all that, learn your craft, and be so good at it that no one can ignore you. But never confuse craft for art. One is a means, the other an end.

Your work is beautiful. It’s a great start. But right now, the harder, more interesting task ahead of you, is to tend the garden from which the better fruit will one day come: you. Obsess about the work, we all do, but remember that in 5 years you’ll look back and see this work – as it is for all of us – as only a starting point. Don’t get too hung up on it. Your best work will always be ahead of you. It’s true now, and it’ll be true in 25 years. We never “arrive.” There is only the winding, beautiful journey as we chase our changing vision and the muse that’s always a few steps ahead, just disappearing around unexpected corners.


  1. Thanks for sharing this David. I think that we all, at times, feel that we are in a race. Your advice helps me to realize that there really isn’t a finish line.

  2. David,

    Thank you. This really resonated and I am going to follow many of those above by printing this, hanging it where I will read it daily and calling myself on my own bullshit 😉

    Great read and thank you for the beautiful work you send out to the universe


  3. Pingback: Photography Links May 2014 | Serge Van Cauwenbergh

  4. Pingback: For Jennifer, Whomever You Are

  5. I so love this one!! To me this piece of advice goes beyond the horizon of creatives. It’s a vibrant ode to all layers of creativity and life in general, most excellent David.
    I think I need to re-visit this post every now and then, like taking out a wee treasure from a wee box and marvel at it every now and then…
    Thanks for the inspiration and all the best! Cheers, Oliver

  6. Pingback: For Jennifer, Whomever You Are « Secured Archives Secured Archives

  7. Pingback: Photography Links May 2014

  8. Oh my, what a wonderful letter. I am that new student who watches what others shoot, god forbid I go to Africa for my first time in Sept and not do it “right”. Great coaching. PS. had time with Andy Biggs today, so saw this on his blog just now. Thanks.

  9. I’d like to add: “When faced with a potential subject, draw on the negative space around the subject for context and perspective.”

  10. Tempted to print this out / forward to struggling programmers.. It applies to a lot more than just photography. Great post!

    1. Author

      Thanks Jess. I suspect it probably applies to most of life if we let it. 🙂

  11. Hi David,
    Well said, very true!! finding your own style should be fun & the best part of your photographic career!! if i had any words of wisdom to the up & coming photographers, is be patient & one day you realize OMG i have a style!!!

    Ken Dyball

  12. David,

    We are all Jennifer, even when we teach others. Great advice, taken to heart. Thank you, Bob

  13. “…never confuse craft for art; one is a means, the other an end.” Just brilliant!! All artists should have this permanently imbedded in their skulls!

  14. Wonderful advice, and as usual your post seems to arrive in my inbox just when I need to hear what you have to say. Thanks for always pushing us to look to ourselves before we look to anyone else.

  15. With your permission…I will print your Post, frame it nicely and hang it in my studio as a daily reminder. This is the most honest and genuine “advice” I think I’ve ever read. Thank you, David. Your words are as inspirational as your art.

    1. Author

      Thanks Don. No permission needed. Unless you put it on T-Shirts. Then I want a piece of the action 🙂

  16. I’m 72. I’m still Jennifer, and I thank you for these reminders. I think we never get too old or too good at what we do to ignore your beautifully-put advice.

  17. Reminds me of “Letters to a Young Poet,” by Rilke, one of my favorite books ever. Beautifully written, Mr. duChemin.

  18. I loved your article. It’s so true…«the best is yet to come»!!!

  19. Superb post David. Very inspirational. “Your best work will always be ahead of you”. So true.

  20. well, i’m not the second-year photography student… but i guess you can call me Jenn now 🙂 anybody else?:)

  21. Hi David,

    I think its time that they should start calling you the “ALCHEMIST”

    You seem to know how to convert things to gold, be it words or images.

    Continue to do so till likes of me and Jennifer find the ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ and start speaking the language of our soul!!!

    Keep Inspiring…

    1. Author

      Thank you, Pankaj. For someone who loves that book, this is high praise 🙂

  22. Great advice, David.

    Wish more people I respected had given it when I was younger.

    I did it “my way” anyway, but often wondered if I was the “stubborn blockhead” that more than one accused me of being, but I always felt if “everyone else” was doing it “that way” was one more person really needed in the fray?

    So, “Do your work. Always do your work.”
    I don’t think you could possibly give any better advice…

  23. Such great advice! Wish I’d heard this at year 2. . . but I’m hearing it- and learning to apply it now- especially listening to the creative voice inside my own soul & following that instead of what I thought every photographer was “supposed to do”. Most of that, I have to credit to growth after reading your writings. Thanks for great advice, David!!!

  24. Well articulated, David … and so true.

    When looking back at my art and photography from 5, 10, even 25 years ago, I realize how even the “shit” has played an important role in my development as an artist and photographer.

    I hope that I can see that this path of learning, practicing and sharing can become even stronger when, 25 years from now, I look back to my current work.

  25. Man, you do have a way and getting straight to the heart and soul of a reader. Well, this reader, anyway. And isn’t that great teaching? The ability to push past the less-than-helpful response in order to instead share a better answer to a question we don’t know how to ask.
    I am grateful for your perspective, David. Thank you.

  26. Such excellent advice for photographers and, in fact, anyone wishing to explore personal growth. Thank you, David.

  27. I enjoy the part about “making your work like mine”. We all have our own path and style to carve out in photographic journeys. I know when I’ve captured something that I like but it may be meaningless to everyone else around me and that is OK. My biggest challenge in the last year has been following other photographers work and trying to adapt certain aspects to build on my own style and education. The latest ‘shit’ picture was more due to falling while wading through mud last night trying to get some shots of old pilings along the Fraser river on river road. Adventures!

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.