Find Your Own Way

Do you confine yourself doing what you know your peers like or what is considered “good” photography? Do you show work to get positive feedback instead of giving the rest of the world your take on whatever it is you have photographed—or painted or written about or…? At least talking for myself, I know that is so easy to fall back on conformities and too easy to take the well-trodden path.

Some time ago, I came across a blog post by David duChemin, the Canadian photographer based out of Vancouver. He writes about a village in China called Dafen where thousands of painters make a living by making replicas of world famous paintings. They do this year in and year out, being very accomplished at it. If you can’t pay the millions it cost to get hold of a Picasso, you may get a copy by one of these very skilled painters in Dafen for a just a few dollars.

His point is that however good the paintings from Dafen may be, they are not art. They do not offer anything to the world except cheep copies of something that once did and still do create aw and admiration in the art world. The copies themselves do not. As skilful as these painters in Dafen are, nobody will ever become inspired by them, or boosted by them, or stimulated by them. Crafts in itself is not enough, an artists needs to put some of her or his soul into the creation to touch anyone else.

I know art is lofty and pretentious word, and if you are like me, you probably hesitate a little to call yourself an artists. But it still doesn’t change the point and it still doesn’t change fact that both you and I most likely are photographing—or painting, sculpturing, writing, making music or whatever you do—out of a desire to fulfil a creative desire.

In so doing we want to creating something that at best may touch others or at least be or some inspiration or maybe just result in a smile in another’s face. That is pretty close to art, in my opinion. However, according to duChemin, “if art is more than just technique and imitation, no matter how perfect that imitation, then it requires something more than years of practice. It requires us. It requires interpretation. It requires that we bring something of our own to the table, preferably something that means something to us, something that’s a part of us. It requires vulnerability and soul and thoughts of our own.”

We need to leave Dafen—figuratively speaking. We need to break out of conformity and what is considered the “right way”. Because there is no right way. There are no rules, and if you believe there are, then break those damn rules. Jump out of the stereotype and become yourself in the creative process. As duChemin says; you don’t want to spend your life imitating others, do you?

It takes one thing, though, and that is courage. It takes courage to be yourself. It takes courage to create on your own terms. In takes courage to stand out from the crowd and not be like everybody else. It takes courage to accept your own quirks and oddities. However, it’s from this place you will find your true, artistic expression. You art will grow deeper and become more authentic if you draw the artistic expression from your real self, the one that you sometimes, or most of the time, try to hide—as I wrote in my post Embrace Your Oddities some time ago.

As David duChemin writes in this post: “We’re all trying so damn hard to blend in that we have no chance at standing out. And that’s a shame, because if you just let your freak flag fly, you’d find it was that to which people were the most attracted. The real you. The messy you. The you who had the courage to leave Dafen and try it your way. Not to be different, but to be you. Imperfect, weird, intriguing, fantastically human you. That’s the kind of person who makes art, not copies: someone who is truly him or herself, not a copy of someone else.”

Skills and craft are good and necessary to be able to express ourselves, just like you need to learn your mother tongue to be able to express yourself with words. But take it to the next level. When talking about photographing, don’t just show us where you have been or what something looks like. Show me why it so important for you that you actually took a photo of it.

If you haven’t visited David dChemin’s blog, I strongly recommend to do so. He is full of inspiration, encouragement and a well of poignant thoughts about photography and art. Start here then: Leaving Dafen (From Craft to Art).

66 thoughts on “Find Your Own Way

  1. I try not to judge others’ work (because how do I know that the artists in Dafen don’t get any joy out of work — or that they don’t add their own little creative touches, or experiment with different brush strokes?). That said, you and Mr. duChemin are right that Dafen is a powerful metaphor to apply to our own work. We can learn a great deal by “painting by the numbers” in our photography and imitating what others have done. But the real good stuff happens when we focus on what we love. Thank you for the reminder … and for the inspiration.

  2. A wonderfully inspiring post. It’s hard to overcome the fear of being judged but we can never be true to ourselves as long as that is motivating us. Thank you Otto, for the link as well.

  3. Stewart Lee makes an interesting point on Ted Chippington an obscure 80’s stand up comic who inspired Lee along with a generation of U.K. comics. Particularly when art is increasingly measured in terms of an economic scale ‘how many units sold’ ‘how many hits’

    He says that Ted ‘demonstrated that comedy could be anything you wanted it to be and that just because an audience did not like something did not mean it was not any good’

    1. As with comedy, art can be anything you want it to be. Of course, But still, for for it to have any meaning we need to narrow down some kind of relevans or definition. At least for me, copies of art are not art. 🙂

      1. The comics are not copying. His closing remarks look like a conversationalist definition of art, his emphasis on historical relationship as the determining factor.

  4. Great read! Reminds me of the words of Andy Warhol…
    “ Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding make even more art. “

  5. Another great inspiring blog post.

    I’ve got a couple of duChemin’s books and sometimes I think he is a better writer (than photographer). He really has a way of getting down to the nitty gritty of Art and Photography in the written word. i vaguely remember him posting one of his images with a step-by-step guide to how he processed it and being a wee bit disappointed in his original photo as being rather ordinary. It was his expert post-processing which made the photo into an image that stood out in the final frame.

    I am one of those amateur photographers who falls into that deep-seated desire to make a ‘good photo’ and every time I play around with some abstract B & W images, I’m never confident enough to upload them on my B & W blog…….and I’m just as bad on my colour Nature Blog. If I haven’t got the bird’s eye in focus, I hesitate to upload it.

    I never painted watercolours all those years ago to please anyone but myself. I never turned a clay pot on the potter’s wheel into anything other than my own vision. You’d think I’d be able to do the same with the camera. But then, I’m old(er) and with a wealth of criticism chasing my tail about other aspects of my daily life, can’t seem to escape that need to please in old(er) age.

