Finding your voice. It sounds easy doesn’t it?
The reality is that it’s one of the most complicated tasks we face as photographers. To learn our equipment, we read the manuals, mostly. To learn composition, we study art. But your voice? You must know it to differentiate yourself in an increasingly crowded market. Your unique voice is the secret to joy and growth in your business.
So how do you find it?
Trovare la Voce
The good news is it’s already there. And we all have a path to it.
For me, it came into sharp relief in the Tuscan hills outside Florence. I was hired to shoot a wedding by a couple who I had yet to meet and was able to have one of my dearest friends (and an incredible photographer) there to work with me. I ended up in a fantastic situation where I had no preconceived notions and was completed supported. And my heart sang! I did the best work of my life, made friends for life, and it changed my life.
I was bouncing about in Italian. I had found my voice. Trovare la voce!
After years of doing what felt like fully competent work, I was able to get out of my own way and see clearly. As I was shooting, I could feel the clarity in every setting, every composition. It was more than just technical ease. It was like I found a connection to my heart that had always been there waiting for me to show up.
And I thought, how do I share this?! I’ve talked to so many photographers facing the same struggles and looking for the answers.
Now we can’t all go to Italy to shoot with a best friend to find our voice. But there are steps we can take in our shoots every week to help get clear on that voice. It’s the voice we’ve had since we were first drawn to photography. All we need is a way back to it.
I was trained as an anthropologist and I look and listen and study and think a lot. I’m constantly trying to balance a left brain need for data, detail, and organization with a right brain need for wild and wooly artistic freedom.
Analyzing my own journey and those of other photographers, I realized there was not only a common pattern, but also real world exercises that would help us get clear on our own voice… that seemingly intangible part of us that we know we need to get a handle on if we’re going to differentiate ourselves and build our dream careers.
For most of us, among the self-taught many, our journey as photographers looks something like this…
Spark – We start making photographs and having a great time, then someone says, ‘That’s a great shot! You should be a photographer.” At this point we love what we’re doing and think our photos are beautiful, although we tend to shoot a lot to get to the ones we love.
Free-fall -And then we start to learn. And the more we learn, the more our perception of our own work starts to fade. We’re exposed to incredibly talented photographers and work that is mind blowing. We hit the bottom of the trough and may wonder how we will ever get to the top. Many never start their business and fade out at this point.
Pits – Way at the bottom, self-doubt kicks in. If you’ve got gumption you keep going. Even more likely, there is a fire in your belly that keeps you going. There was something back there at the beginning that was so thrilling that it kept you up at night with wild imaginings of what you could be. So you redouble your effort and start the process of developing your competency.
Competency – On your way back up the curve, you learn to get the shot. Soon you’re comfortable with the clients who used to scare you. You can handle almost any lighting situation that’s thrown at you. You start to get creative and may try painting with light, Photoshop effects, and unusual compositions…
You know you can do what’s asked of you as a professional, but it’s likely that somewhere the joy got left in a box while you did what was expected of you. Or you were following along with other work you love. Creating what you saw others creating.
Decision – Now you face a decision… many businesses do. You can choose to barrel forward doing what you think you should be doing, run a successful business meeting the market. Or… you can throw it all to the wind and follow your artist’s heart. At least that’s what conventional wisdom would have you believe.
Your Voice – This juncture is where our careers really get good. It’s when you understand that following your artist’s heart is actually what will make your business. Think about the photographers and artists who you really admire. You know their work on the spot and could probably pick it out of a line up. They found their voice and owned it. It differentiates them in the market and makes their clients’ decisions to hire them easy… and at their established price point.
So how do you recognize your voice and let it sing? The good news is that there are quantitative and qualitative steps that you can take to find your way back to what inspires you and is authentically only you. Two exercises to put you on the path to owning your voice…
After you finish every shoot… before you drive home or download files or anything else… take two minutes to jot down a few pieces of information:
– What did you like?
– What did you hate?
– What absolutely made your heart sing with joy?
Ideally jot these notes somewhere that they are easy to keep collected. In a pinch write on any scrap of paper and stuff them in the glove box. Write them down stream of consciousness, no editing. Make these notes after at least ten shoots. You want to give yourself a reasonable data set. Your notes may include everything from locations to lighting situations to subjects to conversations.
After you’ve compiled your set, spend some time thinking out of the box with them. If you’re the spreadsheet type, map it out. If you need visuals, get the information on post it notes all over the wall. Give yourself time with this exercise and look for the patterns.
Now give yourself permission to move away from what you hate and run hollering toward what you love!
When was the last time you went through your portfolio? Updated your website? Chances are that it’s been a while. Well, this is your chance, before the summer wedding and portrait seasons start to take over. Before you start the update process… look over as much as you can of what you have shot… and pull your three favorite images.
Not the ones you would submit to editors or to photographic competitions. The ones you love. They may or may not be technically sound, but something about them should leave you wanting to do exactly that again and again. They may be photos you made at the very beginning of your career when the spark was so exciting that it kept you up at night. They may be photos you made last week at a shoot that pushed all of your buttons.
Now take those three photos… and print them. Get them out of their digital cage and make them BIG.
Hang them on your wall. Place them over your desk. Stick them on the fridge with your kids’ best drawings. Be proud of who you are and what your heart creates. Live with them. Love them. Spend time with these images and engage conversations with yourself and others about why you love them. Talk out loud. Own ’em.
Your voice is in these images and the more you make them part of your daily experience, the more that voice will be welcome into everything you do… and how and what you shoot.
Finding and recognizing your voice doesn’t come from someone else. Your voice is about what comes from inside of you when you give yourself the attention you deserve.
In the midst of busy days, it’s vital to make your voice a priority. Take time with these exercises and absorb the results. In there, in you, are the exact answers for setting yourself apart form the crowd. No one else can be you. And now you have the steps you can take to let the world hear the voice behind your photos.
Want to learn more? Paige is leading Happy Manifesto workshops in fall 2011 in the US and spring 2012 in Europe. Find your voice, your real voice, in the company of a select group of like-minded creatives. Follow a path together and come away with a plan.
Written by Paige Elizabeth
Before she fell in love with photography, Paige trained as an anthropologist and instructor and received her masters degree from the Kroc Institute at Notre Dame. And now she’s living a life she could never have dreamed of. She splits her time between Denver and London photographing love stories and weddings and teaching photographers to identify and embrace their creative voice. She has been known to Snoopy dance around the flat with joy while the perpetually bemused love of her life sips champagne and giggles. It’s a proper celebration.