We are the sum – finding your own voice

We are the sum – finding your own voice

What makes us the photographer we are?

Every 12 months or so I seem to have an inevitable conversation with yet another professional photographer on the subject of gaining clients.

They will ask me a question along the lines of ‘How do you get the clients you have?’ but what they really mean is, ‘How can I get clients like yours?’

Sometimes they mean: ‘How can I get your clients?’

I answer them as honestly as I can. My commercial clients are few in number, and yet they have very specific requirements. They have very specialised needs and they are willing to pay for results which reflects those needs – and no, of course I am not going to tell you who they are.

My reply is that it is all about relationships and trust. You need to be able to listen to your clients and to look for the subtext, to sit in their seat and hear what they are really saying. You need to know their values and understand who they are. It helps if you resonate personally with those values. It helps to realise that the person with whom you are working is being looked down on from above and being judged by their superiors. It is important, then, to make them look good in the eyes of their organisation.

However, there is something you need to know first:

You need to know who you are. You need to find your own voice.

Every photograph we make, have made, or will ever make, is a mirror we are holding up to ourselves. It is a self-portrait. When we make a photograph, we are putting ourselves out there, putting ourselves on show. A canny viewer will be able to read us from the images we make. They will be able to see where we are at, and, if they are a clever client, they will see if our values mesh with theirs, whether we are on-board, or just showing them what we think they want to see.

The same thing happens every year with amateur club members when it comes time for them to go for their letters of association. Much of the discussion centres around trying to second-guess the judging panel, in a careful analysis of who they are and what they like, and then a process of presenting them with material which will gain approval, and hence recognition. The question is often, ‘Is my work good enough?’, when it should be, ‘Is this work a beautiful reflection of who I am?’.

You need to know who you are.

And, while this is a longer road, it is an infinitely more satisfying one.

One of the medium’s great gifts (some might say its greatest gift) is its ability to document: the history of our society and civilisation; our culture and beliefs; the human condition and the world around us. It has been doing this for nearly 200 years. In the course of this a wonderful archive has been built up, a record to share for a long time to come.

Recently an aunt, my father’s half-sister, died. She was the last of that line on the family tree. When we assembled for the funeral, the executor presented us with a very large cardboard box full of photographs. Unbeknown to us, our maiden aunt had been patiently collecting photographs of our family as far back as she could, keeping tabs on all of us for many years. There were photographs of my great-great-great grandmother in England, made in 1858 according to the elegant copperplate script on the back. There were ambrotypes and Kodachromes and Type C prints, Polaroids and quarter-plates. In a way it was like looking at a history of the medium itself. I learned things about my father which he had never mentioned by reading the photographs and the stories on the back. And I learned about myself.

We are, in a sense, the pointed end of our own family history, the living sum of the hopes and dreams of all those who have come before us.

What then, will become of our output as photographers if we bring that knowledge into our work and allow it to influence and develop our own voice, visual and otherwise?

What indeed, a far better point to ponder.

This article appeared in the April 2016 issue  of f11 Magazine for Photographers and Afficionados.

A portfolio of my older work published in f11 as a part of the September 2012 issue (pp. 36-60)  can be found here.

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