I often get questions about photographic voice and how to create a signature style—not the least since I regularly teach a workshop called “Your Photographic Voice”. However, there is no easy answer to the question, simply because there isn’t a quick and simple solution to finding this unique way of expressing oneself, not as a photographer nor in any other art form.
The not so helpful answer is; it takes time to develop your own signature. Moreover, it’s not something you can sit down and figure out or construct. As a photographer, you need to find the signature style, rather than create it. Or let it find you. Nevertheless, there are things you can do to allow yourself the freedom to grow into your practice and find your way. Once you fully accept this freedom, originality follows almost inevitably.
So keep in mind, the way in which all artists discover their individuality takes time. In fact, you develop your voice through your whole career or life span as a photographer. It’s in constant development, and the longer you have been nurturing your art, the more distinctive your voice grows to be. If you are concerned with developing originality, first of all don’t think about been original. This is something I have addressed before. If you try to be original, the result will rather be contrived. Instead, don’t think about being original, but allow yourself the freedom to experiment, exploring as many different mediums, subject matters, and approaches as possible.
It is only through the process and practice that a photographer develop true originality, as he or she slides subconsciously into repetitive patterns that build upon one another and over time form natural habits. Originality is the accumulation of a series of these subconscious processes, that when seen as a whole are a representation of the originality inherent in each individual. Not two people are the same, and thus no two people’s work is the same. When one photographer—or artist—makes work that appears similar to another’s, it either isn’t as similar as it may appear, or someone isn’t being true to their own individuality.
To be true to your own individuality, you need to pursue your passions. It’s through passionate work you develop your voice. Passion is simply the foundation of any successful, personal expression. As such, I think that is the strongest advice to take to heart—literarily. Photograph what you are passionate about. Find themes and subject matters you really care about, not only photographically but personally.
Then make photographing these subjects personal, that is to say photograph what you know. Photograph close to home, physically or figuratively. For instance, photograph your family or photograph your friends. Many a renowned photograph has made a name for him- or herself by photographing their personal relationships, among others Sally Mann, Nan Goldin or Larry Clark, to mention a few.
What makes your photography stand out—over time—is showing the rest of us how your world looks like photographed. Tell us your story—in your photos. When you share your personal life, you share your life experience and your heartfelt revelations. Just remember, when I write personal, I don’t mean private. Nobody wants to pry into your private life, but sharing your personal experiences will make us curious and capture us. Through a personal approach, your photography will be able to touch others and make them learn more about life, in general.
The late photographer, Diane Arbus, once wrote: “The more personal you make it, the more universal it becomes”.
A final thought about how to pursue a personal, photographic voice or encourage this budding individuality is to take in as much art as possible, from as many different approaches as possible. And I don’t talk only about photography now, although if you are particularly interested in nature photography, for instance, open up yourself to other photographic approaches as well. If your only reference material is nature photography, it is easy to see how the work you make might quickly become a reworking of other nature photographs. When absorbing a vast array of different approaches to making, alas not only photographic approaches, some will filter their way into your work, distilled through the prism of your personality. So give yourself as much inspiration as possible, from as many varying sources as possible. Even seek out work that you dislike. It will refine your own signature.