Our planet is more interconnected than ever and is becoming a smaller place daily because of it. Seemingly everything has been and is continually explored, documented and shared as a photograph. Within seconds, images of places from the other side of the globe are on the screens of our devices. Likes and followers have become a digital currency for measuring credibility, but sadly also quality and value. On top of that, we are surrounded by a never-ending flow of hype photography with forgettable subject matter with imagery that relies on sheer visual impact to please the viewer. Sadly, this “plain vanilla” content caters to the majority of the audience with a short attention span. This cultivates a desire for attention, praise and importance: A new digital vanity.
In the old days, photographs were only shared in printed physical format through photo books, exhibitions and publications. In my humble opinion, this “slow approach” is still the most suitable medium for enjoying and consuming photography. It wasn’t until I studied coherent bodies of photographic work, that my images started becoming more purposeful, intentional and passionate. My raison d’être.
At some point, photographers of all walks of life will ask themselves some hard questions when looking at their peers or photographic masters “What am I doing this for?” – “Am I qualified enough to do this?” – “Are my photos any good?” – “Why is person X is more successful and person Y more famous than me?” Comparison is a thief of joy, thus making the mistake of measuring your artistic worth within this modern digital vanity environment can be very disheartening. Even more so once you start creating more personal work that you have poured time and thought into and that you connect with on a deeper level.
That is why I felt compelled to share my personal journey about discovering the “Self” and the impact it has had on my work ever since.
The Self and the Ego
Over the years, I felt a pull to reach out to people for collaboration or to travel to new places to make new work. Nobody made me do it and I didn’t do it to please others. When I learned that I liked environmental portraits, urban and natural scenes, it ended up defining my portfolio categories “people” and “places”. It felt very natural to me, but along that lengthy journey, I still couldn’t help but question my work from time to time. I ended up labelling it “photographers block” and suffered from it more times than I care to admit in the 12 years that I have been making photographs. This can manifest itself as a lack of confidence in yourself and/or your abilities.
Questioning oneself and self-doubt are inevitable and they play very important roles in every creative process! It’s how we learn and grow. But sometimes we get hung up on the wrong questions for too long. All you need to do is look closely at what it is you are actually asking yourself and try to understand why. When you really examine this, you will most likely find that your ego is to blame, conceitedly influencing your thought processes for more attention. This is totally normal and human, but in the long run it’s bad for your mental health and you need to identify what is important to you: To get more attention or to create better work?
In the end, asking yourself the “right” questions can be your compass for guidance and growth and to be true to our “Self”.
In order to understand this concept, let’s segue into some basic and simple psychology. Your Self is who you truly are and what makes you authentic, your inner inspiration that feeds off of your known and unknown potential. It occupies the space between your consciousness and unconsciousness. Your Ego is a part of your Self, but rather a thought-based construct of your mind, influenced by a multitude of factors. It is not inherently bad, but can become problematic because it is shaped by (but not limited to) your past experiences, interactions, outside expectations, your social environment and especially today: any form of media. What often happens is that the thought-identifying Ego takes up a larger part of your Self, detaching you from it. I truly believe that your inner Self is a catalyst for creativity and inspiration while your Ego can inhibit your photography because it seeks attention and validation through comparison.
So how can you make use of this knowledge and apply it to your craft? By learning to put your Self in the spotlight and by creating something authentic that matters to you
People think too much they forget to feel
Like many things in life, looking at the path that lies behind you can be a good teacher. When I went through my entire archive last year, I could identify aspects within images that still resonate with me today. What is strange is that the act of both creating and reviewing photographs brings about a very similar emotional response. Like being “in the zone” and riding the wave of photo ZEN. A gut feeling, free of thought, a force that makes me gravitate towards certain scenes. Whenever it hits me, I try to follow that feeling especially when I am travelling. Take that unplanned turn, talk to the stranger, let your intuition guide you. This is your Self communicating with you.
This phenomenon changed my entire approach for personal work but also when I am on shoots for clients. There is of course always a thought process that requires you to recall skills and fall back on experience, but to me this now feels like it is on autopilot and my mind is not a constant distraction. Where there used to be a lot less room for gut feelings and more time and thought allocated to planning ahead, there now is a deeper emotional interaction and a connection with the subject at hand.
Follow the Self
Writing this at age 34, I don’t feel eligible to be dispensing any form of well-founded advice. Yet, I feel strongly about the power of the Self, so here are a few lines that I try to live by.
Put yourself in the world, travel and communicate. A light bulb will appear over your head at some point. Your Self is lighting that bulb! Create work that resonates with you, share it and clients will find and hire you for your unique perspective. Never compromise your craft for the sake of approval! Look to others for guidance, growth, inspiration and collaboration.
I'd like to end this post with a quote from a very inspirational human being:
“Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.” - Jordan B. Peterson.
When you have mastered how to do this, please tell me how ;)