How to avoid imitating your idols
Almost all photographers appreciate the work of other photographers in the industry. When you start your photographic journey, it’s natural to look at the work of professional photographers and think, “I want to take pictures like this. It’s good at first because you can use photographic inspiration as fuel for study. The reality is that it will probably be years before you take photographs close to the standard of your inspirations. Over time, you may fall into the trap of not using a photographer’s work as inspiration, but as something you imitate.
My first photographic inspiration
My first influence was Robert Frank. Like many photographers, I became deeply connected to his Photo album Americans. It was the first time I had seen a photograph that really made me feel something. Until then, I had never understood how photography was able to document society and tell stories. From that moment, I wanted to take photographs like Robert Frank.
Every day I tried to see the same scenes he had seen and find a way to replicate his work. I was naive at the time. First of all, no one can reproduce his work. Second, I was nowhere near talented enough to create the type of work that Frank did. However, how he felt about the world and how he applied it to image making became part of how I approached my photography.
Photographic inspiration versus imitation
Sixteen years after owning a camera, I see photographers leaning too heavily on imitation rather than inspiration. Some of them are blatant. For example, I’ve lost count of the number of “Humans of…” I’ve seen since Brandon Stanton premiered the series in New York in 2010. In other instances, it’s more subtle. It’s the type of photography that makes you say, “This could have been taken by [insert established photographer]. Some photographers love this kind of compliment: being told that their work is like that of a professional. However, in my opinion, it sends the message that a photographer has not yet discovered his voice. So how do you find the balance between inspiration and imitation?
Diversify your photographic inspiration
Photography fandom can be intense. Some photographers fall in love with one photographer so much that they don’t appreciate the work of others. One of the best ways to avoid becoming a copycat is to spread your love across multiple photographers and genres. True photography enthusiasts can appreciate talents in all areas of craftsmanship. By having many influences, you won’t get bogged down in creating in a certain way. Instead, you can take a small dose of each photographer you like and combine them with your personal style.
Also, remember that even the most established photographers weren’t perfect. Each of them had ways to improve. When you look at their work, sit down and ask yourself, “How could I improve this image?” Such an approach leads you to think with your own point of view about what makes a good photo, rather than following the trends of others.
Not having photographic inspiration
It’s always strange that the status quo seems to promote the idea of having photographers who inspire the way we create. It has never been essential to fall in love with or be inspired by a photographer’s work. What is the best way to avoid imitation? Just ignore what other people are doing and develop your style from the moment you start taking pictures.
I am not alone in this thought process. I spoke to the Magnum Photos nominee Hannah Award on the influence in photography. She said:
“I’m probably one of the weirdest photographers you’ll ever meet. I don’t constantly look at photographs, I don’t have a favorite book, or a favorite photographer. I have favorite images that speak to me, but I I’m not obsessed with them. My inspiration comes from everyday life and social behaviors, things I want people to think about.
Spend more time taking pictures
Studying the trade is important. However, the best education you will ever receive comes when you practice in the field. While it’s good to do research, don’t delve too deeply into photo books and portfolios. The more time you spend looking at the work of other photographers, the more their style sticks in your mind. The photographs you should think about the most are your own. This is where you will learn the most about the direction in which you want to steer your work.
I firmly believe that a photographer’s main goal should be to develop their personal style. Also, I think it’s essential for the sustainability of the industry to create photography that we’ve never seen before. We don’t want photography to look like it did 50 years ago. We must strive to evolve to the point of bringing forward new masters and influencers.
Sit down with your work and ask yourself, “Am I seeing inspiration or imitation? If you answer the latter, it’s time to get to work. The photography world doesn’t need another Robert Frank or Annie Leibovitz, it needs something new. Thanks for reading.