Photography, when it isn’t your job and is just your art, is an optional thing. This is a problem with most creative acts. You don’t have to do them. Wether or not you do them is a function of a lot of factors: energy levels, available attention, interest, expected reward, return on time investment — hell, even simple availability of time, among other reasons. So it’s easy to lose the thread of what you’re doing. What are you doing, anyway? What’s the point? Why bother?
You bother because it creates value for you. Not just for who sees your work: your colleagues at work, your family or even your relationship partner but rather who you are at the core. You want to make art because it’s real and it’s for the actual you that is at the bottom of the hierarchy of faces you have to show the world. Being and feeding your true self is a rewarding process. So why does that inspiration and motivation go away if it creates so much value?
It’s because it’s so open-ended. Because it is so freeing and empty of obligation, it’s the first thing on the chopping block when your reserves are sapped. Dragged through the mud at work? Fuck it, sit on the couch and watch Netflix instead of taking your camera to the streets. Your girlfriend mad at you? Go play video games instead of taking a hike together to get that landscape shot you might have otherwise. Been drinking too much coffee? Time to pay back that metabolic loan by performing your idling behaviors like browsing reddit while thinking about how tired you are, instead of taking the effort to decide what to take photos of.
But all is not lost! Let’s think about something — I bet you don’t want to go to work most days, but you do. Why is that? Well, sure, because you have to. But WHY do you have to? This is a Gordian knot of concepts and obligations, but the bottom line is because there is a structure in place that makes it a non-decision. You go to work because you go to work, and that is in place because the times you have not gone to work you have been made less comfortable than when you do. It is a self-reinforcing loop.
Decision fatigue is a thing. Google it. The human brain is not structured and did not evolve to make as many decisions as we have to make in our lives today. This is why you struggle to make the decision to go take photos. Because making that decision takes a certain energy, a certain chemical investment. If every time you want to go take photos you have to make a decision, you will create negative reinforcement for that action, despite the fact that you want to do the action — it’s the decision that’s the issue. If every time you wanted a drink of water you needed to haul a bucket up fifty feet of rope from the bottom of a well, you’d probably be less hydrated — and that’s for a required bodily function! Now imagine drawing photos up from that well.
So remove decision from your photography. If you really think photography brings value to your life, if you really believe in the art you create when you compose the world through your lens, then re-think how you go about it. Process is a huge thing for art. You need to build a process that causes you to capture photographs without tapping your well of decisive energy. There are many ways to do this. Ideally, I would leave this open to you. You know yourself better than I can guess at you. But I know what value an example can be, so here’s mine.
The Project. I have spent a lot of time as an adult trying to understand the world as a whole. This isn’t just photography, this is living. One way of seeing things is that there are two components to life. Structure and content. Structure is the book shelf, the house it’s in, even the book cover. Content is the text, the photos and most significantly the ephemeral ideas within. Without the bookshelf and the book cover you can’t access the content. Look at this blog — without the website, there is nothing — where would I type all this? At best it would be a text file somewhere. Yet what you are reading is a separate thing, housed within. Truly the structure serves the content — this WordPress server isn’t the important thing, it’s this article, the content — and the same thing is true of photography. So in that metaphor, we have the photography as content — so ask yourself, what is your structure?
Structure in photography is the project. The theme. Think about culling photos — when you got out for a shoot, how do you go about it? I’m guessing you take 100 photos and then get home, load them onto a larger screen, and pick the best 1 or 5 or 10. So how do we take that to the next level? Simple. We do that 5 or 10 times, then take the best 5 or 10 out of THAT. Your best of the best.
The problem then becomes unifying them. How do you show these best-of-the-best photos to people? You need a common thread. Take my most recent project, At Work — I have had six or so shoots to this point and I’ve collected five images from that. This allows me to take one really appealing image from each day and tie them together with a story that lets me show them to the world in such a way that people can connect with and appreciate them. I can maintain a narrative that lets people interpret the content of the individual photos as part of a larger whole, despite the fact that I will be taking them over five or six months.
So, inside this At Work photography project reference we come full circle. How do you regain that inspiration, that motivation and that confidence? You make a structure where you don’t have a choice. You make it work. Without all the negative connotation that comes from having to do something for money, while harvesting all the positives of needing to do something without decision. Start thinking long term, start thinking about your art as you do about your life.
And, to truly become a master, start thinking about the people that come after you. Who will be posting about your historic photo essays on reddit or its descendants in 2050? 2100? And what will make them care and be interested?