“All children are artists,” Pablo Picasso famously said. “The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” This is a problem that nearly all of us tackle as photographers. How do we stay passionate and creative in what we do?
As a student, I nurtured my creativity by studying the work of others. I devoured every photography book in the school library. That’s how I discovered Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Clarence John Laughlin, among many others. I constantly experimented with my photography based on these influences.
Shooting for Myself
When I entered the workaday world and set out as a commercial photographer, it became difficult to maintain that level of joyful experimentation.
People advised me to stay fresh, to stay relevant, to “shoot for myself” and keep testing new ideas and approaches. I initially interpreted that to mean that I had to come up with my own commercial shoot ideas and execute them.
The approach bombed.
I was shooting what I wanted and hoping there would be a market for it — rather than shooting for the market. It was a recipe for failure.
So I began channeling my creativity into side projects. Many photographers do personal projects as an outlet — but what has been surprising to me is how my side projects have nurtured creativity in my commercial work, and helped me to maintain my passion for photography generally.
Far from an Indulgence
Some of my personal projects have been short studies of a particular subject. Many have been longer term projects lasting months or years.
Years ago, I combined my love for street photography with traditional portraiture for a project I did in New Orleans. I set up a canvas on the street on Mardi Gras Day and shot portraits of friends and revelers. The project went on for seven years and took on a life of its own.
While I had always thought that testing and “shooting for myself” had to be aligned with my professional vision, I have learned that such side projects are far from an indulgence. They have helped me to become a better photographer.
They keep me fresh. They keep me passionate. And the style and sensibilities of my personal projects enhance my professional work in subtle, unexpected ways.
When I need a shot of creativity, it’s the best way I’ve found to get my mojo back.