    1. I don’t necessarily think getting older makes it easier for any of us to escape that need to feel appreciated. Otherwise, I agree with you that dChemin is an excellent writer and equally an excellent educator.

  6. PS I just had another email to remind me I hadn’t entered this year’s Australian Photographer of the Year… (amateur competition, as I did in 2016). I can’t seem to find an image that’s ‘good enough.’

  7. I have always loved David duChemin blog and books (have them all) but I am not sure he is right about the artists of Dafen. So many people learn by copying the masters, and yes, these people may make a profit from it, but this is a very different culture. If a person can look at a copy and enjoy the essence of the painting, the color,the feel or the sense of being someplace else, who is to say this is not art? Remember that in the mid 19th century in Paris, many students were copying the Masters paintings in the Louvre and learning their trade – and I am sure people were buying their paintings. I suspect if the Chinese artists wanted to paint something creative, most have a huge skill set to do that. But people do have to make a living. Just my take. Of course, in regards to photography, that is a little different. Great thought-provoking blog as always.

    1. I agree with you in that we all start learning by copying others, but still, for me it’s pot art—whatever art is—if an artist doesn’t but his or her own soul into it. We might disagree on this one, but of course people do have to make a living, and people do buy copies of great art. 🙂

      1. I know what you are saying – just wanted to put a bit of a twist on it. I do agree that copying other people’s paintings is not exactly a good standard to judge your own artistic style by.

  8. well, i ain’t hiding anything, and i am being my bad self… bad being the operative word… i used to enjoy over processing my photos, and my heart was actually in it… that is until G+ and you know the rest of the story, i decided to make BAD art… but to tell you the truth, i would love to get back my first love of over processing, maybe it will come back someday… but as it stands lol putting ‘myself’ in the photo means literally A SELFIE WITH MY DOG lolol

  9. Excellent post. Your first paragraph and this, “Show me why it so important for you that you actually took a photo of it” really grabbed me. It’s a mantra we can all use in our creating. Thanks!

  10. This is a great post, Otto! I so agree with you that by being ourselves and creating from the inner world of ours is when art is born.

  11. I always love reading your thoughts about art and creativeness – thank you for your great effort to remind us of the “why” and the being ourselves.

  12. Thanks for the link to David’s site… 😀 I will probably be haunting his site for quite some time to come 😉
    And also thanks for your post, again hitting some of the things I myself am hauted by regularly… 🙂

  13. I am a duChemin follower and you raise some good like-minded points here. I am not a believer in rules in art and have blogged about that in the past. Still sometimes, I look at my work that breaks some of the so-called ‘rules’ and wonder how other photogs or a juror might perceive it. I think photographers put too much weight into these rules which I prefer to call suggestions … rule of thirds, blown-out areas, filled-in shadows, sharp throughout, moving objects pointed inward, etc. Then I tell myself it is not so important what other photographers think … they aren’t going to buy my work anyway. The subject matter I love is popular so it is difficult to stand out as being different … I try to just be true to myself regardless of what anyone else is creating.

  14. U like your thoughts Otto. We all like approval in all aspects of our lives, not just creativity, from childhood and throughout our lives. I still ask myself what my father would think about what I am doing! I feel that the freedom to be ones self and to express without inhibitions and the need to satisfy others comes with maturity. And individuals mature differently and are influenced by external circumstances.

  15. I love the passion that comes out in this post Otto and I fully agree that we all need to embrace our creativity and have courage with our artistry.

  16. When I began my blog so many years ago, there were certain “rules” that were considered invioloable. For example, posting every day was deemed necessary, and going over a 300 word limit was certain death. I said “Phooey” to all that. I determined that I would write what interested me, in the way that I preferred. If others read, great. If they didn’t, great. But I wanted to learn to write, and the only way I knew to do that was to write. It’s worked out pretty well, and part of the success is due to my following the advice you offer here — even when I didn’t realize I was doing so!

  17. What a delightful photograph! It captures the joy of being part of a group when all is going well. That’s what life is about, and you captured it – plus the intense sunshine y ice cream, so welcome and part of the experience!

    Thanks for the links to David’s website; yes, he is another who freely shares his gift with others – much like you, natural teachers/observers of life, etc!

  18. The importance of finding one’s own way is always a good message. and David duChemin can be really spot on. I like him. I do think of myself as an artist, and happily so. But the relevant reminder for me here is, “Show me why it so important for you that you actually took a photo of it.” I like that. Something to keep in mind. Your photo is interesting for the tension between the woman in the center and the woman on the right, who seems more in tune with what your’e saying here, even though she doesn’t have a nice ice cream cone to enjoy! Sometimes it’s not all about ice cream. 🙂

  19. I am so happy I stumbled across your posts! I have been creeping on your blog and am in love with all of your work. This really caught my attention. I see that creativity is an outlet for everyone in a variety of ways. I see that pure happiness in the picture that I have been longing for for a while now. I have taken pictures in bad moments and see that through it. Not only the way the eyes are sad but how I carry myself. I had a pure bliss moment and captured it and saw an enormous difference. Life is wonderful. Life is tragic. Its the moments that make me happy the ones to remember, while I know the bad moments are going into creating me also. Thank you for this inspiring post, it helped me see a lot.

    1. Thank you so much for those lovely words, Kenna. And, yes, you are right, creativity can express itself in so many different ways. In many ways it reflects life, all from the happiest moments to the saddest.

  20. Otto, I appreciate your words. It’s great to hear that you are pushing through these feeling of holding back. I also love this concept of not holding back your strengths just because they are not recognized by main stream popularity. I wrote about it in my bolgy if you would like check it out and let me know what you think:) -Anna

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