“How do I find my style?“
Over a month ago I asked you and everyone else who reads these bi-weekly missives about your greatest struggles and A-HA moments; overwhelmingly, finding “style” was one of the most repeated frustrations. It’s a common enough question, and my answer has always been roughly the same over the years (though I worry it always makes me sound like a grumpy old man): stop looking for it.
Style isn’t the point. It’s not the thing to look for and hone. It’s a byproduct at best, and at its best, it reflects something more important: your voice. And that was the second most-asked question: how do I find my voice?
If you want to develop your style as a photographer you can, of course, just find some presets you like and boom! Instant style. Recognizable style. Style that is, well, if not yours and yours alone, then borrowed for a time. Style you’ll get bored of. Style that will make your photographs feel new and shiny, but not necessarily yours. And that’s why I so earnestly steer people away from style.
Style isn’t necessarily anything more than a way to polish our turds, mistake authenticity for novelty, and to perpetually chase our tails as trends come and go. You want style, buy a flashy hat.
Voice, on the other hand, is harder. And so much more significant.
To me, the more important question will never be whether or not your photographs have style, but whether they are yours. Whether they say the things you need in your heart to say, whether they reflect your tastes and opinions and individuality. And if they do those latter things, they will eventually do the former. The reverse is not true.
You could spend a lifetime chasing style after style, even one particular style, and never find in them your own voice.
“How do I make them mine?” is not a question I can answer in one short article, but I can give you a starting point. Actually, I can give you two, but I’ll start with the first. You’ve got to back up and ask two connected questions: “Who am I?” and “What do I want?”
Big can of worms, right? But it’s not, really. Discovering your voice photographically is not a mystical thing.
Your voice, and what ultimately you want to show up in the best of your photographs, or any art—your poetry, your writing, your painting—is merely what you say and how you say it.
But you are the source. So who are you?
What kind of personality do you have? What’s important to you? Are you cheerful and happy and obsessed with kittens? Well expressed, your photographs will reflect that. That is voice. Are you moody and complicated and never quite let go of your teen-aged angst? Again, your photographs will reflect that if the voice is true. And there are many combinations that will together make that voice unique to you. But one thing is certain: the first will not be like the second. They will be unmistakably individual. They will belong to the photographer who made them and be a powerful tool in their hands: a tool that, in other hands, won’t work the same way.
That’s why knowing your voice matters. It gives you direction.
It helps you make the best decisions. Not the “right” decisions, because no such absolute thing exists, but the best. The choices that are yours and which result in the images that most resonate with you. The things that you want to say and in the way you desire to say them. And only you can know that.
This doesn’t make it easy, of course. It forces us to make decisions, to choose This and therefore not That, and we can get paralyzed by wondering if we’re making the right choice—the best choice.
Knowing your voice and being truly aware of what you want helps you choose subjects, helps you know which lenses work best for you, which stories you want to tell and which you can just let go of even when every other photographer is pointing their lenses at the latter.
It helps you receive critique without becoming deflated, and to allow that critique to be helpful rather than creatively destructive.
The second thing I can offer you as a starting point is The Visual Voice; Find Your Voice, Express Your Vision, Make Stronger Photographs. I wrote this as a 77-page digital micro-course / workbook in finding and owning your voice photographically. It’s an eBook, something I haven’t offered for ages, but in April I found myself wrestling with a way to communicate these ideas to you. So I sat down and wrote an outline and then got distracted by all the ideas and creative exercises, and somehow ended up with an eBook made to help you specifically with these ideas.
The intention and hope of The Visual Voice is getting you to the kind of direction and freedom—and the satisfaction—of creating photographs that do much more than chase style, but explore and express something infinitely better: you.
The original subtitle of this book was going to be “11 Ways to Find and Own Your Voice,” but I’ve got a lot of books with 10 or 20 ways to do this or that. But that’s what it is: a frank, impassioned exploration of 11 ways to better know, accept, and use your voice so that you can get to making the photographs that are most you; the kind that show up in your social media feed one day and to which people respond, “I knew this was yours before I even saw your name!” because they’re as authentic and individual as you are.
For the Love of the Photograph,