Cultivating Originality in Photography

Find what makes you unique in a world full of sameness.

Mario Gutiérrez/Getty Images
Mario Gutiérrez/Getty Images

“I will not choose what many men desire because I will not jump with common spirits and rank me with the barbarous multitudes.” — William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice.

This video recently made its way onto Vimeo — by juxtaposing photos people take while they travel that all look alike, they point out the odd contrast of our feelings of having unique, interesting experiences with the hard proof that we really aren’t all that unique, after all.

And if that realization feels a bit sad to you, it might be comforting to know that even that video had been made before, under the title of “Vemödalen,” which is a word that actually describes that feeling. 

Even the video that shows we aren’t original, isn’t original. Heavy, right?

But no matter how many times we we see it, there really is nothing that inures you to the idea that your individual thoughts or actions are most likely not all that individual. That as much as we like to think of ourselves as completely unique, there’s a good chance we are doing, thinking or hoping for things that others have already done. It has a sobering weight to it, evoking existential issues of one’s meaning or purpose. Especially in photography, where our livelihood is often tied up not just in our technical ability, but our creativity.

Despite all that, the fact is you can be different, if you choose to. Being an original is about finding something unique about yourself amid the parts of you that go along with the flow. The truth is, we all have parts of us that are unoriginal. We all eat food, we all sleep, we all have our quotidian morning routines, we all like to relax and be entertained at times. Originality is, in fact, more about how you apply original thinking to a specific endeavor than who you are as a person.

Originality in Photography

The democratization of photography skills creates a constantly moving target of what original is in our field. When I started out, simply having good equipment, lights and a studio gave you a certain originality — because only dedicated professionals had that. So, a studio look with multiple lights or an incredible medium format image with beautiful depth of field or even a fisheye lens could distinguish you as a photographer.

Another way a photographer used to get painted as unique was through access. Warhol, famously, used his access to (and obsession with) celebrity to create images that very few others could get. But photogs like Ron Galella who popularized celebrity photography or Ellen von Unwerth who turned her access as a model into a career in celebrity image-taking also capitalized on access as a key component of standing out from the average camera slinger.

Today, equipment and access are not distinguishing factors in originality as nearly anyone who wants a good camera or lighting system can easily obtain one. And now, with social media, celebrity is also being democratized. You’ve got famous hair designers, makeup artists, shoe designers, film editors, video game players, trainers and we can’t forget famous urban photographers. And since, now, one can find fame in so many fields, access to that fame is much easier. Taking photos of an influencer with a few hundred thousand followers can be as easy as asking. Or even just showing up to where they work or play. And, of course, they are all photographers themselves, taking and posting pictures of themselves — making the celebrity photo a near-ubiquitous sighting.

Travel photography is the latest access to become commodified. Apps and articles can lead you right to the most “Instagrammable” spots in all the major cities.

The last bastion of originality in photography is how and what you see. And, in my opinion, these are the things to cultivate in your own work.

The Importance of You

Nobody has the friends you have. Very few people live on your particular street or go to your particular coffee shop or bike along the same path as you. Nobody has your dog, your backyard, your weird toys or odd books. As it turns out, the most enduring form of originality is happening at the extremely local level. And this truth is changing the landscape of originality in photography. So, while drone images, travel photography, urban photography and celebrity portraits all feel cliché at this point, the individuality of one’s own private world of thoughts, values and passions are as fresh as ever.

Christian Watson & 1924us

Christian Watson, a quirky designer from the Pacific Northwest built up a name for himself simply by opening up his life and workspace, which had exactly the right contemporary mix of timeless and modern. From all appearances, he drew simple, cool illustrations — while undeniably talented, it was really his lifestyle, workspace and image that made him stand out as unique. There’s clues to the new model of originality in how he went about it. He posts travel photography, too, but the core of his uniqueness happens right at his desk.

One of my favorite drawers in the world is Paul Heaston. Like Christian, he focuses on what’s near him — his family, the coffee shop he hangs out in, the streets in his home town. He’s another whose originality and creativity emanates from his own world, and his view of it.

And herein lies the key to your originality. Finding your own combination of your life and your way of looking at it.

Establishing Your Difference

Creating your own original footprint in the world is a multi-stage process that takes a lot of self-examination. Helping people establish this, through imagery, is what I do for a living. It’s branding, but at a human level. If you’re ready to embark, here’s some starting thoughts to consider:

Start The Canvas

I took my fair share of painting courses at art school and before painting anything they had us make, stretch and prime our own canvases. It’s not as easy as it looks! There’s an art just to getting ready to make art. This is true in how you set yourself up for originality in an endeavor. You have to make and prime the canvas.

When you’re ready to reinvent yourself, I always suggest starting fresh. Don’t try to take what you’ve been doing and meld it into something unique and new. Create a new website, new Instagram feed, new business card, or even just a new answer to the question: So, what do you do? There’s a power in accepting blankness (or as is done in meditation, getting back to zero) and letting go of all that you’ve already been working on. It pushes and motivates you to act with purpose.

It’s important at this stage to write up a mission statement, asking yourself three extremely important questions: What Do I Do? Who Do I Do It For? and Why Do They Need It?

Most people start trying to be unique by looking inside themselves. I believe this is a mistake. We become unique when we start with a focus outward, on the needs of others. When you have a goal that fills a group of people’s needs, wants or desires — then you will have your canvas set.

Establish Your Values

A value system is where you can start to look more inwardly. What has life caused you to believe in most?

Yesterday I spent some time with a famous rock musician, discussing a movie project he is working on. My job was to help define the narrative of the film and the first thing we discussed was his values, how he obtained them and how that affects his music and decisions. Everything that gets made will emanate from there.

In your own work, having a set of values is like having a rudder in the water. You often hear people give the advice to narrow your focus. I think that’s partially true, but also a little misleading. Most creative people I know enjoy doing many different things. Many musicians tend to be very creative writers. Many actors turn into directors. And of course we celebrate the triple threat of dancing, singing and acting all the time. The truth is, it’s not necessarily about narrowing what you do so much as narrowing why you do it.

There are two masters your work serves — the audience and your own value system. If you can look at your work and distinctly say it accommodates both, then it is aligned with your values. And you’re ready to create.

Now, Look At Your Life

From here on out, look at your own life — your work, your dog, the rituals you keep, the street you live on, your family, your fans and followers, your coffee shop and your toys — and start to think of that as the core of your originality.

Invite the world to see where you live, who you are and how you do what you do — and let them get on board with your value system. If it truly resonates with people, they will follow, collaborate and support you.

Of course this doesn’t mean you don’t go do portraits and sports photos and landscapes and whatever else you have to do — it simply means that the part of you that will come across as most original is what you surround yourself with to achieve it. It’s the work plus you. And that’s the big difference in how the world views originality today. It used to come across through the work exclusively — and we never really saw the artist behind it. Today, the life of the artist and the work of the artist are entirely intertwined. And originality is found at its cross section.

Thanks for reading. You can see more of my photography (and life) on Instagram.

Originally published on Medium.

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