I think one of the most difficult things in the modern world is to ignore what everyone else is doing, and focus on what you are truly interested and passionate about.
We are drowning in a sea of blogs, and news, people telling us what we “should” be doing, rather than what we want to be doing.
I’m a victim of this. When I started blogging, I read so many different sites on “how” to blog– blindly listening to others tips and tricks on how to get more page traffic, how to get more followers, and how to become more “popular”. I made the classic mistake of trying to form some sort of concept of “success” that was mediated through the opinion of others.
Every true creative person and genius is a bit crazy. I think the thing I have learned from studying the lives of others who changed the world is this– they were all ostracized by society in one way or another, they ruffled feathers, and all said “f*ck you” to the status quo.
In today’s creative world, we are all trying to find our own unique vision. The problem is that we look outside of ourselves in terms of what other photographers are doing, rather than trying to cultivate our own gardens.
Cultivate your own thoughts
Easier said than done, right?
I feel some of the most innovative thinkers needed to become recluses and shut themselves out from the outside world, to cultivate their own original thinking.
For example, Bob Dylan was a wildly successful musician, but when he got fed up with his “old stuff” he fell off the map for at while, cultivating his new ideas, and when he re-emerged playing with an electric guitar, he alienated a lot of his old fans. But he ignored what others thought of him and his new work, and he constantly pushed himself forward to find his own voice. As Dylan said:
“If you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying.”
I think there is a great benefit in finding all of this inspiration on the Internet, social media, and other artists. No artist has a truly “original” idea anymore; it is all borrowed from other sources.
However at the same time, the problem is when we spend too much time looking at the work of others, rather than looking into our own artistic souls.
You have an inner genius
You have an inner genius, an inner wisdom, and a unique way of seeing the world. As a photographer you mediate reality through your own eyes and lens– what unique contribution do you have to share with the rest of the world?
You won’t be able to show this vision by simply copying and aping what others are doing.
Shut yourself off from the world
Close the floodgates of social media and the Internet, and retire into yourself for a bit. The Internet is constantly hungry for information, and mostly to sell you more advertisements.
Even nowadays although I love how Instagram and Facebook have empowered millions of photographers and creatives, ultimately they are trying to sell you advertisements. It is a business after all, and there is no such thing as a “free lunch” anymore. Like they say, if the service you are using is free, you are the product.
Not only that, but I often get anxiety and frustration when I spend too much time on social media, because I am constantly comparing myself to others. I bemoan the fact that I don’t have as many followers as the other photographer, how I am not winning awards, or publishing amazing books.
But the only ruler you should measure yourself against is yourself. Really, ignore everyone else– seek self satisfaction and self contentment from within.
If you make photos that you are happy and proud about, why do you care what others think about your work? If you are indeed the most important person in your life, shouldn’t you care about your own opinion of your own work, than the opinion of a stranger on the Internet?
No matter how rich, powerful, or famous you are– there will always be someone “better” than you. If there is anything I have learned about celebrity culture it is this; they are the most jealous, insecure, and unpredictable human beings out there. They are the most wretched– can you imagine a life where you can’t even go to the grocery store without being mobbed by paparazzi?
I also think the big problem is once you become a famous photographer, the higher you go up, the higher you fall.
For example, being a Magnum photographer is probably the most stressful thing. If you make any photo that is not the most amazing image, you will be negatively criticized by others. And if you do make an amazing photograph, nobody really says anything because that is what they expect from you.
Even me– I greatly admire the work of Magnum photographers yet am constantly disappointed by the work of some of the greats. This is because I have an unrealistic expectation of them and their work– I forget that they too are normal human beings, like you and me.
Whose opinion matters most?
Let’s do a thought experiment: let’s say you upload a photo online that you aren’t that crazy about, but you get 1,000+ likes, and you had all the famous photography bloggers writing that you’re the best thing since sliced bread. Would that bring you a deep sense of happiness?
Now let’s say that you make a photo that you are very happy and proud of, and you upload it online and you only get 5 likes. Would that cause you to like your own photo less? Would you think that others were idiots, or that you were an idiot? Would you feel upset, depressed, or frustrated?
This is the constant battle were fighting with when we put our own opinion of ourselves and our own work at the mercy of others. We pawn our freedom, and our own self-assessment of ourselves.
But why be the slave of the opinion of others?
We all want acceptance and we want to feel part of a community. We don’t want to be looked at as idiots. We want to feel respected, loved, and cared for.
But even if you were the #1 most popular photographer in the world, and wasn’t happy with your own photos, would you truly be happy?
Take “just because” photos
Do you ever take a photo “just because?” Do you take certain photos that you know that nobody else will see but yourself? Do you make certain photos that you know aren’t great photos, but they still bring you some sort of self satisfaction?
I feel this is photography in its purest form. Untainted, when you are like a child picking up the camera for a first time.
I think this is the ideal we all should strive for. To make photos to truly please ourselves, to ignore the opinions of others, and make our own opinion of ourselves paramount.
Take a break
Take a break from uploading photos. Take a break from checking social media when you’re on the bus, when you’re eating, when you’re waiting in line, and especially when you’re on the toilet.
Detox from social media a bit– see how it makes you feel.
Personally I am addicted to coffee; if I don’t have a coffee the moment I wake up, I feel like shit.
But every once in a while, I will take a few days and not drink any caffeine at all. The withdrawal symptoms are horrible, but when I do begin to drink coffee again, I appreciate it so much more.
Ultimately social media and the Internet is not “bad”– but I think that taking a break and “fasting” will help purge our system, and when we break our fast, we appreciate it so much more. And not only that, but you find out how social media can also be toxic in too large doses (as coffee is toxic if you drink too much of it).
Stop, take a breath, enjoy life, and capture the moments which are meaningful to you.
Thursday, Feb 18, 2016 @ 12:37pm, at the new Berkeley art museum cafe