Photography is the craft of constantly looking, listening, and learning to see, but no one ever arrives. And that's not even the point. All photographers are students, even the “master photographers” we all follow and admire. Being a photographer means that you're on a quest to capture and convey something more interesting and more meaningful than the last frame. The armchair critics may think otherwise, but every photographer knows this is true. We all aspire.
aspire [uh-spahyuh r] verb; to long, aim, or seek ambitiously; be eagerly desirous, especially for something great or of high value.
For more than a decade, I had the privilege of teaching hundreds of aspiring photographers at Brooks Institute. Year after year, the students’ enthusiasm, dreams, and desire to learn was a constant fuel that kept my own creative fire alive. If you’ve ever spent time with a hungry and aspiring photographer, you know how their thirst for growth is contagious. Yet when we "grow up" as photographers, it’s easy to lose this spark.
We seem to gain a certain amount of expertise and shed our naiveté as if it’s something that's holding us back. We abandon the creative risks that we once took and then try to make “real and more important” photographs. Somewhere along the way, we begin to distrust our gut instincts in favor of the rational rules and our photographs start to become repetitive and look like everyone else’s.
“In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities but in the expert’s there are few.” - Shunryu Suzuki
The worst part about gaining photographic expertise is that we can talk ourselves out of certain frames. Rather than responding to the beat of our hearts and pushing the shutter release, we say to ourselves, “This photograph has already been made.” Thanks to our “expertise,” we quit before we even try. In doing so, we forget that photography is an art that requires experimentation, risk, and growth and that improving our craft is a journey that never ends.
Rodney Smith on location in upstate New York.
Good photographs are always a combination of the mind, heart, and soul. As I’ve matured as a photographer, I’ve discovered that trusting my expertise often results in lackluster and uninteresting images; trusting my gut or digging into my soul has led to my best work.
Getting better at photography is more like drilling down and less like climbing up. We need to stop comparing photographic growth to climbing a corporate ladder; there is no ladder in photography and there is no top rung. Becoming a better photographer requires excavation, like digging a trench. Dig deep into who you are and into what matters most, and you might just discover a fresh spring.
Thanks to our “expertise,” we quit before we even try.
In reflecting on my own photographic journey, I discovered I was going off course. I had become an expert at teaching and at helping other people grow, but I wasn’t going anywhere except up to the next rung. From that vantage point on the ladder, I could easily see where others had gone wrong, yet I was blind to my own mistakes. I needed to become a student again—to abandon my expertise and return to beginner-hood. Regardless of how long you’ve been behind the camera, there’s always room to learn.
Sometimes it’s the small details that mean the most. Here photographer Rodney Smith adds a mirror to an old wall in an abandoned farmhouse in Brooklyn, New York.
In order to counteract this misguided growth, I decided to do the one thing I’d never done: attend a workshop. I was eager and ready to learn—a student among peers—and we were bound by a common desire to grow. It was my turn to have my portfolio of people photographs reviewed and I was nervous and excited at the same time. My work was passed around to the group and reviewed. The feedback was helpful, yet the lesson that meant the most was the one that was painful to hear. It was a life-changing experience for me.
Trusting my own expertise often results in lackluster and uninteresting images; trusting my gut or digging into my soul has led to my best work.
Workshop leader Rodney Smith is a world-renowned photographer whom I deeply respect. Rodney said to me, “When I look at your photographs, I can tell you are deeply connected and committed to the person you are photographing. Your photographs are good. Yet, I don’t think you are committed to the photograph itself . . . and, in turn, you are letting your subject down.” It was a thoughtful way to say, “Chris, you need to work on composition.” And he was right—composition is one of my weak links. But Rodney didn’t just give me some trite advice or mention the rule of thirds; his words cut to the core and gave me intense insight into improving my craft. His insight wasn’t anything I didn’t already know, yet I wasn’t able to digest it until I let go of my expertise and became a student again. As an aspiring student, I was finally able to learn.
Letting go of expertise—either by choice or events that are out of your control—opens up a unique opportunity to grow. Even Steve Jobs reflected on being fired from Apple: “The heaviness of being successful was replaced with the lightness of being a beginner again.” Being fired led to one of the most creative times in his life. While you and I (and most people) are no Steve Jobs, perhaps we need to be fired—or at least to resign ourselves—to let go of much of what we’ve learned and who we’ve become. Pick up a camera like a beginner so that you can see with restless eyes. Aspire and take risks because that's one of the few paths that will lead you to new growth.
Chris Orwig is a celebrated photographer, best-selling author, and instructor who brings passion to all that he does. He applauds (and lives by) Marc Riboud's observation that "Taking pictures is savouring life intensely, every hundredth of a second." For more information and inspiration, visit his website or find his books on Amazon.