The evolution of one’s photography has a trajectory and it leans toward homogeny, even though it often begins with the romance of finding and capturing something unique.
Here, I want to explore that initial spark that drove you toward the camera. I want to put you back in touch with the odd and the terrifying. The crazy and the unknown. It’s important to embrace your weirdness in photography, being not ashamed of the quirks and the idiosyncrasies of your strange ways and warped thoughts. Within the cracks and scars are a personality all your own — and the world is in desperate need of something different.
The Quick Background On Why You’re Not Weird Enough
It’s mostly explained right here, in a study done in the 1950’s, called the Asch Conformity Experiment:
The short version of it is that we succumb to peer pressure. This video shows that we will do whatever everyone else is doing, even if it compromises our own belief system. But before you get too judgmental on the idea of conformity, just know that this behavior also is designed to keep us alive and safe. Humans are complex.
You’re not weird enough because it feels unsafe to be so. You may read stories of famous people who are weird, with some attempt at correlating the success with the weirdness. I’ve met plenty of weird people on Skid Row, so there goes that theory. I do not think weirdness causes success, but I do think that success can give permission to be weird. As can any situation where one is capable of sidestepping social norms.
So, in all likeliness, you’re not weird because you are in the 99% of people who are attempting a normal life, with friends, co-workers, family, neighbors, teachers and more. You most likely just do not have enough safe places to express your eccentricities. Or so you feel.
I used to joke that the best thing about a new job is that you can try out a new weird habit because nobody knows you any differently. But if you start suddenly wearing an ascot every day at the job you’ve been at for 10 years, it’s going to be uncomfortable.
The reality of being natural conformists is, in fact, why a lot of us turned to photography. The camera promised a frame by which we might define and express our take on the world. And for those of us who do it as an art, what we place in our compositions become even more than our unique way of seeing… but of thinking, too.
It’s my belief that our romantic and emotional attachment to our cameras emanates directly from this. That in an otherwise large sea of sameness, the camera is our wooden ship of dreams and our hope is that through this endeavor our true selves will fight against the pull to conform and we will find an expression and place for our differences.
So, What Happens?
Something happens in the learning of photography that neuters out uniqueness. It starts with this thought that we need to start at square one and advance to square two, then three, then four. This sounds reasonable in theory, but photography is not like most things. If you want to become a professional tennis player, then yes, you’ll need to develop a solid forehand and backhand. If you don’t establish a foundation, in sport and music, it is hard to reach any level of success. This is not as true with a camera. What you need to know about taking pictures can be learned in a week — enough to use it as exactly the tool you want it to be. There are free courses from Nikon right here that will teach you all you need to know.
So, why do we go down the same path for photography that we would for higher education? Fear.
There are many things that turn love to fear in photography. One is complexity. Certainly a camera is a complex tool, one can get lost in the exactitudes of shutter speed and aperture, suddenly putting aside our dreams and replacing them with a desire to study and learn. It feels good to learn. It’s noble, too. But it’s also an easy distraction for us. Far easier to be exacting on dynamic range and a perfectionist of landscape exposures than an explorer of our own voice. This is a side road we take, almost gladly, but for which there are only trees and no forest.
Another fear-invoking part of learning photography is seeing other people’s work. People talk about how creative children are — I believe much of this is not necessarily a trait a child possesses, but a lack of something adults come to possess: knowledge and criticism. The more you know about what’s been done out there, the more you become susceptible to group think, critical feedback and the persuasion of the masses. Just like the Asche Conformity Experiment.
Looking at other people’s work can be inspiring, but inherent in being inspired is also putting your attention outside yourself. Now the questions arise: is that work better than yours? If you like it that much, should you do something similar? This thinking can start to put a different spin on your photography journey — now you are trying on various voices, experimenting, learning new things, like lighting, hopping around from genre to genre. And here we are again, amidst the trees wondering if anyone hears them fall.
And finally, another thing that happens is the desire to make money at photography. Money is a powerful thing and it completely changes the dynamic of whatever it touches. If someone pays you for your services, you are obliged to consider their vision and needs. Photography can become that which you seek for stability, and fear can creep in again from that pressure to make a living from it.
All of this is what fear does to your work. It doesn’t make you bad, it makes you normal. But at what point does normal start to feel like a compromise? This is where it’s important to understand your weirdness.
What Is Weird?
