You're Caught Up in the Wrong Race

I see a wave of anxiety these days, especially in young photographers. There is this urgency to “make it” young. I suppose the early successes of photographers like Joey L and others has instilled this idea that you have to have gained notoriety and success by the time you’ve reached your early twenties or you might be “doomed” to struggle the rest of your life.

The thing is, this urgency to succeed has overtaken the real reason we are artists in the first place. We call ourselves artists because we create. Artists create things. We draw, we paint, we sculpt, we photograph, we write, we sing, we play guitar. We do. Except, here’s the glitch and the real reason I’m writing this: I don’t see that great of art being produced by young fashion photographers so much these days. I see a lot of copying, rehashed, revamped versions of classic photographs from years gone by. And because it’s reproduced most of the time in digital format, it’s a second-rate version of an already well-known and accomplished piece.

So it had me thinking. And that thinking led to a question that I get asked in every interview, every workshop, every meeting I have with a young photographer: How do I get inspired. What do I do to get myself inspired enough to then go out and shoot.

I have to tell you, this question always has me slowly shaking my head in a kind of disbelief. I mean, how can you ask an artist what they have to do to get inspired? The definition of being an artist is a person who displays in his work qualities required in art, such as sensibility and imagination. I think as an artist we live and breathe to create. As George Bernard Shaw said, “The true artist will let his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for a living at seventy, sooner than work at anything but hits art”. Maybe that’s a bit intense, but you see my point.

Maybe the execution of our ideas is what holds us back: money, time, location, etc, these things hold us back from being able to execute our ideas. But aren’t we FILLED, aren’t we BRIMMING with ideas and inspiration constantly?

I’m going to suggest something that I know most of you won’t do but this undercurrent of anxiety is getting louder and louder and the same question of how am I finding inspiration keeps being asked over and over, so much, that I can’t ignore it any longer.

The suggestion? Go out and get the book “Letters to a Young Poet” by Rainer Maria Rilke. Shut down your laptop, turn off your iPhone (Instagram and Facebook will still be there, don’t worry) and read this book from cover to cover. It’s only 103 pages. You can handle it. It’s a small book, with short pages. You hang around the internet for hours and hours, you can forego that for a few hours and do yourself a favor by reading this book.

In essence, this book talks about slowing down and engaging with the world around you. A young poet writes to an established poet, asking first for criticism of his own poetry and then later, about how to find inspiration. Rainer Maria Rilke breaks it off to this young poet in a beautiful way. He advises that the young poet “should feel, love and seek truth in trying to understand and experience the world around him and engage in the world of art”.


I think the Internet is fucking with your vision. Yes, it’s a great tool to research and learn from. But sites like Facebook have become a battleground of bragging and comparing. Since we are in control of our Facebook profile, of course we’re only going to put our “best face” forward, whatever that means for you, the individual. We sit on there and digest the information from fellow photographers or peers, who are talking about their great work, their great shoot, their great day. Meanwhile, we feel burdened with the fact that we didn’t have a great shoot, we didn’t produce any great work, in fact, our day was somewhat meaningless. Why? Because we sat on Facebook comparing and despairing our own lives.

Look, Art imitates Life. So if you’re aren’t out there living life, experiencing life, you can’t create. We pull our inspiration from our interaction and then reaction to our life experiences. It’s that simple. But you can’t experience life sitting behind a computer, updating a carefully groomed but essentially dishonest profile, bragging and promoting meaningless bullshit. Trust me: No one really cares if you just got published in an online magazine. And you screaming about it in all-caps on your FB is over-compensating. Instead of gloating about some editorial you just got published in one of the zillions of on-line magazines that publish unknown fashion photographers every single day and then sitting there waiting for the “likes” and comments, you should just simply post the editorial and then get off the internet and go outside and live some more so you can gain some more experiences so you can go create another one. You’re in a deadlock of inspiration because you’re focused on the wrong kind of attention. The ME generation has sunk your boat and you’re all drowning in a sea of “look at me” without having a clue about producing anything original or mind blowing.

From what I can see, you are mimicking past art because you are not going out and having original and unique life experiences. You have to LIVE in order to experience. You have to fall in love (passion) and then get your heart broken (pain) in order to throw those FEELINGS into a shoot. You have to understand the feeling of unrequited love to understand angst, disappointment, rejection, loneliness, fear, isolation…..and YOU can only understand it by living through it.

One of the many definitions of ART is this: the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

You cannot tell an emotionally powerful story if you have not had the human experience.

There’s a bumper sticker that says something like, “Hire a Teenager While They Still Know Everything”. I think it’s funny. And it’s pretty much the point I’m trying to make. Young photographers aren’t listening to advise from people like me. They’re taking their clues from other young photographers on FB who are bragging about meaningless bullshit. You’re taking your clues from the wrong resource. Go out there, take it in, take it all in. Take risks, meet challenges and stop trying to “make it” to the top by the time you’re 25. Chances are you won’t. And you’ll have wasted all those years making poor updated versions of what’s already been done. Go do something original. Blow. Our. MINDS.

I’ll leave you with this quote by Krister Stendahl

Melissa Rodwell