What Photos Matter?
In an age where there are billions of images to scroll through on social media, a common crisis among photographers is the question, “why does my work matter?” I’ve thought a lot about this question, and here are my thoughts.
First of all, I want to preface this by saying that there isn’t a solid answer to this question. Different people will answer it very differently. But with that said, here’s my “answer” to this dilemma. For the longest time, I was always trying to find a direction for my photography. I always wanted to shoot a project that I would go on to make a zine or some other publication. I set out making different projects with that purpose maybe like 5 or maybe even 10 times. I have one zine out. Did the other 4-9 projects not matter? Of course not. They led me to what I truly wanted to create. But that‘s the point. Don’t be afraid if you find yourself without a super clear cut direction for your photography! Don’t be afraid to just create whatever comes to your mind, just for the sake of creating. If you persevere with that process, I think you will inevitably find the artistic vision just for you. Those photos matter. And who knows? Maybe you’ll eventually look back at all of those photos and see a “project” that was always there, and that you just needed to shoot through in order to realize it.
Another important point to remember tangent to one above, is that take photos of your friends and family. For some reason, being a photographer for my projects meant that I wasn’t going to shoot my friends and family as much anymore. That was a huge mistake. Because at the end of the day, the family you were born into and/or the family you choose for yourself is one of the most important things to document. If you balance it correctly, you will almost never regret photographing family. Those photos MATTER.
So don’t think of photography as just projects that need to be published. You don’t need to publish your photography. You just don’t need to. Vivian Maier is a perfect example of that. She never got to publish her work; it was only through a man finding some trunks of her affairs that her work was ever made known to world. But those photos meant something to her, personally. The fact that nobody saw those until well after she died does not take away from the personal significance those photos held in her eyes.
Take the photos that you feel are important. They are. Maybe they’re not the kind of thing you think people need or want to see. Or, maybe they’re not the kind of photos that you’ve ever seen be publicized in art history, or made by other people for exhibits or publication. There’s nothing wrong with being the first to do something, and don’t let a lack of public “validation” convince you that your artistic voice doesn’t matter.
Maybe you have the converse problem. Perhaps, you feel that your work is derivative or cliche. I’ve said it here before and I’ll say it again: take the cliches so you can have taken them. However, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try to develop unique work! Make every effort to find that thing that makes you unique. It takes time, but if you work at it, you’ll find it.
There are essentially two angles to approach cliches. First, you may just need to outgrow them by taking them, as I’ve previously mentioned. Or, maybe the cliche is there for a reason! Humans share more experiences than you may think, and those shared experiences are often reflected in the art of a given era. You may just be documenting your version of that shared of experience. And that’s ok! A former teacher of mine told me that if one feels compelled to take an image, they should take it. If something lacks face value, it may just need time for you and/or others to see its value.