I wrote a book called Vision & Voice. This is not about that. This is about the constant stream of questions I hear that all share a similar quest fuelled by a similar desperation. The questions all centre on one recurring desire: the longing to find your voice photographically.
I have tried, in my way, to answer the question creatively, given the myriad places from which so many people begin that quest, and from where they ask the question. I have also, unknowingly, skirted one obvious and uncomfortable answer.
Could it be that so many of us struggle in vain to find our voice because we have nothing meaningful to say?
As I write this I’m coming off a too-ambitious quartet of back-to-back flights from Mafia Island to Dar es Salaam to Nairobi to Dubai to Delhi. I’m tired, and I’m one whisky in to an evening in Delhi that’s been set aside to answer blog questions, write this article, and catch up with things at home after a week of almost non-existent wifi. And so it could be that this comes without my usual finesse. But that’s probably a good thing. Sometimes the more direct approach is the kindest.
What photography needs in order to become more than simply a craft, a means to say things, is – desperately – the things about which we have something to say. Without that we are not artists. We are not poets. We are not storytellers. We are technicians. And no talk of finding our voice will rescue our craft from the uninspiring – and uninspired – role it too often has. All artifice, no art. And no impact. None.
What photography needs is photographers who have a pulpit to stand on, meaningful questions to explore, beauty to reveal, injustice to expose. It needs hearts already moved by some pressing, human, thing. It needs minds set in motion by curiosity and rigour. The megapixels, on this level, are irrelevant. I suspect daVinci never wished he’d used a larger canvas for the Mona Lisa. I doubt Monet ever wished his images were sharper, more literal. Poets don’t ever strive for greater clarity at the expense of beauty or power. Those things become irrelevant in the face of touching hearts and minds with something important.
It’s important to find your voice, to discover the unique way in which you yield the camera. But that’s secondary to this: what do you want to say? What is so important to you that you want to work this craft like a rented mule, over and over again, until it says it right? What’s so important to you that you pass it on to others in your generation with pleading and the desperate hope that they hear you? Is your life so long that you have time to do anything else?
Find that. If you find your voice too, that’s icing. If all you manage, as I so often fear I’m doing, is to stammer and stutter, then do so. But don’t mistake eloquence for relevance. The heart and imagination will take a human story, true, beautiful, raw, and vulnerable, imperfectly expressed, any day over a perfect expression that signifies nothing, that has no spark.
The most important thing in the world to you. Begin there. Tell the deepest, truest, thing you can. The thing that keeps you up at night, drives you to tears, makes you erupt with head-thrown-back laughter. Only then worry about how well you tell it. Until you figure that out, all the talk in the world about megapixels and sharpness and frame rates and bokeh, is just a self-indulgent geek-wank. The heart has never in all the history of poetry or story-telling, given a flying f*ck about the rest.
Voice is a counterfeit, a fraudulent distraction from the one thing that will change your photography, your writing, or any other thing you do with these quickly-passing bays: vision. A way of seeing. A thing to say. Find that. The rest will follow.
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You have interesting topics and viewpoints, but I really can’t read the font very well (with my fifty something eyes). It seems like a dotted typefont, and quite faint, so tough to get through.
You speak right to my heart. Thank you a thousand times over.
Thank you David!!! Your amazing answer leads me to rethink a lot…
Hi David, how could we train the feeling of what makes the picture stand out in terms of “the art”. I mean, the technical part of creating the photo can be learned pretty easy, we have a lot of info, books, posts. But what about the most important part?
I think you’re right – it is the most difficult part. It begins with knowing ourselves, being honest with our questions and obeying the curiosity that leads us in new directions. And then I think you find other artists you admire, who do work you love, and you study that. And if you’re lucky you find a mentor. But art happens when you follow the voice inside you to explore and express your life, and the life of those around you, in the way that most interests you, and in the medium that you’re best at. There are no rules and no beaten path. If there were, you wouldn’t want them; that’s not where art is made. Art is made in the human spirit. Grow that and I’d be surprised if you could hold the art back.
I wish I had read this in my calm last night with a whisky, rather than this AM before coffee. Not sure it would have helped sleep come any easier. However, an overnight processing might have helped me get on with my day.
I cannot say how many time I’ve come to your blog and found to read what I’ve felt and not put to words.
…and now for coffee…
I thought about a scene from Walk The Line. Joaquin Phoenix, playing Johnny Cash, is in the studio with his band playing a hum-drum hymn. The manager is unimpressed.
“If you was hit by a truck and was lying out in that gutter dying and you had time to sing one song, one song that would let God know what you felt about your time here on earth, one song that would sum you up, that’s the kind of song that truly saves people.”
Inspiring article. I always try to minimize the amount of words I speak. But if I speak I try to talk something that is positive. Have you watched a movie called A Thousand Words which I find as an analogy to your article. Photography is an art and a single photo can tell more than thousands words.
It’s good to take the gloves off and swing at these deep issues bare-knuckled.
More impact, right?
The artists who’ve connected with their unique and powerful Why, their message as you put it, are easy to spot. In a sea of pretty, tack-sharp images, evocative art stands like an iceberg above the waters, with great depth for those who seek it.
The president of the company I worked for for 16 years taught me an invaluable lesson: “Disturb their sense of well-being.”
When you don’t pull your punches, you do this very well, David. The passion of living these truths and so desperately wanting to share them gives a special fuel to your words, and your message.
Thank you for exercising the bravery (or should I thank the whisky!) it takes to keep getting this message out to the photography community. Never give up; know we’re listening, learning, and you’re planting seeds that will change the growth of thousands of photographers over time.
