How to Be Original

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Dear friend,

A lot of us are trying to find our own unique voice in photography, life, and our creative pursuits.

But what exactly is ‘originality’ — and can it be achieved?

All art is original

Cindy and My Mom Putting on Makeup / Seoul, 2017

A thought: If you listen to a song, what do you exactly hear? Do you hear the trumpets, the voice of the main singer, the choir in the background, the base-line, or the high notes?

You probably only hear one thing. But it is a combination of all these things which produces ‘music’ or a ‘song.’

I think the same is with creative work. You (as a creative person) consume all these different sources of inspiration, and your final product is a combination of all these things you have learned. But your final output is going to be an original piece of art.

Nobody owns ideas

The best thing about antiquity is how there were no ‘copyright’ laws. Each author and artist liberally borrowed from one another. As Seneca says, “All ideas are common property.”

Everyone has learned a concept or an idea from someone else.

I know for me, none of my ideas are ‘original’ in the contemporary sense. I have liberally borrowed, remixed, and stole from others. But what I try to do is to suck up as many sources of inspiration as possible, like how a bee gathers pollen from many different flowers, and I try to make my own distinct honey.

Of course the taste of my honey will taste like a lot of different things. But it is the blend which makes the honey taste good.

Kind of like a good espresso — you will blend it together with all different types of coffee, from all these different coffee-growing regions, and make something unique out of it.

Every photographer is inspired by another photographer (or artist)

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Even in your photography — you have certainly seen some photography by other photographers. Let’s say you are inspired by the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, and you try to copy him as much as you can. No matter how hard you try to make an exact replica— your photos will always be different, unique, and original.

Even if you are working on a photo project, no matter how hard you try to make a replica, your final result will always be unique. So if you’ve seen a photo project done before, don’t be discouraged. Do it for yourself. For example, just because Bruce Davidson has worked on a great ‘Subway’ series, doesn’t mean you can’t. Christopher Agou did a great series on the subway (after Bruce Davidson). And before Bruce Davidson, Walker Evans worked on a great ‘Subway’ series. And I’m sure there were many others who photographed the subway before Walker Evans.

Even going back to Henri Cartier-Bresson, his principal inspirations came from the surrealist artists. He just did it his own way by taking photos.

Ultimately, all art is just an imitation of nature. So mother nature is the ultimate inspiration for all artists.

Originality is overrated

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So to sum up, any creative project you work on will be original. Don’t be hung up on whether your work is ‘original’ or not. Because no matter what, you will always find a critic who will call your work ‘derivative’ and a copy of something that has been done before.

My suggestion: ignore the critics. Just pursue what brings you happiness and joy.

Above all, try to remix your ideas and concepts enough to create a nectar that is unique. Don’t be afraid to liberally copy, steal, or be inspired by other sources. All great artists do this. No artist was born on an island.

“Good artists copy, great artists steal.” – Picasso


Learn more: Photography 101 >