We live in strange times. Never before has an artist of any stripe been able to put their work into the world so broadly and so quickly. Never before has an artist been able to hear every voice that cares to praise, criticize, or issue feedback with neither context nor conversation. Most often it’s just a binary reaction: a like or not, a heart or no heart. And the subtle shades of human reaction and emotion and all our complexity goes out the window and gets replaced by comments like “Nice pic!” or worse, an emoji.
Not only can this suffocate our creativity, it can lead us to misunderstand who our audience is. Surrounded by the metrics of social media or the dozen people in your camera club, it’s easy to begin thinking that they are your audience. They are not. Not at first. You are.
You are your own first and most important audience. That’s how you please your audience. By making your art for you.
But how easily do we forget that when we put our work into the world and get mixed reactions or no reactions at all, especially when we put it out there so soon after we make it and are still unsure about what we ourselves think and feel about what we’ve just made?
I think the biggest struggle of the artist is to know his or her own voice, and I’m going to discuss that in the next Contact Sheet I send you on June 09. It’s an important struggle, but I think parallel to it we must come to grips with who our audience is.
For whom do you make your art? If you don’t know this, or mistakenly believe that it is anyone anywhere who looks at your photographs and has the means to tell you what they think about it, you will have a tough time ever discovering and taking responsibility for your own voice.
Voice is about authenticity and you will not create authentic work when your first question is, “What do they want?” instead of, “What do I want?”
Of course, we all hope that if we answer the latter question every day with our art—in the most sincere, vulnerable way—that the crowds will love us and everything we make. So let me make it easier for you: they will not. Some will. A few people with whom your work resonates will eventually applaud, and that feels good. That audience might even grow. That feels even better. But it must still not be the point, and it must never seduce you.
If you want to make your art for your audience and have a chance at that audience loving your work and resonating with it, and—best of all—discovering something of you in it, you must make it for yourself.
And you must be your first and only audience. That means not worrying how others will react to what you make. It means not putting your ego into your work so much that when the world out there doesn’t so much as look sideways at your art, you don’t mistake the rejection of your art for the rejection of your self.
We live in a big, big world. The vast majority of our over-populated planet will not applaud. And like you, they have other things on their minds.
But rather than letting that deflate you, consider the freedom that brings to do things your way. To ask yourself the questions most important to you alone and answer them with your art.
And here’s the miracle of art: when we do create just for ourselves, and we do it in the truest way possible, there might be some person that is touched in some way by your honesty. Your search for beauty. Your unflinching gaze. Your willingness to ask the hard questions. The astonishingly rare courage to be yourself.
If you want to know what the world wants from your art, that’s it. Right there.
Your art must be about you, and for you, first of all.
It’s about the meeting place of that honest soul and the places, times, and circumstances of life. Art is the mashup of you and life: a collaboration. And it can only be a gift to others, help others heal, or be a light to them if it begins not with them, but with you. Because you are all you really know. You are the source of your art. And you must be the first and most important audience for whom that art is made.
That is where you must find your joy. In the making. In the discovery. In getting your hands dirty and unearthing some new thing about yourself and the way you see the world. If you search for it there, you’ll find it.
If you search for joy in the applause or recognition of even one other person before you find it in yourself, not only might you never find it, you might discover the art you make begins to have less and less of your own voice within it.
You are your own North Star—your own demanding audience—and the only one that can make the art you most want, or need, to see in the world. Let that be enough. Let that be the bold source of your own voice.
Don’t look over your shoulder at what others are doing; don’t cock your ear to one side to better hear the reactions of others or the longed-for applause. Make it for you, and for now, only for you.
And if you must seek feedback, as an earnest student of any craft must do to grow and learn, then do so from those few voices you yourself know and trust and choose to listen to. Stop asking the f*cking internet and crowdsourcing your joy; nothing will dilute your voice and the love of your craft so heartbreakingly quickly.
For the Love of the Photograph,
PS – Want more like this? I send these articles out every two weeks to photographers around the world who want to improve their craft and explore their creativity and I’d love to include you. Tell me where to send it and I’ll send you a copy of my best-selling eBook Make Better Photographs, as well bi-weekly articles, first-glimpse monographs of my new work, and very occasional news of resources to help you keep moving forward in this craft we love.
“Each and every one of your emails inspire and motivate me to want to jump right out of my chair away from my computer and shoot for the love of it . Thank you David.” – Millie Brown
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I actually stumbled on your article while searching for information on finding my audience on social media. Expressing your own voice rather than trying to please others has got to be the definition of art itself. Brilliant commentary David.
Thanks for these tips, David. I could not agree more! Giving the best to your client and satisfying them is the only way to grow and grab more clients. Thanks again David for all the tips and suggestions!