You need to visit this more-than-one-whiskey night in the middle of nowhere place more often, my friend.
I need to clearly drink more whiskey and print some of these questions on my wall. Fuck that. I have to tattoo some of these to my skin.
I want some of what you are drinking!
Brilliant post, David. Really touches a nerve, because this is the uncomfortable feeling I’ve been having about my own work for quite some time — striving to make meaningful work, just not having anything interesting to say.
Your writing, among other things, transformed my personal outlook. Vision and having a story was difficult for me because I am a people pleaser, but I’m learning not to be. It causes fear I’ve come to realize and that injures not only my photography but also my life in many ways. I have a suspicion that there are others like me who don’t think they have a story to tell or are not aware of the story because they are too caught up in pleasing other people (I’m sure you’ve written about that somewhere). Or they have a fear of discovering that story because it makes them more vulnerable. We tend to push that vision and voice back for so long that we don’t know where or what it is. I have to thank you for helping me realize there is a vision there and it is more important to discover it than getting shots that everyone else may like.
Not only a great photographer but you are also a great blogger which sure follows from being a great story teller as reflected in your photos. I am looking forward to every post you are writing and even the gear posts have this very unpretentious tone which makes it enjoyable and equally informative to read. Looking forward to your captures in Istanbul – thats where I live. If you have not been here already – be ready for the ride. Burcu
You have a way of cutting through all the clutter and the bullshit to find the truth, the deeper meaning behind the why we photograph, why we struggle with it, and why we should struggle with it.
There are many educators out there, there are much fewer who inspire and just a rare few who can do both.
Thanks for being one of them.
So very well said David. Thank you thank you!!
If whiskey was the proximate cause of this article, allow me to send you a case of your favorite. Thanks for a direct, meaningful article.
Powerful words. The truth sometimes hurts. Thanks, David, for the tough love!
For those wondering what your voice might look like, TED offers up some examples here: http://petapixel.com/2016/01/04/11-ted-talks-on-photography-worth-watching/
I’ve followed you for many years, and while I always appreciate your reminders about photographic voice-finding, this post hit me the hardest. Thank you for giving us your message again without concern for finesse. I don’t mean to look the gift horse in the mouth, but here’s something I struggle with: I know my message; it’s been clear to me for a very long time. But how can I determine whether my photography carries my message? How can I know that what I’m photographing or how I’m photographing is the best way to say what I have to say? Do I need others’ opinions to see whether my point is made? Do Likes on my blog or purchases of my prints have any relationship to others’ understanding of my message? Or is the only thing that matters that I am doing photography in order to express my message and try to communicate it? Perhaps what I am asking is whether the only thing that matters is whether I am doing the work. And maybe, now that I’ve written this out, I know the answer. Thank you for leading me there.
It’s both a pleasure and a privilege, Linda. Thank you.
Vision and Voice. Funny you should mention that, as I recently bought this book and am working through it now. Not just how to use Lightroom, but how to use Lightroom to convey the message you intend. Not just what to do, but why. This is the best book on Lightroom I’ve used!! Thank you!!
Whisky isn’t a bad thing…sometimes wine isn’t either.
When someone goes down the pixel road, and starts questioning how sharp are my edges…it usually makes me feel like I need a shower to wash all that off. Like going to the theatre, and only taking in the technicality of the set changes. If you are staring at my edges, then I have not done my job well at all.
What gave me the idea that I HAD TO BE a photogtapher? What compels me to do this? What chord did this strike in me that forced me to make THIS image? If I cannot get that through to you, is that story worth telling…or is it just a pretty picture? A pretty picture is like empty calories; it fills my belly, but it does not sustain me for any length of time. When I can make you see with your gut, when I can make you feel with your eyes, then I will have done my job properly.
AMEN & AMEN!
Is just enjoying the photographic process with all it’s technical bits not enough? I often ask myself that question as I long to find the thing I am passionate about and thinking that the photographs I make are never good enough. I think I am good at the craft part of all this image making thing but I struggle with the vision and voice part. Keep writing and I’ll keep reading. Hopefully one day I’ll look at my work and think perhaps I did have something to say after all. Until then I will keep trying. Thanks for all your words David.
Exacty. I’m constantly talking to myself and nagging about why would anyone want to see any of the pictures I take. I think maybe I might have had a little (very little) bit of self realization. The whole time I’ve been trying to take that photo that someone, including myself, would hang on their wall. I think that has held me back from taking the picture someone MIGHT put on their wall. I’ve got to learn to STOP thinking!
Vision is indeed an absolute requirement in the pursuit of artistic excellence. It would seem that said “vision” is possibly a fleeting and even constantly changing entity that eludes many is this all too brief existence. Not a cookie cutter thing that comes from a text book or any source other than the soul of the person we either are or intend to be.
You have captured that “vision” at a young age. We, your readers, are so grateful for that and the fact that you share from a place few will ever know. May your “vision” continue to inspire and motivate others who follow in your path!
Well said David!
My gosh, David!
Don’t ever stop talking to us. (And do have some whiskey with it if it helps!)
Among tons and tons of books that babble on, there is that one little blog post that hits it home. Beautiful!
I am forever in the pursuit of the stories in photographs that express my vision. Those of which I never expect to find, although I’ve been told I’m getting much closer. Profound, David. Thank you!
That bit of clarity right there is why I love reading everything you write! This is exactly what we need to hear- those of us still looking for or finding our voice. Thank you.