Is “being different” a real differentiator?

Jun 20, 2023

Simon King

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

Is “being different” a real differentiator?

Jun 20, 2023

Simon King

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

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being different photography tree

With branding and advertising/marketing there is not safety in numbers. This means that it does not make sense to attempt to blend into a crowd, the point is to stand out from them even if it means not playing it safe.

In photography there are many ways you can try and achieve this. You can make a result which looks different from what “mainstream” practitioners are releasing. You can use a method which involves a special process, even though the result may end up similar to what the mainstream is producing. You may use standard methods to achieve a generic look, but involving elements in the story or meta-narrative which sets you apart. Or you can do everything in exactly the way others are, but with a different motivation or personal story which puts a unique spin on those images.

I’m sure there are other options I haven’t thought of here, but broadly I think these both alone and in combination are what make the most “different” photographers, and the most distinct photography. That doesn’t necessarily mean that those photographs and photographers are actually any good, or even interesting, it means they stand out instead of fading away into background visual noise.

I think a good example of this is in the Portrait of Britain Awards, which is a yearly competition accepting entries of (as in the name) Portraits made in Britain. The results tend to have a certain “vibe” about them, a same-ness which causes them to sort of blend together leaving only a few really able to stand out at all. It’s a bit of a joke among some of the photographers I know that the key to winning is to use overexposed Kodak Portra 160/400 and a Medium Format camera, which is a simple way to achieve the “look” many of these images have.

being different photography
A portrait I made in March, 2023, on expired Ilford FP4 using a Medium Format camera.

I’m not saying this as a way to put down these photographers; I have entered POB a few times and never been shortlisted, but I’m not really a portrait photographer. However I do have a sense that if I tried as above with a medium format camera and colour film it would get me further than my previous attempts. There are only so many ways to make a portrait; passport head and shoulders style, three quarter length, full body. Eyes looking into or slightly away from the lens.

There’s something of a current trend towards preferring a deadpan, or minimal expression rather than showing much emotion.

Here are some of the shortlisted entries from 2021.

being different photography contest

Do any of these especially stand out? I think the middle black and white one does, but only because it isn’t really a typical portrait, I’d say it’s more a “scene”.

What about any of these?

being different photography contest entries

At this point I think the similarities become very apparent; central figure either colour matched to their surroundings or a vibrant opposite. The minimal colour palette is really noticeable throughout, with maybe 2-3 colours maximum in the majority of entries.

being different photography portraits

The three images on the left of this selection are effectively the same photograph, although the man holding the dog is a little more expressive than the woman holding the dog, or the woman holding the ball. Yes the colours, character, composition, and intent are all different but the result is basically the same. Do any of them really stand out from one another? And then again from the rest?

Again, don’t get me wrong, these are all great portraits. But when you view them like this, all jumbled together and without the context of the captions and story – based on pure visual aesthetic alone, what do any of them really have going for them in terms of individual merit?

When entering competitions like this one I would not look for a way to stand out, but for a way to blend in with the style they appear to be seeking. My usual photographs are very much not like these portraits at all, nor are they like many current reality-narrative-based documentary photographs which are being produced today. However, just as above, that doesn’t make my work any better, or special. It is just different – the visual aesthetic, and the methods I use to achieve those results.

being different photography portrait
A recent portrait, made in May, 2023.

I don’t think it’s enough to stand out and be different in this way, especially when so much of the mainstream photographic industry seems to be looking for their content to blend in. When I really care about a project, when I’m not producing to a clients specification or blueprint, then I need to find a way to actually stand out, to be different from the noise I’m competing against.

About the Author

Simon King is a London-based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. You can follow his work on his website and Instagram and read more of his thoughts on photography on his personal blog. Simon also teaches UAL’s short photography course, which you can check out here. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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