From the first moment you picked up a camera, you've been on an image-making journey. There are many different stages and directions with no true final destination. There are milestones and pitfalls, and you undoubtedly have encountered plenty of both.
There are goals, of course, both concrete and abstract. Yours might be to one day make a living from your images; to be the main shooter at a wedding, to see your name in the credit line of a magazine, or to have a solo exhibition. Or maybe it is simply to create images of your kids that you would be proud to hang over your mantel or to be able to call yourself a photographer without feeling like you're being dishonest.
As soon as you begin to reach your photographic goals, however, you realize that they are not the real reason you take pictures. It is the same with mountain climbing: as sweet as any summit may be, it is meaningless in itself. What matters is the journey—the climb itself. And upon reaching a particularly desired summit, an aching void opens with a burning question: what now? The only reasonable answer is to find another higher and more difficult mountain to climb. Climbers love to climb, and photographers love to photograph. Simple as that.
The "what now" void is the drive that pushes us to further our art, to become better at what we do.
In this journey, I believe that there are six distinct stages (a somewhat arbitrary classification). I have no doubt there are many other ways to subdivide the creative evolution of a photographer, but this is my version—a very broad generalization.
Stage 1: The photographer has no artistic intent; the role of the photograph is simply to record. A majority of people now own a smartphone or a point and shoot digital camera and use it to record memories of birthdays and holidays. Images are not expected to be beautiful in any way, but rather to show what was happening at a particular moment. The photographer is simply a camera operator, expected to keep things reasonably sharp and well-exposed.
Stage 2: The photographer has discovered an interest in creating beautiful images and is enthusiastically playing around with whatever camera he has available, though without any real direction or technical knowledge. He still mostly follows the automatic mode of his camera but does a lot of random experimentation, happy to find the occasional good image in his files, but still unsure of why it's good or how it happened. This is a time of great creativity but with a relatively poor yield of choice imagery.
Stage 3: The photographer has realized that the lack of technical knowledge was hindering his efforts and has made a conscious decision to learn the craft of image-making. He focuses heavily on technique, starts buying a lot of equipment and perusing review websites. His images improve dramatically, at least from a technical point of view, but they do not necessarily satisfy him any more than before. This is a dangerous time, as the unbridled enthusiasm of the second stage, where everything was new and exciting, has given way to the cold world of lens reviews and MTF charts.
Stage 4: The photographer realizes that focusing exclusively on technique is a dead end, while composition, quality of light, and other similar, intangible notions are equally crucial in the creation of a great image. This is much more difficult to learn, however, since it's not nearly as quantifiable as the technical aspects of photography. This is the time where he gets interested in the history of photography, studies the works of the masters, and perhaps enrolls in some workshops.
Stage 5: The photographer has acquired the technical and artistic tools necessary and begins to worry about what to do with them. He can take a beautiful photograph, but realizes he needs more; he needs something to express with the image. This is the time where he develops his own vision, finds his voice. He was a craftsman; he is now becoming an artist.
Stage 6: The photographer has found his voice and stopped worrying. He has a message to express, and he knows how to do it. He makes photographs because that's who he is and what he does.
Arguably, no one ever fully reaches this final stage.
The transitions from one stage to the next are also interesting. They can't be forecast or forced, and only in retrospect does the photographer realize he has progressed to the next level and has stopped worrying about whether his lens is sharp enough, for instance.
Of particular interest is where communities, especially online, fit within this scheme, and how useful they can be to progress to the next level.
As anyone who has perused any online sharing communities for any length of time can readily attest, there are eager Stage 2 photographers enthusiastically sharing their work. They're still at the beginning of their journey and post cliché images of flowers, babies, and sunsets, merely because this is what they are naturally attracted to. They are also looking for the magic recipe to make their photos automatically great, whether by HDR, tone mapping, or a bevy of filters.
The role of the community is not to offer criticism, but reinforcement and support.
While the tidal wave of flourished awards may seem a bit ridiculous at times, it still serves an important purpose: encouraging the photographer to persevere—to keep shooting and sharing.
Upon reaching the "technical hole" stage, the photographer completely switches communities and spends his time reading reviews of cameras and lenses and debating endlessly on DPReview.com over which exotic telephoto has the best corner sharpness, or whether he should switch to Canon if it releases their newest model before Nikon. Or perhaps he should go mirrorless? Crucially, he will usually stop sharing images online at this stage (with the possible exception of brick walls). Internet forums will help him further his technical knowledge, but not his creative eye or personal vision.
After a few months (or more likely, years), the photographer realizes that—fun as it may be—debating whether Canon or Nikon or Fuji is the best brand doesn't help him make better photographs. He'll gradually move away from debate forums and start sharing again, either back in select sub-communities. He'll be looking for both validation and measured criticism (in proportions that vary according to his character), and will consume large numbers of images created by others and offer his take on them, thereby developing his critical eye.
But when the photographer reaches the fifth stage, where he tries to find his voice, develop his personal vision, something strange happens: he nearly stops sharing altogether. At first (and maybe out of habit) he shares his latest creation. However, the reactions are not what he was hoping for, and perhaps comments are made on how it's not technically perfect, or on how the composition could be better, or the light more flattering. The danger here is that the photographer—despite having developed a thicker skin in the previous stages—has put much more of himself into this new image and criticism is once again taken personally. As the process repeats itself, he finally decides that now that he's creating something deeply personal, he doesn't need to share with others as much as before, if at all.
I believe this is a mistake.
Although it is indeed very frustrating to receive comments on how an image is improperly exposed when the entire point is for it to be improperly exposed, there is still a tremendous value to be found in not only sharing one's images but also in being open to feedback. It keeps the photographer grounded in reality; it helps him see the images differently and opens new perspectives or new levels of reading. More importantly, most of us (except for a few rare Zen masters) create images to share with others, to garner a response or emotion within the viewer. Even with all its flaws, online sharing and commenting is also a fantastic way to get closer to viewers and gauge their reactions. And knowing he has a public pushes the photographer to shoot more, edit more, and create more, which, as we all know, is the real key to becoming a better photographer—you simply have to spend a lot of time doing it.
But there is a fine line to walk in keeping your own voice while still listening to what others have to say.
If you systematically cave whenever others make suggestions, you'll end up producing the lowest-common-denominator images that may please crowds but don't truly express your voice. On the other hand, if you live in an ivory tower and—convinced of your genius—never consider any external feedback, you'll quickly stop growing as an artist and endlessly repeat yourself.
By being forced to perform this delicate balancing exercise, you'll progressively become better at recognizing what is truly yours in any image and how you are expressing your voice. In turn, this helps you differentiate between the superficial and the deeper, more personal parts of your work.
The message I want to pass on here is to move on when you feel you have outgrown a particular community, but never stop sharing and opening your work to feedback and criticism.
You'll be a better artist for it.
Alex Buisse thrives on being an image-maker and an alpinist. He is an avid expedition photographer whose assignments and personal projects have led him around the world. From the mountaineering capital of the world, Chamonix, France, Alex is most comfortable climbing the peaks around his home in Chamonix, France, and has sailed an expedition yacht around Cape Horn, climbed a granite spire alone for four days, titled three mountains in Greenland, photographed the Rio Olympics, skied to the North Pole, climbed high on K2, flown from the summits of snowy peaks, trekked through the wilderness of Tierra Fuego, and kayaked with sea lions in the Galapagos Islands. For more on Alex, visit his website or find him on Instagram.