I have been thinking hard about this stuff as I get to the point where I’m four weeks from the opening of an exhibition (the first) of my work. It’s taken 2 1/2 years and a ridiculous amount of effort and hassle to get here, and it’s now that I’m feeling the pressure of the forthcoming exposure. Will people like it? Does it matter? You’d be a pretty weird person if that didn’t matter. A friend said it’s a bit like having a party in your student days. There’s the inevitable fear that no one will turn up. But, you know what, they do. Another photographer colleague, much more experienced in this than me, said, “the important thing is to enjoy the experience”. I think that is right. Despite all the inevitable self doubt as your exhibition approaches, you are the single most important critic of your work, and that’s what counts. Have you done the best you can do? Have you put your soul into every picture?
Thanks David for this post, I could not agree more!
It resonates deeply with a strong conviction that I have about photography and emotions.
My definition of a great photo is it has to share for the viewer all the intensity and richness of emotions that the photographer has felt when shooting.
I believe this definition is applicable for all genres of photography, not just fine art photography.
For personal/intimate photography (shooting family and friends), I can feel positive emotions: I’m happy, in admiration, in love, proud, optimistic, … and I want to keep that moment in a photo.
For corporate photography (corporate portrait, product shooting, …) I can feel positive emotions : this person is serene, admirable, proud, curious, optimistic, combative, etc. Or that product is joyful, desirable, surprising, etc. And a great corporate photo has to show that.
For fine art photography, this is where as a photographer all emotions, positive and negative ones, can be expressed. In addition of positive emotions, I can feel disgusted, in rage, sad, fearful, pessimistic, etc. My photo is my true personality as an artist.
It works even for documentary/journalism photography (surprisingly enough). Here as a photographer, I have to capture the emotions of my subject and be mindful to not alter them with mine. My photo is a report of emotional facts.
So I believe that my job as photographer is to use all the repertoire of photography techniques (decisive moment, shooting settings, composition, use of light, development/retouching, printing/presentation) to be aligned the most with my emotions or those of the subject depending of the genre above.
So coming back to the topic on how to be fulfilled as a photographer, my way of seeing it is if our emotions or those of the subject are faked or strongly disaligned against the emotions emanating from the picture, we cannot achieve our best photography.
We have to remain true to emotions, if we want to find happiness in our craft.
As explained by the psychologist Robert Plutchik, emotions have been “invented” by Mother Nature for staying alive!
So how to be fulfilled and mert happiness in photography, if we cannot feel alive?
I would be curious of your thoughts on this (and sorry for my wall of text ;-))
Great words. A recent suggestion from another twitter connection was to never “like” a photo, unless you are willing to leave a comment as to why you like it. Use the “like” or “heart” icon as an introduction to words, your feelings, and your emotions.
Do this for a year, and what you will find is, you “like” less because it forces you to ask yourself, do I REALLY like it, or is it just cool and eye catching. Would I print this and put it on my wall?
So when you do “like”, tell them why, with truth and grace!
This is great, thanks, Todd. I think whatever we do to generate genuine connection and discourse is a step forward.
Amen, work for yourself first and foremost.
Always nice to see your name and your thoughts in my comments, Tom. I hope you’re well.
This is so motivational to read, you are totally right David! Photography should always be close to yourself, only then the best photos will be created. You are your own audience.
Thank you for sharing this!
My pleasure, thanks for dropping in, Carlies. 🙂
OMG….I’ve only read your first paragraph and I feel bad. I’m guilty of that…..a ‘like’, or a heart and ‘god forbid’ an emoji. I’m sorry. As someone who enjoys critique of my own work, it’s just wrong to handle the critique of others that way. It’ s not critique at all….it’s lazy and to be blamed on being too busy to really focus and be constructive or expressive is not good enough. I will try harder to participate in a more constructive way. My lord…….I’ve probably only ‘hearted’ (my bad) the majority of your Instagram posts , when they are all so truly inspiring. 🙂
I have now finished the article, as always it hits the mark.
I find I don’t enjoy the work if I’m not doing something that I really, really like and hopefully will eventually love. I get sidetracked by ideas, visualize an image I want and go after it….that’s the joy in all of this for me. But still, there’s always a nagging question ‘will they like it’. You always hope that they will. You are so right in your statement that it needs to be what I love…..that’s where the real happiness is.. Thanks again for the reminder.
No need to feel bad, Caroline. We all respond differently to the work of others, and for different reasons. I make my work first for me, and not for likes, so any indication that others enjoy that work in some way is a bonus!
Well stated David!
I too feel this way and without you, there is no art!
We, are our own worse critic and we need to be able to see that in ourselves and create something that makes us happy first or we have lost ourselves to the ever changing wind of opinion of public display which comes and goes at a whim.
In His grip;
To be true to yourself is number 1. Thanks for expressing it so well.
I enjoy your photographs and writings. I look forward to them.
As an artist I have always believed in exactly what you say. To your own self be true.
Just read this in my email and I want to say, “Thank you.” Well stated, and very timely! I will be printing it out as a reminder for those “blue” days….