I think we’ve all been there. After sorting, editing, and sweating over every detail, we post our latest masterpiece, only to be greeted by three likes. One is from our mother, the other two are from our friends who don’t know anything about photography. It’s demoralizing.
Questions often arise like “Why am I doing this?”, “Am I shit?”, “Why the hell did this photo of a cat get 1.3 million likes and I only got… three?!?!” Okay, maybe I am the last just me, but you get the point…
I think it would be reasonable to say that we creative people live in a whole new paradigm. Social media has given every photographer a platform to shout from, and everyone has it. Some say the market is too saturated and there are too many voices.
There are tons of articles, YouTube videos, Skillshare courses, and in-person workshops dedicated to growing your photography business with enticing titles like 5 Tips to Grow Your Photography Business. These certainly have their place, but I think we as practitioners may have deviated a bit and flipped our priorities.
Everyone needs a recalibration at some point in their career to bring them back to a healthier, happier, and more fulfilling place. Maybe that’s you right now. If so, I would like to encourage you and share a few tips that have helped me.
Remember the love you once had
Think back to the moment you fell in love with photography. If you’re my age, you might have to settle for a moment that you loved photography, but think back to what made you give up reason and pursue this art form. Maybe it was a certain place or a certain topic. Maybe you suddenly had a mechanism to eliminate that creative itch that was driving you crazy. Whatever the triggering incident, think about how you felt.
This may feel a bit like a hippie love, but there have been so many times I’ve gotten tangled up in the business and practice of photography that I’ve completely lost the love of photography. The problem for me was that when I lost my love for the art form, everything else suffered.
I’m willing to bet that whatever comes to mind is a moment of deep fulfillment. I think that’s the most important thing we lost. We worry too much about the use of photography and too often tie our worth as a photographer to it. did i make money Have I been published? Do I have a gallery representation? Did anyone other than my mother like my picture? Money and fame aren’t inherently bad, but they can poison the photographer’s soul when they come first.
Inspirational quotes from Magnum photographers
In 2011, the Magnum Photo cooperative provided an article on tips for young photographers, and two quotes have served as wise guidance over the years. The original type ideas The article has since disappeared, but you can find it on the Wayback Machine.
All of these quotes have been inspirational and helpful at some point, but there are two that stand out for this conversation. The first is by Christopher Anderson:
Forget the profession of photographer. Become a photographer first and maybe your job will come after that. Don’t rush to pay your rent with your camera. Jimi Hendrix didn’t decide to pursue the career of professional musician before learning to play the guitar. No, he loved music and created something beautiful and THEN it became a profession. Larry Towell, for example, was not a “professional” photographer until he was already a “famous” photographer. Take the pictures you feel compelled to take, and maybe it will lead to a career. But if you try to make a career first you’ll just take crappy pictures you don’t care.
While I love everything about it, there are two specific phrases I want to unpack here.
#1. be a photographer
When I was younger, my father was often ill and while he was receiving treatment, my sister and I spent time with our maternal grandparents. My grandfather had learned photography from his mother and, trying to get me out of his hair, taught me how to do it. He sent me into the woods of southern Arkansas and told me, “Not everyone can paint a picture or make a sculpture, but anyone can take a photograph.” I can remember countless hours spent sculpting one Wandering through the woods on camera, totally immersed in the joy of exploring and discovering; just take pictures.
Gary Winogrand once said, “I photograph to see how the world looks photographed.” There is something magical about the camera, it gives us the opportunity to steal a little bit of reality and keep it to ourselves. Almost every photographer I’ve ever met was an explorer at heart. If your photo inspires you with a meager three likes, that’s all that matters.
#2. Images you feel committed to
This leads to the second sentence. Whatever you love, go and photograph it, not because it’s trendy or fits your understanding of what “photographers” do. Go photograph what you can’t photograph. Missing out on the things that upset you. Each picture is your opportunity to capture the world for yourself and those you choose to show it to. One of my favorite Cig Harvey quotes is, “The camera is just an expensive pencil, what have you got to say?” Don’t worry about who likes or dislikes what you have to say; just say something
In the same article, Alex Webb says:
Shoot because you love it, because you absolutely have to, because the main reward will be the process of doing it. Other rewards—recognition, financial reward—are few and so fleeting. And even if you’re reasonably successful, there will almost inevitably be periods when you’re ignored, have little income, or—often—both. Surely there are many other easier ways to make a living in this society. Photography as a passion, not as a job.
In our own interest, pursue the reward Webb alludes to. Think back to the moment you fell in love with photography. The process of doing it is often what ingrains the love of photography in our soul. It is important for our development that we are filled with what we photograph. If we’re not, we’re not, and photography is a developed skill, not an innate skill.
What to do when you have lost the joy of taking photos
If you are in a place where the joy of taking pictures has disappeared. No panic. There are only two types of photographers. Those who have lost love and those who will. What matters is how we win back our love and trust. Here are a few actionable things I’ve found helpful in my career.
1. Take some time to think about what you want out of photography. Be specific and set friendly goals.
2. Find the topic that brings you the most joy. Rocks or Riots, it doesn’t matter because this is just for you.
3. When you find the thing you love, create a small series of pictures and don’t show them to anyone. It could be 10 pics, the number doesn’t matter as this is an exercise in working for passion, not celebrity.
4. Make time each week to photograph what you love. Some of you reading this may be professionals. This is especially important to you. Burnout happens when the camera doesn’t bring fulfillment to our lives.
5. Learn from the greats. Listen to podcasts, YouTube videos, read books, whatever inspires you. Creativity is a monster that needs to be fed. If you don’t know where to start, check out Alec Soth’s photo book reviews. His talk on Eggleston’s book Democratic Forest is really great.
6. Start being nice to yourself. That doesn’t mean lying to yourself, though. There’s a difference between being honest about growth areas and telling yourself you’re a failure. Be confident in your work because you love it.
As trite as that may sound, the pursuit of photography is an ever-moving goalpost. Whether it’s through new subjects, new equipment or new understanding, we all pursue the same goal, personal growth. Some photographers are more advanced in their journey than others, time and talent will determine how far along you are. Don’t be discouraged by where you are, just keep doing the work you love.
About the author: Kyle Agee is a photographer and educator based in Northwest Arkansas. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find Agee’s work on his website and on Instagram.
Photo credit: Stock photo by Depositphotos