You Are Still a Photographer, Even If No One Likes Your Images

I think we’ve all been there. After culling, editing and sweating over every detail, we release our latest masterpiece to be greeted with three likes. One comes from our mother, the other two from our friends who know nothing about photography. It’s demoralizing.

It often raises questions like “why am I doing this?”, “Am I crap?”, “Why the hell did this photo of a cat get 1.3 million likes and I only got… three?!?!” Ok, maybe that last one is just me, but you get the idea…

I think it would be fair to say that we creatives live in a whole new paradigm. Social media has given every photographer a platform to shout on, and everyone has. Some say the market is too saturated and there are too many voices.

There are countless articles, YouTube videos, Skillshare courses, and in-person workshops dedicated to growing your photography business with enticing titles like “5 tips to grow your photography business.” These have their place, of course, but I think we as practitioners may have deviated and reversed our priorities a bit.

Everyone, at some point in their career, needs a recalibration to bring them back to a healthier, happier, and more fulfilling place. Maybe it’s you right now. If so, I would like to offer some encouragement and some advice that has helped me.

Remember the love you once had

Think back to when you fell in love with photography. If you’re old like me, you might have to settle for a moment of loving photography, but think back to what made you give up reason and pursue this art form. Maybe it was a specific place or topic. Maybe you suddenly had a mechanism to scratch that creative itch that was driving you crazy. Whatever the triggering incident, reflect on how you felt.

It may sound a bit like hippie love, but there have been so many times that I have found myself tied to the work and practice of photography that I have totally lost the love of photography. The problem for me was that when I lost love for this art form, everything else suffered.

I’m willing to bet that whatever comes to mind represents a moment of deep satisfaction. I think that’s the key element that we lost. We worry too much about the application of photography and too often attach our value to it as a photographer. Did I make money? Have I been published? Do I have a gallery representation? Has anyone other than my mother liked my picture? Money and fame aren’t inherently bad, but they can be toxic to the photographer’s soul when hyped up.

Inspirational quotes from Magnum photographers

In 2011, an article offered advice to young photographers from the Magnum Photo cooperative, and two quotes have served as sage advice in recent years. the original Ideas Press article has since disappeared, but you can find it on the Wayback Machine.

All of these quotes have been inspiring and helpful at one point or another, but there are two that stand out from this conversation. The first is from Christopher Anderson:

Forget about being a photographer. Be a photographer first and maybe the job will come later. Don’t be in a rush to get your rent paid with your camera. Jimi Hendrix didn’t choose a career as a professional musician before learning to play the guitar. No, he loved music and created something beautiful and THEN he became a profession. Larry Towell, for example, was not a “professional” photographer until he was already a “famous” photographer. Take the photos you feel compelled to take and maybe that will lead to a career. But if you try to make the career first, you’ll just make shitty pictures you don’t care about.

While I love everything about it, there are two specific phrases I want to unpack here.

#1. Be a photographer

When I was younger, my father was often sick and while he was being treated, my sister and I spent time with our maternal grandparents. My grandfather had learned photography from his mother and in an attempt to get me out of her hair, taught me. He would send me into the woods of southern Arkansas and say, “Not everyone can paint a picture or make a sculpture, but everyone can take a picture.” I remember countless hours spent wandering the woods with a camera, completely immersed in the joy of exploration and discovery; just take pictures.

Gary Winogrand once said, “I photograph to see what the photographed world looks like.” There is something magical about the camera, it gives us the ability to steal a little piece of reality and keep it to ourselves. Almost all the photographers I have met have been explorers at heart. If your photo with the three wretches I like excites you, that’s all that matters.

#2. Photos you feel compelled to take

This leads to the second sentence. Whatever you like, go out there and shoot it, not because it’s trending or your understanding of what “photographers” do. Go photograph what you cannot photograph. Things that bother you to miss. Each image is your opportunity to capture the world for yourself and those you choose to show it to. One of my favorite Cig Harvey quotes is “The camera is just an expensive pencil, what have you got to say?” Don’t worry about who likes or dislikes what you have to say; just say something.

In the same article, Alex Webb says:

Shoot because you love doing it, because you absolutely have to, because the main reward will be the process of doing it. The other rewards—recognition, financial compensation—are so few and so fleeting. And even if you’re somewhat successful, there will almost inevitably be times when you’re ignored, have little income, or, often, both. Certainly, there are many other easier ways to make a living in this society. Think of photography as a passion, not a career.

For our own good, let’s pursue the reward Webb is referring to. Think back to when you fell in love with photography. The process of doing this is often what ingrains the love of photography in our souls. It is important for our development that we are fulfilled by what we photograph. If we’re not, we’re not doing it, and photography is a developed skill, not an inherent skill.

What to do if your joy for photography is gone

If you are in a place where the joy of photography has gone. Do not panic. There are only two types of photographers. Those who have lost love and those who will lose it. What matters is how we regain our love and trust. Here are some concrete things that I have found useful in my career.

1. Spend some time reassessing what you want from photography. Be specific and set benevolent goals.

2. Find the topic that brings you the most joy. Rocks or riots, it doesn’t matter because it’s just for you.

3. Once you find that thing you like, create a small series of pictures and don’t show it to anyone. It could be 10 images, the number doesn’t matter because this is an exercise in working for passion, not notoriety.

4. Set aside time each week to photograph what you love. Some of you reading this might be working professionals. This is particularly important for you. Burnout occurs when the camera does not bring fulfillment to our lives.

5. Learn from the greats. Listen to podcasts, YouTube videos, read books, whatever inspires you. Creativity is a monster that needs to be fed. If you’re not sure where to start, check out Alec Soth’s photo book reviews. His speech on Eggleston’s book, Democratic Forest, is truly brilliant.

6. Finally, be kind to yourself. That doesn’t mean lying to yourself, though. There’s a difference between being honest about areas of growth and telling yourself you’re a failure. Have confidence in your work because you love it.

As mundane as it may seem, pursuing photography is an ever-evolving goal. Whether through a new subject, new equipment or a new understanding, we are all pursuing the same goal, personal growth. Some photographers are further along in their journey than others, time and skill determine how far you are. Don’t be discouraged by where you are right now, just keep doing the work you love.

About the Author: Kyle Agee is a photographer and instructor based in Northwest Arkansas. The opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author. You can find Agee’s work on her website and on Instagram.

Picture credits: Stock photo by Depositphotos

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