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How to be original in photography

How to be original when taking photographs. It’s a question that’s popped up several times over the years. Unfortunately, we are bombarded with images every day and the idea of producing original work can be quite daunting. The truth is, it’s easier than you may think.

Away from photography, my other passion in life is music. I’ve been playing electric guitar since my early teens and bass for the past 15 years. I own almost as many guitars as I do cameras. I’ve always been drawn to guitarists who threw out the rule book and pioneered new ways of doing things; Geordie Walker, Peter Hook, Tom Morello, Jack White, Jonny Greenwood, The Edge. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s a desire to be different and this is reflected in other parts of life? Or maybe it’s because I like artists who don’t give a shit about what others think of them?

To spend a lifetime copying others is a life wasted. To spend a lifetime producing art which is unique to you is something to be treasured.

Having been around guitars for nearly forty years, and photography for over thirty, I have noticed a striking similarity between the two industries. They are both full of people trying to do everything they can to look or sound like someone else, and originality is becoming harder to find.

As photographers, why can’t we work out how to be original?

Advances in technology

I believe that creative people are naturally drawn to things that stimulate them. If a photograph or a piece of music elicits a strong reaction, it is only natural to want to emulate that. Musicians tend to copy others as a response to the music they’ve heard. Photographers copy others because an image they’ve seen creates an emotion within them.

With many artists, their style has come from necessity. William Klein’s grainy, blurry close-up street style came from him having only a wide-angle lens for his camera. If he saw something in the distance, all he could do was shoot it and crop it in the darkroom, creating a grainy, soft image. A happy accident.

Joy Division bassist, Peter Hook, famously created unique bass lines that were a consequence of the poor bass guitar he had at the time.

Today, we just don’t have these problems. Digital technology is so advanced that even the most basic camera is capable of resolving massive levels of detail in a scene. The cheapest of basses will still be playable. The idea of a happy accident is becoming a rare thing.

The magic bullet concept

Some artists to want to get from A-B as quickly as possible without putting in any time or effort. The easiest way of doing this is to copy others and not produce anything original. The lure of instant fame and fortune comes at the expense of defining an original style. However, without that unique style, success tends to be short-term. It’s actually not that hard to be original or unique, it just takes some time, practice, and a change of mindset and perhaps a change of environment and tools.

We are bombarded daily with workshops, courses, seminars all telling us how we can be successful photographers if we follow the path that is laid out in the courses. The problem is that courses are built around copying a style or way of shooting. Not exactly the best course for originality.

The fear of failure

If photography is the way that you earn a living, it is very difficult to try and be original because there is inevitably a market that expects images to be of a certain standard and aesthetic. I’ve worked in one such market for 30 years. There is always the ‘what if’ question. What if I shoot something new and exciting but my clients hate it?

Taking this a stage further, even if you are just in a Facebook group or have an Instagram account, the fear of not having your work liked is sure to make you stay with tried and tested images and encourage you to copy the more successful accounts in terms of style.

It’s hard to work out how to be original when you are afraid of potentially failing.


Don’t get trapped in a box

I realised very early on in my career that the photographic industry likes to put people into boxes. You are either a street photographer, a wedding photographer, a portrait photographer, a landscape photographer, a war photographer and so on. Why can’t you just be a photographer? It’s difficult to work out how to be original when others expect you not to be.

Yes, being in a box can work for some photographers and be very successful, but in my experience, to get the best out of any artist, you have move into other things and not be frightened of moving out of the box. If you are lucky, your clients/audience might move with you, but if they don’t then look for new ones.

My way of living and working is that I’ll do my thing. I went from one thing to another. That annoyed people. They didn’t know how to categorize me.

William Klein

Beware of social media

We live in a world of follows and likes. For any artist, this is not good at all. To continually seek approval from a virtual audience which you know absolutely nothing about will only lead to mediocrity and the safety net of tried and tested formulas and ideas. When it comes to social media, remember that a cute puppy video will get 1000x more likes than your best photograph, no matter how good it is. That is the reality of these platforms we spend so much time obsessing over. Shoot for yourself and ignore the noise on social media. If you need feedback, seek out someone who you can trust and who will be honest with you.

Realise that every photographer sees the world differently

This is a key thing when we look at how to be original. We are all unique. We just don’t realise it.

Different photographers have influenced my work, both positively and negatively. One such photographer is Sebastiao Salgado. I’ve been lucky enough to meet him, and during one brief conversation he pointed to my eyebrows, chuckled, and said;

“Good photographers have strong eyebrows.”

It’s a funny anecdote, as my eyebrows are the only thing I have in common with him!! All photographers, every one of us, are separated by our culture, physicality, upbringing, intellect, and life experiences. We are all unique. The moment in my career when I realised this, everything changed. I no longer wanted to take pictures like XYZ photographer, I just wanted to interpret the world how I saw it. The beauty of this approach is that as I’ve grown older, the way I interpret the world has changed, and my work has matured.

Entering awards is very tricky when you are working out how to be original

Early in my career, I used to enter a lot of competitions. Each year there would be an annual print competition, and I would attend the judging. Without fail, a lot of the entries would be copies of images that won the year before. Photographers were copying others just to win awards, even though the work wasn’t really theirs.

When I was asked to be a judge, I always wanted to see originality. I would advise photographers to enter photographs that represented them as an artist. If the images didn’t get anywhere, it meant the judge didn’t like the photo for any number of reasons, none of which were personal. The important thing was to keep going forward, not backwards by copying photographs just for a competition.

Personally, I’d rather fail with a unique image than succeed with something which isn’t original.

Practice, practice, practice

Street photograph showing how to be original

Does everyone practice? I have never really asked, but it’s something I’ve always done. Like a rock guitar player that learns to play jazz, I’ve found that practising is more challenging and affective outside of a familiar genre or environment. Understanding another genre adds to the development of a photographic vision and teaches us how to be original.

I’m always taking pictures. Admittedly, most are not worthy of a second look on the screen, but they help to continually develop my eye. I’m amazed at how many photographers I know who don’t take pictures outside of a job they are hired to do.

The more I practice, the better I become as a photographer, but something else happens. The chance of having one of those happy accidents is increased. With that comes something new and different and combined with everything else, maybe something original too.

Take the image above. During lockdown I’ve been using my time to practice different techniques and ideas. This image was one of those happy accidents that set me off on a different direction. I’m more comfortable shooting in black-and-white, but the colour flare, the way that it added a different dimension to what is a basic image of a figure in a street, took me down a new path and got me interested in work which isn’t so predictable.

I’d rather fail with a unique image than succeed with something which isn’t original.

In conclusion, as a photographer, there is nothing more satisfying than creating work which expresses who I am. My body of work has naturally changed over the years because I’ve changed. I believe that to spend a lifetime copying others is a life wasted. To spend a lifetime producing art which is unique to you is something to be treasured.

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