With previous posts I've written about personal photographic development. There are important waypoints along the road which can lift up your photography to new levels, but there are also pitfalls. The obvious pitfall is to concentrate too much on equipment, brand differences and so on – at the expense of real content. But it is kind of too obvious and I've already write about my own experiences at day #11. So, instead I decided to write about something that goes a little bit deeper: our tendency to compare ourselves with others (and a habit of seeing photography as a competitive art form). As basic human function it is, and necessary for development, it can also be a pitfall that dries your inspiration.
Comparing ourselves to others is how our identities are built: by comparing ourselves to our peer groups we build social maps and position ourselves on those maps based on knowledge we get from the comparison. It's a fair argument that the comparison is also needed for development because we learn from others and build on what others have left for us. Being a self taught photography enthusiast I could even go as far as to say that everything I've learned from photography has come from others in a way or another.
But when it comes to building your own photographic identity and your way of seeing, the comparison will very likely disturb this process. There are many photographers out there that I've admired for their recognizable visual style. And there's a certain feeling that I get when I find some new photographer who has a very distinct style. Most often that feeling is something along the lines 'how come I don't do that kind of photography?' or 'if I could just take similar kind of pictures I would also have a strong visual identity like that'. But over the years I've learned that this sort of approach can actually distract my own vision, because it yields downward pressure, the feeling that you are 'not getting there', which will eventually affect the inspiration as well. This can become a vicious circle which will eventually kill the pleasure like a poison drank from the pink and compelling bottle. Another alternative is that one starts to build similar pictures and to think he is making great pictures because they are essentially the same that receive recognition in forums and social media. Just look at any Instagram feed and there are probably many pictures of guys standing front of the Milky way with their flashlights up in the air – it's visual identity for some few, but most of the others are just copying and not getting anywhere. The pitfall is that one tries to develop his own visual identity with a same method that usually work well when learning new photography techniques. But the comparison is often a process that brings the divergence closer and it rarely opens up new pathways.
For me one important lesson has been that I intentionally try to detach myself from other photographers work. I admire some photographers, but I don't follow anyone or compare my work with them. On a fundamental level I've accepted that I'm a different story and I will not become someone I admire even if I wanted to. In a way I've made peace with myself and don't fight against what naturally flows out inside of me – even if it's not as cool or refined as something else. Instead I urge everyone to find their own 'fragile string of what is meaningful' which they can start to wind up. Stop worrying whether 'you are getting there or not', instead create your own visual world. I can already hear someone screaming 'but you need talent to do that'. I'd like to think that getting personal is enough, the talent will follow once you have really established 'the why' behind your photography and defined 'the success' on a personal level (whatever it is). From there your photography is supported by larger structures (the context you've made yourself) and iterating your photography within those structures will eventually bring in the talent (maybe after the famous 10 000 pictures). Then someday someone from the outside of your personal world comes by and is amazed how personal and unique your photography is. It is because you've followed your own vision and built your own identity as a photographer.
So, don't compare. Instead try to create your own vision and identity as a photographer. If you keep your focus on creating and evaluating your work, you are 'getting there'.