(Editor’s note: Dave DeBaeremaeker photographs toys. His work is amazing and, believable. In this guest post, Dave shares the experiences of how he found his photographic voice and how you can too.)

To me, photography is a creative endeavor. A way to express myself thru an image, and I want my images to speak to the world on my behalf, in my own voice. When I first started exploring photography I learned to speak in the voices of others, I found I was unable to speak in my own voice. I wanted to change that.

That started a journey that I have been on for the past few years. I eventually found my voice, and I wanted to share my hard earned insights in hopes it will help others find their own voice in photography.

The beginning

When I was first starting out learning photography I was happy to be a follower. I would find images from photographers I admired and tried to make images that looked like theirs. I learned and copied many new styles and techniques.

After a while, I started getting frustrated. I spent a lot of time imitating other people’s styles and techniques, and arguably I even got decently good at it. However, when I looked at those images I didn’t see myself in any of them.

In retrospect, it’s not a huge surprise I was in this position. I was a really good follower! As an example, this is my very first HDR attempt. Not only was I standing in the exact same position as my mentor, I included him in my shot!

One of my first HDR photos on the road to finding my voice.
This is a perfect example of imitating too closely.

I began to crave the ability to be able to speak thru the images I created. I wanted to create images that spoke for me as a person. I wanted my work to be mine, not just my interpretation of someone else.

Looking for “likes” in all the wrong places

When I think of pleasing the masses, I mean chasing likes on social media. More specifically judging your self worth by how others like your work.

If you think about it, when I was in “follow the leader” mode, any likes I got was for imitating the style of others. There was no way I was going to be as good as them. It was a second language for me, and I spoke it with a funny accent. They were native speakers. Chasing their audiences for likes was a fool’s errand, and it left me frustrated.

I started my journey doing landscape photography. I was in mentorship in The Arcanum for almost two years, chasing the perfect landscapes. I had some decent success at it. But that lingering doubt remained. Finally, after several conversations with my mentor, I finally realized what it was. My voice wasn’t really in capturing interesting scenery. It was telling stories.

A few days later I presented this image to the group.

There are many ways to find oneself.
There are many ways to find oneself.

This was the start of a new journey for me. A journey that led me to tell stories with my images. Stories told in my own voice. It was, for me, a brave new world.

By not chasing the style of others, I was freed to explore my own likes and dislikes in my work without limitations. By consciously not chasing likes, I was free of the pressure to please others, which gave me the freedom to explore areas I never would have otherwise.

At first, my work was a bit hit and miss, and, frankly, some of it sucked. If you follow this path, some of your early work will suck too. Do it anyway. 

I kept going. I kept sharpening my voice. I eventually grew and won over new audiences, though it wasn’t the audience I started with. It was, however, full of people who appreciated my work for its originality, and not because it looked like someone else’s.

My advice: Tying yourself to the cycle of likes on social media is a trap. Concentrate on your own thoughts and feelings about your work and you will free yourself up to explore new and exciting things.

What else do you like?

Once I figured out that I wanted to tell stories with my photography, the next question was obviously what type of stories did I want to tell?

One way I figured this out was by looking at all of the media I consumed. Ya know, the books I couldn’t put down, the movies I watched over and over again, the music that moved me. I started noticing some patterns I hadn’t internalized before, and I made a list of the things that characterized my favorite things.

My list included words like dramatic, gritty, dark, sarcastic, witty, angst, struggle. Your list will likely be different, and that is perfectly acceptable, as long as its authentic to you.

I started using these insights to help guide my work. As an example, LEGO was my subject of choice, and a lot of the images I had in mind revolved around LEGO in some way or another. When I thought about an image, I would consider my list of characteristics that affected me and incorporated it into my work.

Here’s an example of what I am saying. I got my hands on a Star Wars AT-AT Walker LEGO model, and I wanted to shoot it. The obvious choice for shooting a giant walking machine is to shoot it walking. I had a lot of ideas, but the one I settled on fit those characteristics the best: a lonely walk thru a lonely snow ridden landscape. Where will your voice lead you?

A Lego At-At from above.
Where will your voice lead you photographically?