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.