There are two types of pictures.
Pictures about something. And pictures of something.
And while taking pictures that show crying brides and smiling kids may pay the bills, the real question isn’t what you show in your pictures. It’s what you make people feel. That’s what voice is about. And it pays the bills even better.
Because voice isn’t a luxury afforded to the arteeeste. It’s the heart of your craft. It’s you.
And if you want a devout following, who doesn’t give a rat’s ass about any other photographer but you, it’s everything.
Truth is, 99 photographers out of 100 couldn’t tell you what their pictures actually say to their audience. They shoot for the most pregnant moments or the most skillful shots, relying on these elements to do the communication for them. They chase the chase, stuck in the hellish loop of trying to keep up with everyone else.
And you see it post after post.
More filmic film.
Reflections of reflections of reflections.
Shooting through any and everything possible.
It’s the Transformers approach to photography. Bigger, better, and louder. Much, much louder.
But there’s another way.
Because there’s turning up the volume in the picture and turning up the volume in people’s hearts. And it’s the second you want. (At the end of this post, be sure to get the download and see how 29 photographers are crushing it with their unique voice.)
It doesn’t matter what expression people have. Or how you compose the picture. Only what these things make your audience feel.
You have to play your audience. You have to be in full command of the experience you give them, and the feelings you share. Not to pull the wool over their eyes, but to make sure that you do something for them. That you evoke and provoke. Because that’s what we all want. You look at photography for the same reason you look at your news feed. To feel something.
There’s been many a picture perfect postcard.
But they suck. You know why? Because they have nothing to say. Not a hint of surprise. Not a trace of difference. They don’t create a feeling.
Because they’re what everyone knows how to do. What everyone has done.
They’re the ships that have sailed, where the communication has become so common, that people are dulled to it’s original meaning.
And, yeah, there’s an audience for that. But they’re not the ones who will hand over their loyalty or spread the gospel, because they’re the people who don’t care about photography. And they probably never will.
So this is all to say, it’s not the tears of sorrow in a picture that matters. It’s that your audience cries. And if you take a walk in a gallery or browse through the work of the best of the best in all photography, what you’ll see more times than not is a gripping plainness.
You’ll see pictures that aren’t visually unique. The light isn’t more dramatic than everyone else. The expressions aren’t bigger and bolder. In fact, they’re just as often more subdued or even untraceable.
Whether you’re talking about a fashion photographer like Richard Avedon or the portraits of Edward Steichen. Whether you’re talking about still lifes, like Edward Weston, or photojournalism like Bruce Davidson
But the emotional punch they pack is explosive.
Trying to layer more impressive technique on top of more dramatic emotions is like trying to flavor cotton candy with sugar. At a certain point, more flavor doesn’t add to taste. It drowns it out.
In this case, you drown out the power of your own inner voice in favor of calcified formula. You turn up the volume so loud that to guarantee that people will to the obvious, but in exchange, you lose yourself. As Steven Spielberg said, your inner voice is almost always a whisper. You have to still your mind to hear it.
Of course, there are as many recipes as there are great photographers. Which is really to say there are none.
If there were, everyone would do it, then it would drown out all the voice, taking us back to square one.
But it starts by letting go of the technique. Instead of saying “This is how the picture should look” or “This is the moment I’m supposed to capture,” just start with “How do I feel?”
Listen to the whisper.
Because what you want is to take that feeling, and use the tools of timing, composition, light, tone, and everything else at your disposal to create that same feeling in your audience.
Because that’s you. That’s your voice.
Usually, we blunt the full force of our voice, by focusing on the knee-jerk reflex to capture the moment. We dull our edge by giving precedence to style over substance.
But you are not just style.
Take that living, breathing pulse coursing through your body, and force feed it your work until ever pixel or every grain bleeds with your heart and soul.
Listen to yourself. Don’t listen to the industry or the feeds or the groups. Don’t follow the herd. The world doesn’t need more of the same. You don’t need to show that you can do it, too. You need to show who you are.
The world needs you.
So start there. Start with you. And let that lead the way.