It seems everyone is talking about finding their ‘why’ to the point that it’s starting to sound cliche. However,few actually put in the time and psychological energy required to dig deep and discover what theirs truly is. Peeling back the mental debris, sorting through your history and recurring themes in your life, sometimes dealing with trauma, isn’t easy. And it’s why so few actually do the work.
Your ‘why’ is your purpose, that thing that drives you to push forward through the exciting and meaningful, as well as the mundane, the tedious, and, sometimes, the downright painful. Why do you get out of bed in the morning? Why did you pick up your camera in the first place? And why do you keep picking it up? You may say, “To make money for my family” and that’s definitely a noble cause. After all, everyone has to eat.But there are loads of other, arguably easier, ways to make money. Is that the reason you started on your photography journey? And will that reason be enough to get you through the tough times, the critical feedback, an unhappy client or two, or when something crazy, like Covid happens and your business is put on hold?
Knowing ‘why’ you do what you do will make you a more intuitive artist, and actually a better businessperson as well. As Simon Sinek so succinctly put it, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” Basically, when you know your ‘why,’ you know your special sauce. And you can infuse your work with it. Yeah, it may not be appreciated by everyone, but if you remain true to yourself, those you attract will be magnetized so much more strongly, and by the real you. And even if your work doesn’t resonate with everyone, it will still be meaningful to you. So create for yourself. Be unabashedly you. Your photographic voice is your artistic fingerprint, and no two are the same. The more you know yourself, the greater will be your ability to convey it, and connect with others on a deeper level.
Find someone you’re comfortable with and get ready to share, connect, and yeah, get real vulnerable, too. It’s great if you can find a partner who is on this same journey as well. You’ll be dredging up stories fromthe past and be forewarned, it may not be all sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns. It’s not supposed to be.Keep in mind, good and bad experiences affect who we become. Nothing is off the table when it comes tothis share session.
Basically, you’ll be sharing with your partner things that for some reason or another made an impact on you(even if you can’t quite articulate that impact yet – that’s what your partner is for!). Some stories may no tseem significant at all, but you remembered them and decided to tell them for a reason. It’s your partner’s
job to actively listen and to ask thoughtful questions that move beyond the facts of your story and pull out the emotion and feeling. But as you each listen to each other, be mindful not to allow your own biases to affect your interpretations.
How did that make you feel?
How did this affect you and influence who you are today?
Keep digging deeper, picking each story apart, giving more and more detail. Try to engage the five senses when telling your stories. Recall how the experience looked, what sounds and smells were present, how it felt both actually and emotionally. You’ll tell your most impactful stories and, eventually with patience and good listening, common themes will emerge. This is fodder for your ‘why.’ These recurring themes in your life influence you both consciously and subconsciously all of the time. Knowing this is knowing what lights your fire.
Once your themes have emerged, you’ll be able to draft your ‘why’ statement. I’ll give you a personal example. When doing this exercise myself, two themes emerged. The first was the need to feel seen and understood by others. To connect. The second comes from my experiences growing up in the country, where I was able to play in streams, hide in the woods, basically run around freely from dawn to dusk. It’s important to me as both a mother and an educator that children receive experiences that allow them to forge deep and meaningful relationships and connect with the natural world, especially as we as a society become more and more removed from “wild” places. Consequently, my ‘why’ is helping children and families reconnect with each other and with the Earth. There’s a reason you see this all over my website, it’s my mission statement! You’ll also see this in the images that I take of my own little one. I don’t have him smile,unless he wants to, and many of my images are taken outdoors in wild and kind of gritty locations. I want to show his truth, and by doing so, tap into my own as well. This is translated into my imagery by keeping the words “soulful,” “nostalgic,” and “cozy” in mind every time I shoot, my photographic voice.
