What do you want to be when you grow up?
What do you want to do for work?
What do you want to pursue in life?
They sound like extremely existentialist questions that couldn’t possibly have any relation to photography at all, but hear me out.
In the search of an answer to direct them in ‘the right path’, I – and many others like me – at some stage in their lives have attempted to answer the question of “What do I want to do with my life?”. It’s a funny question with deep repercussions. Repercussions that can extend a period of our lives, if not our entire existence.
It’s a really hard question to answer after you’ve finished your teenage years. Or if you’re more fortunate than I, after your uni degree.
…but it becomes more critical that you have a substantial answer the older you get – whatever that might be.
Time is the only real thing you have, and to waste it is to spend the only real resource you have in life.
But there’s a problem.
That problem is that the answer to “What do I want to do with my life” can’t be quantified ahead of time; you can’t accurately put numbers or a success metric on the path you’re about to take. You don’t know how it’s going to go. You don’t know whether you’ll be successful or not.
Yeah, you might have a uni degree to which you can assume relative confidence down a particular path, but in reality, it’s a guess.
In reality, it’s always a guess. In reality, the answer – always – is to take a leap of faith.
You don’t know that your career in medicine is the right thing to do, but it might make you feel good knowing that you’re making a difference by making people feel better.
You might question your choice as a graphic designer because of the dollars you might make right now, but the act of visually creating something spectacular and putting it out in the world makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something great.
When weighing up the options prior to pursuing anything, there’s always a monstrous tension; an anxiety, to make sure that the thing we’re pursuing is right. Right for efficiency, right for our soul, right for the rest of our lives
But in reality, giving ourselves this massive psychological barrier to overcome is really self-defeating. It pummels us into inaction. It binds us with fear.
And the remedy, as always, is to take a leap of faith. A blind jump. Putting trust into the unknown.
But it needs to be with purpose.
They say that the only way to find your life’s true purpose – the thing you will do for the rest of your life – is to try new things.
Figure that. In order to find what you want to do in life, you have to try different things so that you know what you like, and what you don’t like.
That blind faith gives you the answer and the direction to the next jump. And you keep jumping until you find something that speaks to you. Something that calls your name. Something that makes your soul sing. Even if it’s scary, even if you fail miserably. If you don’t jump; if you don’t move, you’ll never find it.
So, in regards to photography
This is a super long winded way to say that finding your voice in photography is exactly the same as answering the question of what you want to do with your life (thanks for hearing me out).
In photography, how do you know that you don’t like a particular style, a particular edit, a particular location, if you’ve never done it or never been there?
The best photographers in the world don’t have a narrow style. There’s way more than meets the eye. Yeah, sure, they might have a ‘thing’ or a ‘theme’ they’re kind of known for. But you’ll find that the great photographers specialise in a broad category, and they’re a specialist at one or a few things. Their skills are ’T’ shaped – broad, but deep in a specific area.
This is because over time, they’ve jumped from method to method, category to category, editing style to editing style, onwards and upwards, all the while finding out what speaks to them, assimilating it, and moving on to the next thing. What results is the culmination of different subject matter they enjoy, mushed together in what people define as their ‘style’.
‘Style’, is simply the output of the collection of things you like.
I recently did a Q&A on Instagram. Lots of people asked me about how I found my style. I didn’t want to repost all those questions because there was just too many.
The simple answer I gave on my stories is that I tend to find inspiration from outside Instagram. For me, that’s important.
What I mean by that is I ‘like’ a lot of things outside of photography, and it’s those influences in my life that I bring in to my photography – consciously, or more commonly, subconsciously.
I’m especially drawn to design – not things that just look fancy or pretty, but things that solve a problem well. That’s what design is. The solution to a problem well solved.
I’m also drawn to and often study philosophy. I love the pursuit of wisdom – especially surrounding the metaphysical. I love exploring existentialism, moral systems and beliefs, stoicism – all kinds of perspectives and questions on life and living.
I read a lot. I just recently reread one of my favourite books of all time – “The denial of death” by Ernest Becker – a challenge to the often unanswered, looming question answering the “why” of our ultimate existence as human beings in the face of death (it sounds a lot more gloomy than it actually is).
I know I’m an outlier in that respect. I don’t ever really watch tv, or movies, or news, or anything popular culture, really (that’s a lie, I really love tech). But for me what that means right now is that I’m shaped by a particular worldview. I know what popular looks like, and it’s not what I’m about. That’s not my worldview.
Simply put, I believe that in a world of impending death around every corner, life is meant to be cherished and extravagant – something to be experienced and celebrated. Life is dark. But life is awesome.
Vibrant, dark & moody. Simple compositions. Relatable landmarks. A strong focus on one particular subject.
Those are the pieces that make up my style, yours will be totally different.
It’s taken a lot of exploring the styles of others and assimilating outside influences to get to the point to where I am today, but I assure you that the only common trait is that what my images look like next month could be completely different. Ever moving. Ever changing.
The vibrant, dark Pat, could just be another stepping stone in the history of my style. Who knows, I might take a leap somewhere else and turn into a Chanel-wearing lifestyle blogger. And that – in the grand scheme of things – is what style is all about.