A fairly Impolite letter to anyone who needs to hear it (and myself)

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Dear Sarah,

Do your own damn work.

In a few minutes, you are going to switch over to your Pinterest account, and you are going to start removing photography “inspiration” because you know, in your heart, that these images are not there for you to learn from. These images are there for you to copy, to emulate, to make your own. That’s not art. Art has to come from within you. Every time you see someone else’s work, you fall in love, and you start to lean in the direction of their “style”, their brand. You feel like people will only like your work if it looks like so and so’s work. But that will never be your work. It will be theirs. It will always be a recreation.

You have seen a lot of your peers asking for “examples” of how people shoot a specific film stock pushed like this and pulled like that and in open shade or in a yellow house with a pelican on top of it at sunrise on the south side of the beach. And it grinds at you. You have seen a lot of people asking for other photographers to “spam” them with their favorite picnic, mountain top, Vogue-esque, Parisian sitting in a window shots. And it makes you wonder if they’re all asking so they can blatantly copy your shot. It makes you mad because you know you’ve done it and you know you’ve contributed to it. You did it when you were first starting out, and now that you’re growing as an artist, now that you’re reading, now that you’re expanding your understanding of what it means to be an artist, you are seeing just how many people are technicians and not actually trying to be individuals. That’s fine. But you want more for them and more for yourself.

Don’t ask for the examples. Just don’t. Talk to your lab. Go out into the world. Do the damn work, and then, if it fails, you’re one step closer to success. If you can’t be bothered to spend the money on film for personal work, why are you a film photographer? In what world would it be okay to experiment on a client based on the suggestions of your peers? If you don’t know how to shoot, if you’re not confident in your ability, you should never be trying to learn with a paid client. Do it on your own time. And while we’re at it, quit asking people what film stock they used or what camera or what lens. It doesn’t matter for you. Because you’re not trying to get their look. You’re trying to get your look. The only reason to ask these questions is to have a genuine conversation between peers in order to discuss the technical and philosophical differences for the purposes of education. Nobody else’s camera works quite like yours. Nobody else’s light meter will taking a reading like yours. Nobody else’s mind will see something the way you see it. If you need guidance, find a mentor. Read a book. There are plenty. If you want a peer to chat with, find someone to trade work with and honestly ask for a brutal peer review, not praise.

If you want to learn, grab a book, study the greats, understand what you love about their work, and then set their work aside. Get inspired by your own life, get inspired by anything that isn’t someone else’s photography. Continue to photograph your kids, your house, your neighborhood until you know you’re seeing them through your own eyes always and not the same other photographers would see them.

Make mistakes. Know that your technique doesn’t have to be perfect. Break rules. But make your photos art. Make them interesting. Make them something that changes someone. Please, don’t break rules by not paying attention, not understanding. Don’t make a boring image that’s always completely out of focus. Or do. But then own it. Own the fact that you are still learning, still working, still figuring things out. Know that beautiful light doesn’t make up for the fact that your subject’s face is completely out of focus and hazy and underexposed. When given feedback, take it personally, but don’t get mad at the messenger. They’re not the ones who screwed up or who made boring work or copied someone else. Take it personally so that you can do better, so that you make sure to practice seeing, make sure to practice everything. Don’t expect to be the best merely by shooting something once. Don’t be afraid to start over and over and over again.

You’ve been reading a lot of Seth Godin books. you are understanding better how to be the artist rather than the technician. You are starting to do the work, writing down all your observations, looking at how you can make someone’s life better. You don’t need to be inspired by the work your peers are doing. You can admire the work they do. You can encourage it. But then, you have to go back to yourself and make the work YOU do.

Art is hard, but you want to make art. So keep going.

With love and devotion. Yours truly,

Sarah

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