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During my recent presentation at the B&H Photo Optic 2016 conference, I spoke briefly about the role of originality in composition. While they are deeply related, I think there are many difficult creative obstacles that can arise if originality becomes your sole focus.

Artists throughout the ages have always had to consider originality and how to somehow embody that in their own work. Yet here we are in a creative field that has existed for over 180 years, and I recently heard that more images are made every day than were made in the first 75 years of photography’s existence.

People have been making lots of photographs for a long time. Making uniquely original images will be incredibly difficult if not impossible depending on how much time you can devote to being in the field. It’s also an easy way to add lots of pressure to an activity that by definition necessitates open mindedness, and an absence of self-criticism and judgement.

Working with that kind of pressure, consciously or subconsciously, is a sure way to inhibit creativity and motivation.

If you study great artists from the past and how they made their work, you’ll learn they weren’t much different from you and I when they got started, and many struggled all their lives with the same voices of fear, insecurity, and doubt we all have. They all traveled the same path that we find ourselves on, and there are no shortcuts.

My experiences in music and photography have taught me that the most important thing to strive for is not originality, but authenticity and sincerity. Originality is a moving target that is elusive and comes from a sustained creative habit that values consistent work. Sure, being original is one of arts highest achievements, but we are equally moved by the authentic voice.

We resonate with those things that we relate to, that move us emotionally. That may or may not be original, but we can feel when an artist is being themselves, in the most vulnerable way.

Don’t try to be original simply to be different. That doesn’t respect or honor your intent or your voice. The tools are there for a purpose – to allow you to say what you want to say effectively and clearly. The end result is what matters, and if convention is what works best for your purposes, then so be it – there is nothing wrong with that.

“Just say what you want to say then, and say it with all of your heart. Share whatever you are driven to share. If it’s authentic enough, believe me – it will feel original.” – Elizabeth Gilbert, The Big Magic

What we need in my opinion, are people more willing to commit to their personal vision, instead of popularity metrics or Flickr likes.

Authenticity is key to that. It provides the path that leads to your own voice, and that is something that will be original because there is only one of you, just as there is only one of me. Take advantage of of your uniqueness and show us what really moves you. That is the only originality you need.

RR Jr

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This Post Has 12 Comments
  1. Oh boy, did I need to hear that, Robert. I was in the throes of moving house and haven’t taken a “serious” picture in a few weeks. (Luckily I’m now near scenery where I can at least take my little camera when i go for a walk.) But being detached that way can be disorienting and had me thinking those thoughts about not being very good at this and maybe I should give it up. (A pep talk from a dear friend who’s also a good customer talked me out of that.) I love your expression, “Originality is a moving target.” Yes!!! Giving oneself visual indigestion by scrolling down endless reams of photos on Facebook can be another source of unhealth, unless one limits oneself to people such as yourself or Rob Sheppard or my friends who belong to New England Photography Guild. Thanks for another phenomenal post!

  2. I don’t know quite what to say, Robert, but I’m left feeling like that’s one of your best posts! I think the message extents to dimensions of life beyond artistic creativity, but they’re all connected! It’s so very empowering!

    1. Yes I agree, and the best thing you can do IMO is to be consistent throughout your life – from creativity outwards…it provides a better foundation to make decisions AND help others.

      1. I couldn’t agree more, and that’s my new “spiritual awakening”…to be confident in who I am, to be me, and let everything flow from that. Thanks again! Very inspiring!

  3. Roberto, thanks for this reminder! Authenticity and sincerity over the struggle for originality. This is honestly a very important point in my small island context where the space is limited and the number of photographers growing. In addition, selecting subjects that are not the usual as in my case can also make you feel the need to defend your positions. I appreciate this heads up. It allows me to press on..so much to do still.

    1. Great to hear Christine, thanks for the feedback! There should never be a need to defend a new creative direction, that’s the beauty of creativity isn’t it?

  4. Thank you. Those words have solidified my resolve in the direction I will pursue with MY photography. I still fear stepping out, being exposed, if you’ll pardon the pun. But I believe I’m ready.

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