This eats at me. I write about this subject in one form or another because I know it’s heavy on the mind of many of you. Me too. We strive to make important images. Because of our psychological make up, part of that revolves around authenticity as a benchmark for importance. We hear that word authenticity used a whole great big bunch lately. It’s been co-opted by marketers. It’s been used in different contexts and it’s been misused.
But at it’s core, authenticity in photography has to do with being true to yourself. Young people especially struggle with this. They are far more self-aware than was my generation or the generation that came before me. We were fairly content as young people to just get along by comparison. That is not the case these days. Young people have a more determined spirit today. They don’t just want to survive, they want to thrive. They EXPECT to thrive. They believe they have a RIGHT to thrive. So they constantly seek out something new or different. You see it in the success of Lady GaGa for instance. The costumes, the outrageous act – it’s all designed to somehow help her set herself apart from what she sees as a sea of clones. She hopes to give hope by being herself. While I am sure Lady GaGa’s music isn’t aimed at me, I can still appreciate what she is trying to do.
If you’re reading my site, you know I am a big proponent of using your camera to tell stories. My question for you is this. Are you using your camera to tell stories you’ve been given or that are your very own? If you are just copying what all the cool kids are doing then in my opinion, you’re not being authentic.
I see many portfolios. Lately, all the wedding, portrait and family shooters have lots of blown out, high-key, backlit shots where the faces of the subjects are in some degree of shadow. In my day this simply wouldn’t have flown. Today it’s common. Can you articulate with any specificity why you like to shoot backlit portraits? My guess is you’ve seen everyone else doing it so you’re doing it. That’s fine. But that’s not authentic.
Authentic photographers have to have several qualities in order to be truly authentic. First they need self-confidence. It’s only when you are truly self-confident that you can own the knowledge of and trust in your own motives, emotions, preferences, and ability. Self-confidence gives you the freedom to make the picture your heart wants you to, regardless of the consequences.
Authentic photographers know one other thing. It’s better to be you than new. The religion that has formed around “new” processes is bothersome and frankly, a little amusing to me. A bunch of young photographers met with me to discuss their “style.” Their style was really a smattering of techniques that they had perfected. The amusing part was that they were sure these techniques were groundbreaking and “new.” By definition they thought that because these techniques were new – they were cool. Sad to say these techniques were the same I learned in the 70s. There’s truly nothing new under the sun. They would be better suited to focus on what’s in their heart – what makes THEM unique people with a unique vision – as opposed to just trying to find something nobody has ever done before.
Authentic photographers have stopped trying to be what the world wants them to be. That’s rigid thinking. They have to be able to first see themselves from different angles and then, be able to see others from different angles. Finally, they need to be able to see the world and their subjects from different angles. In other words, few authentic photographers are rigid. If you have a rigid view of any of these things – if you’re not flexible in your thinking…if you’re not open-minded….if you can’t consider other points of view, it’s hard to be authentic. You’re responding to what you think you should be doing instead of what you really want to be doing. If you’re too rigid for your own good you’re probably trying to tell the story that someone else thinks you should be telling with your camera and not your own.
Every time I write about this topic I feel like I’ve offered more questions than answers, but I keep at it because somewhere out there I am going to help somebody obtain the courage to go tell the story THEY want to tell. It’s hard – believe me I know. When I first shared with my closest friends and family that I wanted to go out into the wilderness and document the stories of birds they looked at me like I was crazy. On my recent trip to Alaska all the locals I encountered would inquire as to why I came all the way up there at the tail end of winter. “Nobody comes up here this time of year,” one said. “It’s cold, the shops aren’t open, there’s no fishing to speak of…why you here?” To photograph birds was my reply. Yep – they thought I was crazy. That’s okay. Maybe I am. But my goal was authentic. I wanted to speak for the birds because they can’t speak for themselves. Hopefully, whatever crazy idea you have regarding photography will become part of your portfolio someday. And if it really, really, really comes from deep down in your heart, no matter what anyone else thinks. Then it’s authentic.