You know how I’m always going on and on about how there are no rules in photography? I’m going to back-pedal a bit on that because the more I look at my own creative life, the more I realize that I have some very important rules. Rules without which I don’t make the best photographs of which I’m capable. Rules that keep me centered and grounded and make me more creative, not less.
But they’re my rules. They are the creative boundaries on which I have signed off personally and to which I willingly submit myself, and they’re rules I break at my own peril, which I discover every time I decide to go AWOL or get lazy about them. I discovered these rules over years of working with myself, knowing my own strengths and weakness, and finding out early that I flail around creatively when I allow myself the luxury of having no rules at all.
You need to find your own rules—not anyone else’s—but perhaps you’ll see something helpful in these.
Create challenging constraints for your work, as soon as possible. Define the terms. My latest project is simple but well constrained and makes it easier not to let myself off the hook or take the easy way out. I choose constraints that challenge me, that force me to learn and risk and fail. I do not choose the easy way, because that bores me quickly and I’ve never created good work while bored.
What could these constraints be for you? You could start with time: every Wednesday you photograph for two hours, no exceptions. Or every time guests visit, you make their portrait. Make it a rule. Or decide this year you’re only working in black and white or with one lens. Or that for this project you’re only using natural light. Challenging constraints make better photographs (eventually) but you have to choose them and lean into the challenge.
Constraints give me a problem to solve, but far from restraining me, they make me more creative; within their boundaries, I am free to run amok with all the creative anarchy I want.
Trust Your Gut. It’s not infallible, and it has to be willing to learn, but trusting my gut to lead me to new ideas and in new directions is the only way to get to work that is truly my own. When I doubt, when I’m just not sure or am feeling overwhelmed with options (which is often), I can tell you that I listen to my gut. Every time I have transgressed on this one, every time I have played it safe, listened to the crowd and hedged my bets, I have made work that is mediocre and, worse, not truly mine.
Celebrate Small Wins. Is it the end of the day and you wrote that thing you needed to write or made that one photograph you wanted to make? Time for a glass of wine. You finished that chapter, or took another step forward in that body of work you’re creating? Let’s go to dinner. Every big win is only ever the accumulation of small wins, so anything I can do to get myself jazzed about small wins and taking next steps, I do it. If I think of the pressure to “get that project done,” it’s paralyzing. If I focus on small wins, piece by piece, it happens.Creativity is a work ethic more than it is a talent.
Never Compare. When I was about 13 years old, my school announced a cartoon contest. I saw my future laid out before me, and the contest (specifically, winning that contest) was the first step on a journey that I was sure would lead to fortune and fame.
I worked hard on that entry, perfecting a caricature of the music teacher I liked so much. I submitted my entry long before the deadline and waited, using the time to work on my acceptance speech. When the winners were announced, I could hardly sit still—until it became known that my cartoon was the only entry. I was OK with winning by default, was prepared to change my press release, even to forgo my planned celebrations and just tuck my award quietly into its gilded frame and hang it prominently in my (mother’s) home. What I was not prepared for was the announcement that I had won second place.
Second place. In a contest with, apparently, only myself.
True story. I tell it to you because we’re often told not to compare ourselves to others but that “the only person you compare yourself to is yourself.” It sounds wise, unless you’re the kind of guy who wins second place when competing against himself.
Even comparing yourself to the person you see in the mirror can be toxic, because we don’t see ourselves any more objectively than we see others.
We see failure and fear and secrets held too tight for too long. We see the ghosts of the past and the hopes of the future, but do many of us really ever see ourselves as we are? Probably not. And definitely not when comparing ourselves, whether that’s to others or to ourselves.
Don’t compare. Not with others and not with yourself. Don’t look for similarities, don’t look for differences. Don’t size yourself up, don’t allow yourself to feel better or worse based on where you are, where you’ve been or where others are or are not. Why must we know which rung of the ladder we stand upon? What good does it do us? More importantly, what harm does it set us up for? If you’re me, plenty.
One more story. When I was a kid, I was riding my bike, though doing so while looking over my shoulder (don’t ask). Suddenly I was lying on the ground with a splitting headache looking up at a car. I couldn’t believe it: I had been hit by a car. But when I stood up and shook it off, the car was parked—no driver in sight, just a big, head-shaped dent in the back.
The car didn’t hit me; I hit the car.
In hindsight, it seems obvious that I shouldn’t have been looking over my shoulder. But if I’d been looking at myself in a mirror, I still would have hit the car. In this dodgy metaphor, the former is what happens when we compare ourselves to others; the latter is what happens when we compare ourselves to the image we see of ourselves. Neither should be mistaken for looking forward.
Look at your work. Find joy in it. Learn from others, sure, but keep your eyes on the work. Don’t worry about what others are doing or thinking. Don’t worry about whether you’re getting better or doing it right.
Do your work. Let it challenge you, get it done, trust your gut, and celebrate the small wins. You’ll find your way just fine.
For the Love of the Photograph,
PS – Want to explore what it means to keep your eyes on you and your own work? Tired of not feeling like you have a voice or even know where to begin? My newest eBook (is this my 20th?) is called The Visual Voice. It’s one part loving kick-in-the-pants and one part workbook, to help you get a little more focused on what it means to make images that are truly your own. You can download it today at CraftAndVision.com for $20.