Chris Foley Photo
You either got it, or you don’t.
Generally speaking, it's not a teacher’s job to tell the student that they don’t have what it takes and to give up and go away. Especially if that teacher wishes to keep their students!
Anyway, that sort of thing seems anathema to us in the 21st century. After all, we’re all about “you can be anything you want to be,” especially in America.
One point of frustration for me over the years however, is this notion present in all training manuals and guides, street photography included, is that anyone can do it and can learn to do it well. That’s just not true, and it’s frustrating for me to see this myth propagated over and over again across many medium.
Not everyone has a unique voice. I'm not entirely clear that I have a unique voice of my own, and I'm not entirely sure that I care very much. I mean, that's not why I shoot, but I can tell you that when I was first starting out I used to stress about that. A lot. The questions were along the lines of: What if I'm not special? What if I don't have anything to say? What if there's nothing new to say? What if it's all already been done and I'm just out here with my camera enjoying myself and doing what I love regardless of how others respond to it? Oh wait...
The more I bothered to actually think about that, the more I realized that my values lay elsewhere. So what if I'm not some special flower?
Innate talent or learnable skills?
Intention, commitment, and repetition can unlock latent abilities, and that’s how most of us come to realize that we’re onto something, but for some of us, that’s just not enough. I’ve taught guitar lessons to enough kids to be able to tell within the first 3-4 lessons who was going to be a guitar player and who was going to be a noodler. And I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with noodling. I keep a guitar on my own wall even now, years after giving up on my music career just so that I can noodle, and keep at least one hand in playing music, but I have no illusions that I’m ever going to become a virtuoso guitar player in my 40s after walking away from that path in my 20s.
Tell it, sir
David Alan Harvey is a Magnum Photos member photographer, an official Fujifilm X-Photographer, a terrific instructor/presenter, and (in my own opinion) an amazing photographer. In the copy for an upcoming workshop, David has written the following:
"My workshops will challenge you. There is always some stress for sure. Why? Because those I mentor have all told me prior where they want to go and who they want to be. It is my job to take them to the right door. Then they must walk the walk. I absolutely do not care what style or type of photographer you may be. I can appreciate many forms of authorship. If you indeed have a real voice, I definitely will help you find it."
Wow, that’s refreshingly honest and direct. The line that jumps right out at me, however is: "If you indeed have a real voice, I definitely will help you find it.”
Oh my. I am absolutely in love with that sentence. One can’t buy a instructional street photography book, or visit an instructional street photography YouTube channel without being assured by the author that they will definitely help you discover and develop your own voice; a notion that has had me hanging my head for years. And now David comes out and says it.
The wonderful subtext living in this line is simply: You may well not have a real voice of your own. Not everybody does. But if you do indeed have a real voice, I definitely will help you find it.
That’s powerful, and it’s a ballsy thing for an instructor to say.
You got it, or you don’t got it.
I find myself fielding this question quite frequently: “How do I find my own voice”, or sometimes it’s “my own style” or “my own look”. And my own answer to that one is not a huge inspiration to those I discuss this with.
My answer goes like this: Go and make 50,000 images over the course of the next 6 months. It’s not all that hard to do but it takes time on the street and that requires commitment. You've got to be out shooting when you could be watching TV. Then come back to me and we’ll look through your body of work and see if we can’t spot a distinct “voice” or “style” or “look” beginning to emerge. And if you don’t, go back and run the exercise all over again.
I’ve written about immersion recently. Immersing oneself into the practice of street photography. There’s no substitute for doing. And there’s no way around it. You can’t develop your own “voice” without putting in the hours.
It’s a great way to test yourself, to push yourself, to see what you’ve got. And if you’re not as hyper-serious about street photography as I am and you’re just in it to have fun and enjoy creativity out of doors, immersion is perfect for that too. Maybe you’re just a noodler. And there ain’t nothing wrong with noodling, but it’s a good thing to know the difference.
Thanks for reading.