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On Finding Your Voice

Making  your mark begins by finding your voice.

Every other guy who picks up a camera secretly has a dream of being a fashion photographer. There’s the girls, the money, the esteem, and the idea of living the glamorous life we were all entitled to before the world got in the way with all its prickly thorns. But there’s a simple reason that most guys will never be a fashion photographer. And it’s not the skill, the competition, or the personality. It’s much more basic than that. It’s that most men could care less about fashion. Because, when it comes down to it, you need to have something to say if you want to make your mark, and this isn’t a parable for fashion alone.

It is true for any photographer in any field. You have to care about your subject. And that begs the question: How much do we really care about weddings? Of course, I know we all care. I know we enjoy taking the pictures and sharing in the day. But let’s go farther.

Do we care in such a deeply-felt way that it is as much our event as theirs? Where client satisfaction is a start, but the end is our own fulfillment? Where a wedding says something, and we have the courage to embrace or release it, because of what it stands for? It’s not simply about depth or service or brand or quality. It’s not just about professionalism. It is about making a mark and having the life worth living.

What this is about is finding voice. It is letting the subject burrow so deep into our heads, we can’t let go. And you never get that just from doing a job. Just from making a living. You only do that making a full-throated proclamation of who you are. Now maybe all of this sounds a little heady for something like a wedding, but it’s not. Because it’s not just art. It’s business. Differentiation is survival. We all clamor for the same thin air at the intersection of Commerce Street and Industry Road, and it’s only going to get harder. It is the way we elevate ourselves. A business is a long road to commit to, if we’re just planning to stay in the middle of the pack.

Voice is our lifeline. It rips right through people with the full force of a passionate life. It leaves us in awe, humbled by its clairvoyance. It infuriates, challenging our beliefs. It fuels action and decision. It gives us our angle and edge. We are all creators. We all possess it. But the choice is ours. Because though the formula is unpredictable, the recipe is as certain as it is simple. Finding your voice is nothing more than one part commitment and one part daring. One part commitment to the principles and ideas that form you. And one part being daring enough to let people see who you really are and not who they want you to be.

All you need to do to start is ask the question, “Why?”

Why does it matter to you? Why should someone else care?

Just dig in, and start answering the questions. Why do we shoot the girl staring at herself in the mirror? We could have shot the hair, the mouth, the expression, or we could have skipped it altogether. That it looks pretty is not enough. That doesn’t tell us why. Pretty will never guide you when you have to choose between two equally valid choices. We need more.

Suppose I think weddings are theater. Maybe the mirror is an allusion, then. So I choose the angle with the edge light and the black wall behind her for the most drama. Maybe I think weddings are rites of passage. Then I pick the angle with the mother in the background, or I align the antique photo on the mirror next to her reflection. What if I think weddings are artifice? I can light it with direct flash. Or if I think they’re sociology, I can show the entirety of the room with the greatest depth of field. There are a million maybes and a million possibilities. But here’s the one thing that won’t be enough. I can’t just show what we’ve seen before.

If voice is finding the thing that is uniquely you, it is always going to lie in the differences between your picture and everything that preceded it, and not in the similarities. In reality, I know we really do care enough. I’ve heard the frustrations, I’ve seen the joy. I’ve seen photographers light up with a day made just for them. I’ve seen the dejection as they asked why they were even there. I’ve seen people respond because they had to and because they wanted to. That means we have the opinions we need. But we need to use them. To pack them into our images. We know what we love and, let’s face it, what we hate. We just need to make that tangible.

A wedding is a hotbed of emotion, tradition, and style. It is a ritual rife with reference, full of connotation, and deep in lore. There’s more than enough material. We just need to flip the lens to look inward instead of outward. We need not to ask what people want us to capture, but what we want them to see. Don’t just show the proverbial pretty picture. Answer why it matters. To us. Because if we’re going to spend another hour setting a dress just right or placing the shoes just so, if we’re going to spend another day at a ceremony, a reception, and one the of most important days of another person’s life, why not let it count for more? We have only so many weekends. We may as well make the most of them before we run out.

About Spencer Lum

Spencer is a storyteller with an indelible belief in the raw humanity of weddings. 

With 10 years of experience running Brooklyn-based 5 West Studios, he has developed a style that combines influences from fine art and photojournalism. He has also enjoyed time as a designer, creative director, and filmmaker. 

Spencer is the founder of the industry blog, Ground Glass, as well as a doting husband and father of two beautiful children in Brooklyn, NY. 

The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!
The NEW ShootQ is Complimentary while in Beta mode for the next few months.  Enjoy!