I wanted to write you this letter on how to liberate yourself in photography— by photographing what interests you rather than what you think other people will be interested. It means to make your photography more personal, and to make your photos a reflection of who you are as an individual. Remember; photos are always self-portraits of yourself, not of your subjects.
Often time, a lot of photographers ask me, “Eric— I don’t have any ideas for photo projects— how do I come up with good ideas?” I also get asked by photographers regarding advice for finding your own style in photography.
However at the end of the day, the simplest advice I would give is: “Photograph anything you want.”
Don’t fear criticism
There is always a fear that our work won’t be appreciated by others. As human beings, we fear criticism more than we value praise. Personally I know that for every 99 comments I get that are positive, 1 negative comment can put me into a sad mood.
I used to spend a lot of time asking other photographers what they thought about my work. I would also ask other photographers their feedback on some of my project ideas (whether they were “interesting” or not).
However the problem was that I would abdicate my own personal vision in the hands of others.
Not only that, but a phrase I have picked up is, “all advice is autobiographical.” Therefore the advice you get from any other photographer is based on the life history of the other person— not of yourself.
Only you have the answers; nobody else.
Follow your heart
Never take photos of what you think others would find “interesting.” Only take photos of what you find interesting.
Perhaps you might really be into taking photos of fire hydrants, buildings, or street signs. This might not be “interesting” to anybody else; but who cares? Isn’t the point of your photography to bring you personal satisfaction and happiness?
Let’s do an opposite thought experiment: imagine if you made a photo project or image that everyone else thought was incredible (but you didn’t). Let’s say you ended up winning tons of awards, got tons of money, and fame— but would you really be proud of your own photography?
To be original in your work is to take risks. And if you truly want to be original in your work; you cannot ask other people for their opinion.
Why? If your idea is truly original— nobody will think your idea is good. When the founders of AirBnb first pitched their ideas to investors (rent your bedroom to complete strangers) — the founders were seen as crazy. A few years later, and boom— AirBnb is a multi-billion dollar company. The same goes with ride-sharing apps (could you imagine stepping into a stranger’s car 10 years ago and asking them to take you somewhere—without being worried of being kidnapped or killed?)
In the history of photography; the truly great photographers are the ones who followed their own personal vision and only photographed what they were personally interested in.
Josef Koudelka is famous for never taking on commercial assignments, and only photographing what interested him. Bruce Davidson admitted that once he started to take on commercial work — he started to lose his passion and enthusiasm for photography (because he wasn’t making photos that were true to himself).
There is a quote, “All progress belongs to the unreasonable man.” Therefore know that in trying to push your own artistic vision forward; you need to be a bit unreasonable.
In my personal opinion, I think it is better for you to craft your own lifestyle, live life to your own standards, and let the world conform to you (rather than trying to conform to the world).
The world is full of generic people, with generic lifestyles, generic jobs, and make generic photos. You are unique as an individual— why stick to the safe path, and create generic work which isn’t personally fulfilling to you? I know it might be scary; but assert your own individuality and creativity. Do what feels right to you (regardless of what others may say).
The only person to listen to
So going back to the beginning of this letter— how do you take photos that only interests you?
My suggestion: listen to your heart. Don’t feel “forced” to take photos you don’t want to. Only take photos when your heart feels compelled.
I used to believe that you had to take photos every single day— but that opinion of mine has changed. I feel it just depends on who you are as a person (some people thrive when they practice everyday; others thrive when they don’t practice something everyday).
I feel that the point of life, photography, and anything creative is to figure out who you are as an individual. “Know thyself” is the best advice I’ve gotten (that has lasted thousands of years). Nobody has the answers for you; but we do have a few guides (philosophers, master photographers, mentors) who can help point out a certain path to discover the truth for ourselves.
If you love to photograph flowers? Go ahead and photograph them and don’t worry if your photos are going to be “boring” or “cliche.” If you love to shoot street portraits (and other street photographers tell you that isn’t “real” street photography— just take the photos anyways). Don’t put labels on your photography, and you will be truly free to do whatever you want.
What I’ve also found is that by uploading fewer photos to social media— I feel more freedom. It helps me focus on making photos that bring me personal satisfaction — and not worrying too much about what brings others satisfaction.
And what I have also discovered is that the happier you make yourself with your own photos, the more original, idiosyncratic, and personally-meaningful your work will be. And the more you please yourself in your own photos, then the more you will please your audience.
So go forth, and photograph anything you want— and don’t let anybody hold you back (not even yourself).
About the author
Eric Kim is a street photographer and photography teacher currently based in Berkeley, California. His life’s mission is to produce as much “Open Source Photography” to make photography education accessible to all. You can see more of his work on his website, and find him on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. This article was also published here and shared with permission.