There are lots of types of weird. There’s quirky weird, fanatical weird, weird emotions, weird fantasies, weird attractions and on and on. I don’t know what image adorns your flag, but I know my own. My weirdness is my emotionality. You usually know your weirdness because people have been pointing it out to you most of your life. In my case, I do not remember a time when people did not make fun of me for having deep emotions. I was called a cry baby relentlessly as a child. My family referred to me as “the Hulk,” for my tantrums. My bosses in business told me I was too emotional. My friends get on me, too. In fact, the only person who doesn’t care about how emotional I can be is my partner — though I’m sure it wears thin on her, too. This is my thing. I’m weirdly emotional. My mind races with anxiety, I’m prone to depression. And I do not hide this in my work, though I am still seeking better and better expressions of it.
But that’s just me. Your own weirdness is what you want to cultivate here. But you need to understand it. And you need to feel how you want to express it. This does not come at the end of the long winding road of learning about the medium, it comes on the main road. The main road! It’s right where you were when you began this journey. And then got diverted because of conformity and fear.
Weirdness is what you feel that seems out of place in normal life. It’s the expression that causes people to point and wonder. What’s this!? That isn’t how I’d do that. Must be something going on there.
Your weirdness is the thing that drives you to stay home when others go out. To stand up to ingrained cruelties. To wash your hands incessantly. To act impulsively. To drive too slow. To act lovingly in the face of fear. It’s also the fact that you wear onesie pajamas, sure, but what’s behind that activity? That’s the question. Does it comfort you? Do you need comfort? Do you fear death? How badly? It’s time to explore your behaviors. This is the territory of art.
See your weirdness for what it is — a thing inside you. A want or desire so primal you fear it could overtake you.
How to Stop Walking the Path of Conformity and Fear and Find the Main Road of Weirdness
Okay, it is time to reacquaint yourself with your inner weirdo. The person who stumbles and falls. The one who sits and stares. The one who needs and wants. It is time to find your road.
Step one is putting yourself back in the mindset of a child. We all have tricks we use to get there. It can be a walk, a song, a shower, a long drive… how do you push the entire world out and be only about you? You have a way, or you will invent one. But you must get there for this to begin.
Next, now that you are in the child’s mindset, it is time to ask yourself an important question: with nobody else to please or aspire to be like, what will you shoot? And not to shoot what you would have as a child, long ago, but to shoot what you would like to shoot now, if you were a child now.
For me, I know this — I’m drawn to shoot human pathos. The drama of life. And the expression of life in the throes of emotion.
For you, it will be what it will be. You may need to search around for it. I did, for many years. But once the note stuck, it was clear and it was loud. As it will be for you. You do not need to study your influences to be influenced. Obviously, I was influenced by a few notable Italians, but that was discovered later for me. First, you must go toward the light that draws you instinctively.
This kind of exploration can be short and it can be lengthy. 40 days in the desert, as it’s been described. But at some point you will be thrown from the horse you’re on and a light will appear. It happens.
The work is in taking what you have convinced yourself is little and allowing it to be big. Big enough to want it photographed. If you don’t appreciate your thing, why would you shoot it?
You’ve spent many years trivializing your instincts. Like I learned to suppress my tears in public; to be “business-like” in the face of politics. On this journey, you want to look at your instincts again, giving weight to the thing you have fought so hard to deny. This is hard. You have put so much into the former way.
But all artists do this. The writer looks at her sentence and asks, is this what I want to say, or what I expect others want to read? The painter asks, is this the paint stroke that makes the image look real, or look like how I felt it? The musician — are these the notes I feel, or the notes I know that ears want to hear? All endeavors require this kind of introspection and difficult choice. You can choose the path of the expected and even obtain security and wealth with it — or you can choose the path of your weird instinct. And achieve something greater.
But what will send you on the path will be an appreciation for that little thing you were scared to show. Recognizing it. And then figuring out the underlying meaning behind its importance to you. And then setting out on how to convey its importance in camera.
It can be in what you shoot, it can also be in how you shoot. It can also be in what you do with the image later. This is the wonder of the camera. It’s just your brush, your keyboard, your instrument, your sculpting tool. When you are drawn forward on the path of your own ideas, the areas you need to be proficient in will be clear and you can work on it — not in generalities, attempting to be a Photographer, but specifically, for how it helps depict your inner being.
This is the path to the road of weirdness. Your main road. The road down which the purest expression of your own true voice will be depicted in image. I look forward to seeing you there.