Why Do You Shoot What You Shoot?
I recently did an interview with my good friends at The Phoblographer regarding shooting nudes and the question of “why” came up. Why do I shoot what I shoot? Why does anyone? Let’s talk about it.
As a photographic artist, you have a variety of subject matter at your disposal. You can photograph weddings, landscapes, portraits, still-lifes, abstract subjects, and on and on. If you can imagine it, you can probably photograph it in some unique creative way. But the motivation behind said creativity, the desire to even photograph something in the first place, must come from somewhere right? Some deep rooted reason behind why you pick up the camera and tackle a certain subject, day in and day out.
Not to get all psychoanalytical on you, but I would wager that the things we choose to focus on are often driven by some internal force or past influence. A curiosity. A fascination. Or even passion for the subject.
I first decided to become a serious photographer after watching the documentary, War Photographer, about photographer James Nachtwey. I found myself mesmerized at how focused and driven he was to capture his subject matter: countries torn by war, famine, and other such disasters. To remain focused, and feel it was his responsibility to tell these people’s stories was moving to me. What could drive a man to schlep through hazardous, violent, and often fatal environments simply to capture an image?
Madness some would say.
There’s a saying in photography that you should “shoot what you like most”. And I think that’s true. If there’s no internal motivation, no actual connection to the subject matter on a deep level, you probably won’t enjoy it. Or at the least, you won’t give it your best. For instance, when I first began, I photographed weddings. It paid well, but it wasn’t something I enjoyed. I’m just not over the moon crazy about photographing someone’s wedding. But some photographers are. They LOVE shooting weddings, interacting with the couples, and getting to know everyone involved. I see some wedding photographer’s work and I’m floored at how beautiful it is. I even have some bookmarked so in the event I get married, I know who I’m calling!
But weddings aren’t for me. Neither is photographing babies. Or landscapes (ugh..). While I respect the artists that focus on those subjects, it’s just not for me. I can’t get excited about it. It feels more arduous than enjoyable.
Hence, you should have a deep internal motivation for your subject matter if you want to do your best at it.
But what about paying the bills?
Okay, I’m a realest when it comes to working as an artist. I’m not eating caviar every night, traveling all over the world, and working on giant projects with astronomical budgets every week. A guy can dream. As much as that would be nice, the reality is I, like many others, have to hustle for job after job, client after client to keep the bills paid. And not each job is going to be the most enjoyable experience or what you even want to shoot. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.
Money can be a great motivator, but it shouldn’t be the only motivator. Even if you’re making money, you’ll eventually get tired of what you’re doing because deep down you’re not enjoying yourself. Imagine all the people who quit their $100K a year jobs to pursue their passions. On the outside looking in, they have it made. A high paying job at a respectable company with all the benefits. All the fixins. Caviar 24/7. But they go home after a long day at work and feel empty. They go on nice vacations to calm this feeling, but it still lingers. And eventually they realize this job, despite all the financial benefits, is not nurturing their soul.
Don’t get it twisted, I like making money. I’m not saying you should quit your high paying gig and “pursue your passion”, but just highlighting that often times, money alone, is not enough to satisfy many people.
At one point, I considered starting a side business doing real estate/interior photography. I spent a lot of time learning all about it and got pretty competent with the tools and my approach. But when it came time to create a website and start marketing the business, I just couldn’t bring myself to launch it.
“Why am I shooting interiors?” “Do I really want to photograph houses?”
“I mean, the money can be good. It’s not grueling work. Maybe I could do 3-4 jobs a month and bring in some extra money? Yeah!”
My response to those questions was sound, but not convincing. I canned the idea because the reality is, I enjoy photographing people. I like working with people and interacting with real subjects. Photographing an empty room is just “dry” to me. It doesn’t entice me in the slightest. But the bills still need to be paid, right?
