Photography is a form of visual communication. It is about imparting information or an idea and in its best form, it is a means of connecting people to each other. When we look for inspiration for our own photography, it is commonplace to look at photographs and believe we find inspiration in what we might see. I once saw a project where someone photographed his most treasured possessions and shared the pictures on his blog. One of the visitors to the blog was very excited at seeing the photographs, proclaimed how inspired he was and then asked for permission to follow suit and start his own series photographing his possessions. While this is a connection of sorts, photography has a much bigger potential to create a more meaningful relationship than simple imitation.
True inspiration is more than a supplier of motivation to go out and make a picture that looks like something someone else made. Perhaps the problem is in where many photographers seek inspiration. Maybe we need to stop looking at Flickr, 500px, and G+ and look for ideas for our photography in other places.
Several years ago I attended Steve Simon’s Passionate Photographer presentation, which is based on his book The Passionate Photographer: 10 Steps Toward Becoming Great. The most significant takeaway from that presentation was not the 10 Steps but something he shared about one of his early projects “America at the Edge”. The idea for this project came from a journal article (it might have been an essay) on how Canada and America are so much alike. There were comparisons and statistics to support this assertion but Simon began to wonder how to explore that idea photographically. He knew the two countries share the longest undefended border that stretches almost 4,000 miles (not including the border between Canada and Alaska). He extrapolated that if the two countries were more alike than they were different, the best example of those similarities would be found along the border between US and Canada. And so he began a project visiting small towns on either side of the border from west to east, making photographs of what he saw. What he learned was surprisingly different from what he had read in the article that first inspired his project. Even at the closest points between the two countries, the differences were more than palatable. They were visible and that difference could be communicated as an idea through his photographs.
Some people find inspiration in music and by this I don’t mean, music or concert photography but the ideas contained in music. Take for instance Johann Sebastian Bach. It has been said that he never ventured more than 200 miles from the place where he lived. Yet he was able to compose complex, moving pieces of music that symphonies all over the world still play nearly 300 years later. The central theme to Bach’s music is that everything–no matter how mundane–is spiritual. One of the best photographic examples of the idea of spirituality is the work of Freeman Patterson. Coincidental a majority of Patterson’s images were made within less than a mile of his home at Shamper’s Bluff in Nova Scotia. His book Embracing Creation was published in 2013 to accompany an exhibit by the same name. If you are a nature lover, this is a book you should have in your library, and even if you are not, the essay and pictures are excellent examples of how one central idea can be the root of a lifetime of work.
If you are just starting out as a photographer, this approach for finding inspiration might feel a bit overwhelming. Finding ideas for something to photograph doesn’t have to be this lofty. It can be as simple as taking a walk without a camera, stopping to talk to people you meet, and being present in the moment. Because photography is about saying something in a visual way, real life experiences are important for developing an opinion or point of view that you can put into your photographs and for understanding and building connections with people. Go skydiving, learn a new skill you think you cannot master or won’t enjoy, step outside your comfort zone and seek new experiences. Don’t settle for a borrowed experience from looking at someone else’s photographs. The guided tour is no substitute for the real thing.