DISCOVERING YOUR VOICE
10th December 2020
DISCOVERING YOUR VOICE
I received an e-mail from a Photography student recently, seeking advice and asking some really insightful questions.
One of them was "What is the best way to get into the industry?" and my response was to shoot, shoot and shoot some more in an effort to discover your 'voice'.
I realised afterward that this might not make much sense, especially when you're just starting out and I remember when I was in that position being frustrated at the lack of clear advice for how to break into the established circle of photographers hired by magazines and brands. It can at times seem impenetrable, with little hope for someone desperate for a chance. So, for anyone in a similar position or considering getting into commercial photography, here's what I mean in as simple terms as I can put down.
The photographic industry is a very, very crowded place. Across the many varied sectors - fashion & beauty, automotive, travel, portrait and sport, which I find myself amongst - there are countless options for an Art Buyer (which is IMO anyone who commissions photography at a brand or editorial) to choose from. Even in COVID-19 times, when Buyers have had to source photography from a more local/UK perspective, they are spoilt for choice.
So what it is that determines who they choose to commission for a photoshoot? I remember my college lecturer trying to impress upon us that we needed to discover our photographic voice and for some this would happen relatively soon into our careers and for others, much longer. I as it happens, fell into the latter category. A decade spent shooting anything and everything that came my way, saying YES before always considering the nature of things (driven by the desire to be able to afford to eat something better than baked beans and 99p noodles most nights) led me to a crossroads in 2010. I was forced to sit down with a mentor (my brother) and ask myself "Where do I want to be in 5, 10 years? What do I want my career and my life to look like? How am I going to achieve this?"
I wanted to be living the life of the adventure sport and travel photographers that I saw in magazines, online and in the infancy of social media. Corey Rich in the US was killing it. Michael Clark was living the dream in my eyes - travelling around the globe, chasing athletes, hanging from mountain sides. I wanted that to be my life but to realise it meant discovering my voice.
There is no quick route, no shortcut, no bypass to doing this other than shooting, shooting and shooting some more. Not just when you're on a job. On the weekends. On week nights. As much as you can. For me that meant approaching athletes and asking them to shoot. Approaching event managers and asking if I could come along with a camera. Putting on my own Productions on a shoestring - I remember driving with a model friend to Cornwall for 48hrs with a surfboard, box of kit I had scrounged from a brand on return and telling him we were camping (it was late Autumn) and eating beans off a stove because I was footing the bill. Learning to see beyond the barriers (I don't know any models/I don't have the right equipment/I don't have a car/I don't have any new kit or product/I can't fly to the Galapagos) and working around it.
The purpose behind all of this is really important; every time you come back from shooting you have developed your style a bit more. You learn what works and what doesn't, in a host of conditions from lighting to weather to location to models. In doing so you are developing your voice - you begin to piece together a portfolio and when you step back to look at it, there will be hints, pointers and clues as to where your voice is strongest and clearest. Often, other people (especially those in the industry) will spot this before you do - they are not as emotionally attached to the imagery as you are and they see it with a purpose.
Your voice might be strong, distinctive tones or a great understanding of
light. It might be a particular composition you lean toward. Whatever it is, it is YOUR WAY OF SEEING THINGS and this is it. Your voice. It is how you see the world and interpret it and this has to be unique. This is why Art Buyers will commission you ultimately - because they like the way you see the world and want that for the shoot they have in mind. Your voice will not always be the want they want and that is ok - you can't be right all of the time. But when someone is able to see an image and know that it is yours, then you have come a long way.
Someone once told me they knew it was my photography because I had a tendency to shoot into the light, flooding the image and creating atmosphere. It wasn't his style, but I didn't care - someone had recognised what I was trying to achieve!
Get out there and bring your own shoots together - it will stand you in good stead. Stop making excuses for what you don't have and work with what you do. It has NEVER been easier to approach brands, people or magazines with social media - use those platforms often.
Share your work and respect people's opinion about it. It may hurt to hear your work lacks this or that, but take it onboard and use it.
To end, you have to be insanely proactive to break into the industry. Push and push. Knock on as many doors as you can and don't take rejection personally.
I have just put together an Overview section on my website www.jamescarnegie.co.uk and for the first time in 20 years I see a clear style that ties together the imagery. This, I hope, is my voice. I'm not there completely - not by a long way. And I will continue to develop my voice
until I hang my camera up or it is hung up for me!