At one point, I even considered getting back into weddings. You know, a lil’ side hustle. I even put together what I thought was a solid business plan. I even have some great contacts in the wedding industry to help me getting started in the NY market. But when I went to pull the trigger on launching the business, I got a feeling in the pit of my stomach. You know that gut feeling telling you what you’re about to do is stupid and why are you doing it, you’re stupid please reconsider before you do the stupid thing? Yeah, I got that feeling big time.
So instead of spending considerable time on a photography business that I wouldn’t be excited about, I focused on my second business, JW Headshots. I revamped my website, strengthened my marketing efforts, and brought in more clients. Sure, shooting headshots isn’t as glamorous as, say, a beauty editorial, but it’s still photographing portraits. Real people and in my own unique style. And, in a controlled environment, which I love! That worked for me in both creative and financial ways. It doesn’t feel soul sucking like side hustles can often be. And many of the things I learn with that business translate over into my other creative pursuits.
What’s In It For Me? Or Why I Shoot Nudes
So we have the two motivations outlined: internal and financial. For me, shooting nudes was more of an internal motivation than the latter.
It’s no secret, I mainly photograph women. Not that I don’t find men interesting, I just like women better. Photographically speaking. I like their reactions to seeing themselves look beautiful or cool. It’s a great feeling when a woman sees herself and is like “Oh my gosh, I love it!”. Not so much with men, who are more the “too cool for school” types. “Dope dude.” “Nice”, is more what you get.
I’m also comfortable with nudity, erotic content, and sexually charged imagery so why not show that part of my personality in my work? Some of my favorite artists portray nudity in their work ranging from “tasteful” to what some consider “raunchy”. Artists such as David Bellemere, Bettina Rheims, Jonathan Leder, Mona Kuhn, Araki, Richard Kern, and even ol’ Terry Richardson (I know, I know) are some of my favorites. Artist Links may not be SFW.
We’ve all heard stories of artists, whether it be a singer, painter, dancer, whatever, who’s holding back. They’re afraid to express themselves completely. They don’t want to be judged. What will their parents think if they sing that line in a song? Or what will their boyfriend/girlfriend think if they do that scene in a movie? On and on. It’s hard to let go as an artist sometimes without ruffling a few feathers or making those close to you a bit uncomfortable. It’s also hard when you think about what others will think of you. Will they think you’re a pervert? A slut? A heathen? A “insert bad thing here”?
That may all be bad, but nothing is worse than hiding who you are. Talk about an oppressive, suffocating feeling.
So, for me, shooting nudes was just an additional way I could express myself fully. I wanted to show that side of myself. That I was unafraid to photograph a nude figure. That I could be comfortable in that sort of environment and still create compelling work. Work that I find beautiful and that fits into my overall body of work. Work that’s provocative, raw, and sometimes makes people uncomfortable.
What Motivates You and Taking Risks
If you’re feeling your work is lacking or you’re not feeling terribly inspired about your chosen subject matter, think about what’s motivating you. Do you really want to be an architecture photographer? Or a glamour photographer? Maybe your true calling is photographing pets. Or abstract still lifes.
Maybe the money’s good, but you feel empty at the end of the day. It may be time for a change.
In reference to the topic of nudes, what I do isn’t for everyone. I’ve been DM’d and emailed by other photographers about shooting nudes and how I go about it. Many are very reluctant to approach it, although they have a curiosity about the subject. As I mentioned above, they feel a bit worried about what others will think of them, so they’d rather do safe work. Work that won’t have the same judgmental responses from those close to them. That’s fair. Do what makes you comfortable. I’m not advocating blowing your whole life up in the name of art.
But I will suggest asking yourself this question: “Am I fully expressed through my art?”
Are you holding back? Why? And what’s the worse that can happen if you let go for a change?
Often times, the best work comes from those willing to take risks. To boldly go where no man has gone befor…ahem…Pardon the Star Trek reference (Picard for life). And often times the best work comes from those truly passionate about the subject, not so much the money.
Something to consider when you map out the direction of your work and career.
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