Inspired. We hear that word so often in the photography world that it has become ubiquitous, synonymous with words like "derivative," re-interpreted", and "imitated." It is used sometimes to describe a feeling of creative infusion and birth, while it is also used to reference a work that is unmistakably the origin of a subsequent piece. So often it is used as a nod to an artist who has had a heavy influence on an image, for the sole purpose of avoiding inferences of wrongdoing.
But what is inspiration truly?
It is easy to think of photographic inspiration in terms of visual impact and look to find an image with magical light, glowing tones, an ethereal quality, a universal concept, and create an image with the same attributes. You see it all the time. It is disappointingly easy to tell who a photographer has been following. The regurgitation of an aesthetic currently passes for "inspiration" with no thought expected or required as to the genesis of the inspiring image. Although it can be called "inspiration" it is the beauty of the skin deep. And there is so much more than that.
To be inspired, truly deeply organically inspired, you must learn to ask questions, and good ones, with the goal of deeper understanding. It gains you nothing to ask what lens? what settings? It gains you wisdom and insight to ask the why, rather than the how.
The most meaningful, memorable works come from within. And so, we must learn to be more intelligent, thoughtful viewers. What is it that moved the artist to make THAT piece, exactly in that way? What motivates them? What is the one emotion they are trying to convey in their image or body of work? What can you derive about the character and experience of the artist that would lead them to create this image?
The answers are rarely simple. Complex emotions come from complex people, and true artists are rarely simple. There are layers to peel back, of childhood lessons and traumas, of simple pleasures, of isolation and wanting to be loved. Of learning hard lessons and earning scars that make you both more raw and guarded and also more human. There is always more there than you expect, or even want, to unearth. That artist you perceive to be an immovable mover, creating their own gravity, is in reality a being who has used their deep insecurity and self-doubt to create a visual world with a sense of willful peace so profound that it reaches through the frame and wraps its arms around the viewer. You cannot know peace without knowing turmoil and emptiness. You cannot know strength without conquering fear. You cannot know vitality without knowing desperation. You cannot be an artist without knowing yourself.
And so the true path to creating inspired works comes in self discovery. It is a difficult and often lonely process. You must uncover hurt you forgot you felt, lessons you don't remember learning. It is why so many are photographers and so few are artists. Developing the art means nurturing the artist, with all the wonder, weirdness, and eccentricity that comes with it. To find the corners of yourself that you learned to camouflage in order to blend in with the "normal" people around you.
But I'm here to tell you this: there is nothing "normal" about being an artist. It requires extraordinary vulnerability, bravery, and self-awareness. Where others can walk through life content with the everyday and the social norms, you, the artist, will stop in the middle of the street when light strikes the rain on a shard of glass on the sidewalk just so. When you see a glimmer of humanity in the eyes of the person in which you least expected it. When a seemingly mundane moment pings a place in your subconscious self and forces you to record it. To celebrate it. It makes us weird, but also strangely alive, and we become the gentle force that shows the unseeing masses, quietly, that which would otherwise go unseen, unremembered, uncelebrated, and unconsidered. We have the power to hold a magnifying glass to everything, every day. We could use that power to recreate that which has already been seen and acknowledged in order to gain easy acceptance and a feeling of instant "success".... but there is an entire world of possibilities, a hundred thousand chances every day to record moments that have never happened before, to open our souls and not only record but to LIVE and tell the world who we are and what we value. The world is a single place we all share, but there is no one in the world but YOU who sees it from your perspective. Martha Graham wrote:
"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost."
For all of us with the gift of visualization and observation, we have not only the privilege of being photographers, but also the responsibility to use that gift. To share it. To use it to the fullest extent, even if we doubt our skill and our personal value at every turn. There isn't an artist alive who has never doubted their validity. You must remember that that insecurity and self-doubt is precious and should not be squandered. You will never be more on fire, more alive as an artist, as when you are feverishly seeking truth in yourself, burning to express that thing that no one else ever has or can. Hold on to it. When it starts to burn lower, rekindle it by throwing yourself off the next cliff, back into the unknown and the frightening. Take yourself off autopilot. Stop being so fucking aware of what everyone else is doing. Forget about trends. When your work becomes easy and mundane, find another pocket of yourself that you didn't know was there. There is always another door to unlock and another secret to tell. You are more, bigger, and deeper, than you have ever believed.
And when it inevitably happens, when you find YOU and you cross over from the fear of not being accepted to the frustration of being imitated by those who do not yet understand inspiration, remember this: You are not a style of processing, or that one patented shot. Or a color palette. Or an action, a gimmick, or a genre. You are not an entity to be gunned at by those who are still at the beginning of their journey, or broken down by the side of the road. You are a raw, flawed, unique, perfectly imperfect soul with beauty all your own.
Every choice you make in your images, technically and creatively, is up to you. You are neither a robot nor a slave to the status quo. You do not have to follow trends or please the masses. It is your duty as an artist to be firmly and immovably YOU. To answer to your own soul. Your art is yours, and cannot be devalued by anyone except you. You have the power to make yourself anyone you want to be. Your voice is as important as everyone else's and to you, your voice should be the most beautiful and true of all.
And so what is inspiration?
You are. Pure, unadulterated you. When you lose your way, look up and allow your own truth to be your guide. You cannot fail if you make your own soul sing.
And now let's get real. All the soul-baring in the world will not make your message come through if you lack the skills to make the image come to life. And that is where the raw soul of the artist must coexist with the tenacious spirit of the craftsman. It takes hard work, tedious labor, study and discipline to execute that vision. You have to understand the nuts and bolts. Never ask the viewer to overlook the distractions of poor technique and weak vision to understand the story you are trying to tell. There is a big difference between a car lover and a mechanic.
Learn all that you can from as many knowledgeable mentors as you can, but always keep in mind this: they can help you develop the tools, but only you can use them to build your vision. Only you can paint the picture of you, that sets you apart and tells the world that you were here, that you felt deeply, that you created honestly. Let every image you make be a reflection of you, in its every detail, in every choice. Put your stamp on them, sign them, and own them. In the end, everything you need to make your mark is already stamped on your soul, waiting for you to come looking.