A Bigger Story

In A Beautiful Anarchy, The Life Creative, Travel, Vision Is Better by David18 Comments


Dusk. Fogo Island, Newfoundland. 2014

Do you know why Apple succeeds the way it does? OK, aside from sexy products? They tap into something bigger than technology. Sure, they’re a technology company, and you either love them or hate them, but they aren’t selling phones or computers. They’re selling a narrative. They’re selling Think Different. Creative freedom. Apple is not alone in this. The best companies – the ones with the most loyal followings – sell a bigger idea and connect what they do to that idea.

The other day I opened a discussion about photographers trying to make a living on this craft. This ties into that. I would venture that, on average, the photographers (remember this is about selling your work, I’ll get to the rest of you later…) that are best known and succeeding in the industry are not just plugging their work; they’re telling a story. Their story. They are connecting to some bigger idea that people already care deeply about. Love. Adventure. Fashion. Travel. Cats.

Forget who pays for your work. Who cares about your work? What does your work make others care about? These are not questions for the faint of heart.

The application should be obvious. Find your core. Figure out what stories are most important to you. Now find the audience for that. Photographers who are just trying to sell prints or the odd image license by shooting all over the map are not the ones making a career of it these days. I’d be willing to bet I could go to most of those websites and not be able to tell you what that person truly, deeply, cares about. Or there’d be such a list of varied interests that it’d be meaningless. Give me something to sink my teeth into. Hell, give me something to sink my heart into.

And if you don’t give two shakes about making a living with this, the notion remains as relevant and powerful. People will be more drawn to your work (assuming the work itself is solid) if it’s about something. Relentlessly, unapologetically about something. What themes run through your work? What legacy are you leaving? Forget who pays for your work. Who cares about your work? What does your work make others care about? These are not questions for the faint of heart. They require decisions, and commitment. But I’d go to the mats on this one. If you want to connect to an audience, you need to make them care. The best way to do that is to connect with them over things they already care about.

Say something meaningful, make me lean in and pay attention. Signal wins over noise every time. Be courageous. Be interesting. Speak to my heart and my curiosity.

What story are you telling? What bigger ideas are you tapping into? If you don’t know, neither does your audience. This should be a freeing notion for us. Terrifying on some level, sure, because to some extent it requires that we nail our colours to the mast. But isn’t that one of the reasons we love our favourite artists? It takes courage. But it’s still freeing. It provides a framework, a constraint we freely choose, to photograph only what we care about and letting the rest go. No obligation to be someone else, photograph everything under the sun. It’s a freedom from the frantic, noisy, climate we live in.

When I was in comedy there were times when an audience would get noisy. Turning up the microphone doesn’t work. They just get noisier. What does work is to say something that matters and be less noisy. Lower your voice to whisper if you have to. Don’t match noise for noise. Say something meaningful, make me lean in and pay attention. Signal wins over noise every time. Be courageous. Be interesting. Speak to my heart and my curiosity. And tell a great story with your life and your art. You’ll have all the audience you’ll ever need.

Don’t mistake me for saying it’s easy. It’s not. This is the struggle, the chase, and it’s its own reward on the days it’s not its own form of mental torture. It’s the reason I’m writing more about the creative life these days than I am about the buttons and dials on your camera. That’s easy. Anyone can learn that. This other stuff is hard. It’s also the reason I wrote A Beautiful Anarchy, and started the Beautiful Anarchy blog – if you haven’t bookmarked it yet, here’s the link.  If you want to explore these ideas further, check out the book, and the blog.


  1. David,

    Great word here. I have found this to be so true with other artists I connect with. It is their photos for sure, but it’s mostly their story that draws me in – their honesty and vulnerability compel me to follow along. That’s been true in my experience of you.

    But you’re so right that it’s not easy. As if it’s not hard enough to put our work out for others to assess, it’s that much harder to put our own story out for viewing.

    Thanks for a great post.

  2. Man it’s like you and Chris Guillebeau are inside my head this past year or so. It’s so nice to have the guidance, mentorship and encouragement. Thanks for your willingness to help others.

  3. Too many people associate “Work” with “compensation.” Great work – “stuff that people care about and causes them to care” sometimes never brings a paycheck. And we need to be fine with that if we will every be happy.

  4. As always, David, so well written and so “kickass”!
    It’s funny that I came by chance to your post just after having watched Jeremy Cowart presentation of his personal vision of photography and career yesterday on CreativeLive, “The Bigger Picture: Why We Do What We Do.”
    His insights complements really well your post, and his wrap up is a concrete example of the point you described.

  5. I have always personally believed what you are saying here, work from your own heart, vision and soul and you will reach an audience, if you make yourself available to them.

    Even back when I was doing ceramic, some gallery owners would look at my work and say things like, “MY people don’t want that.” Can’t you do this? To which I would reply, “you already have 15 people doing that, do you really need another?”

    Then when I would go to shows, at least the right ones, I would always be a top seller. When I opened my own gallery in Hawaii, folk from around the world found there way to my door, and supported my efforts.

    Same with any art, we are each, though similar in essential ways, different as individuals, and it’s that individual place we must work from to create that which is meaningful to us first, and then find the audience.

    1. Author

      Someone once told me, “Don’t get good at something you don’t enjoy.” I think the same logic applies here – why create demand for something that takes you off your desired path? Thanks, as always, for chiming in, Tom!

  6. Thank you for your, as always, great insights David. I have been working on exactly this over the past few months and it’s been scary yet incredibly freeing to create only the type of work I care about.

  7. I’ve only recently discovered your blog and am reading “How to feed a staving artist” at the moment. Your work and words are showing me I can follow my dreams and do what truely makes me happy thank you David

  8. After reading one of your posts, I always want to jump on a plane and adventure around the world. Thank you for your passion and inspiring that in the rest of us.

  9. Another beautiful reminder of why we do what we do.

    Love this “Give me something to sink my teeth into. Hell, give me something to sink my heart into.”

    Thanks for your continuous inspiration, passion and reminders that we need to follow our hearts!

  10. Yet another piece in which it feel as though you are speaking to me directly; encouraging me to carry on with where my heart is leading… Thank you!

    1. Author

      I was. And I am. if we follow where our hearts lead we’ll end up somewhere interesting, and best of all, we’ll have joy and meaning on the way there. Even if “there” keeps on changing. 🙂

  11. How do you manage to do this time after time? Short, sharp, relevant and spot-on advice. Thanks.

    1. Author

      Mostly I just preach the sermons I need to hear myself, or the lessons I’m re-learning for the hundredth time. I figure if I need to hear it / learn it again, there are others that might too. 🙂 You’re welcome, Jeremy.

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