But you don’t have to completely know yourself in order to create with a sense of ‘why.’ Your ‘why’ can be to learn more about yourself, to recover from a trauma, or to deal with an illness. When looking at your work,others that are going through something similar will resonate. Congratulations, you’ve moved beyond ‘what’ and into the territory of ‘why,’ and your images are that much more powerful and emotive as a result. In a sense, your ‘why’ becomes your life’s mission statement. So get to it! Dig deep, discern your ‘why,’ and find yourself in the process!
Know that your ‘why’ and your ‘what’ are not the same, though they do have a dynamic relationship. Your artistic voice is your ‘why.’. Your ‘what’ is your style and how you choose to communicate. Your ‘what’ is kind of like the language that your ‘why’ speaks in. While your style may evolve over time, your ‘why/voice’ is that kernel of truth that infuses all that you do. None of us are stagnant. You’ll continue to learn new techniques and ways to better communicate what you want to say, but there will always be that core that stays consistent.
Exercise: If you’ve been shooting for a while, get together a pile of your old photographs that still speak to you on some level. What is it about those photographs that still resonate with you today? How is what you’re shooting today similar? Look for themes here, too! Create a vision board with other artists’ work that speaks to you, but don’t stop at that! Add to your board colors, textures, and items that make you feel a particular way. This is your voice trying to be heard.
Maybe you primarily shoot child photography. What’s to stop you from learning the art of landscapes, or still life photography, or even trying your hand at some couples photography? Being open to photograph everything will allow you to grow as an artist that much faster. By shooting landscapes, you’ll learn how to better shoot environmental portraiture, and you’ll learn how to more effectively convey emotion in your people work, too. After all, if you can communicate a feeling with a landscape, you can absolutely do so when you add in the people. By trying out different genres, you’ll hone different skills. You may even find another genre speaks to you more. But don’t forget to shoot what you love. If you want to take interesting images, being interested in the subject goes a long way.
Don’t stop with shooting different genres, try using different techniques as well! Throw perfection out the window and focus on emotion instead (you’ll be so glad you did!). Break the rules of composition to manifest feeling more effectively. Shoot through things; use creative crops; embrace blur with freelensing, using a lensbaby, or intentionally shooting out of focus; play with the light; use layering and depth of field to tell a different story. Just remember to break the rules with intention. Yes, experiment, but visualize your intent and shoot mindfully as well.
I can’t stress enough the importance of personal projects to help you find your voice. Client work comes with expectations, personal work comes with a lack of expectations and an abundance of growth. You can’t find your voice, if you never speak, so start shooting. Some projects to try are a 365 (where you shoot an image each day of the year) or a 52 project (same, but shoot an image each week). Use only one lens for a month.This is a great way to force yourself to take different perspectives. You could shoot the same object a different way every day for a month, or shoot only in one area of your home. Take a week to focus on a particular aspect of composition (e.g., form or framing). Or try just shooting for one color all week long.Shoot for a sense, taste for example. How can you convey the sense of taste in your image? Go on a photography walkabout. Seriously, your project can be anything! It will all help you open your eyes and see that which is already around you from a different perspective.
Create anything at all. It doesn’t have to be photography related. Any artistic pursuit can deliver you into the hands of flow, where you become totally engrossed in an activity and lose all track of time. In flow, ideas come out of nowhere and your voice has the freedom to be heard. Write what Julia Cameron in her book “The Artist’s Way” calls “morning pages.” Wake up, grab your cup of coffee, and before anything else, sit down to write anything that comes to mind, whether it’s your to-do list, the dream you had last night, a conversation you had or want to have…Put down all the noise so that it no longer burdens you. Read a book, meditate, dance, go to a museum, knit a scarf, watch a movie…The list goes on and on. The point is that creativity begets creativity. You never know where you’ll find inspiration.
So get in touch with your ‘why.’ Use your voice. And remember, it’s a process. Every day you become a little youer than you were the day before.
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
Find Your Why: A Practical Guide for Discovering Purpose for You and Your Team by Simon Sinek
The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron (she also writes an Artist’s Way for parents that is definitely worth checking out!)
The Creative Fight: Create Your Best Work and Live the Life You Imagine by Chris Orwig
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