How to Rediscover your Passion for Photography: Part I

Part I | Part II

Passion. What is it? Where does it come from? What does it need? Where do we find it? Where does it go? Once it goes how do we find it again? How can we continually rediscover passion in our careers? These are the types of questions that are put to me daily as I consult with emerging and seasoned professional photographers and other creative entrepreneurs. In this two-part series for photo.net, I will examine the dynamics of passion as it relates to the unique creative journey each one of us has embarked upon. In Part One I will concentrate on where our drive to create comes from, and in Part Two I will focus on why we lose enthusiasm for our creative careers and how some artists have managed to reclaim their excitement for what they create.

By some accounts, over ninety percent of the American workforce is disenchanted with their jobs, and a large part of that disenchantment is due to the fact that their jobs have lost meaning and substance, and these people want something more out of their lives.

The Drive to Create as a Photographer

My experience has shown that emerging professional photographers want to know what they can photograph that will allow them to travel and meet interesting people, make them the most money, and bring them fame. Seasoned professional photographers want answers as to why they no longer have the same excitement for their work, and why a career that was once considered envious is now mundane. The responses to these questions may seem convoluted, but they are not all that complicated once we acknowledge that as long as we choose a career in a creative field we are committed to a life based on change. It also implies that the choices we make must reflect the things that are most important to our individual artistic evolution. In other words, we have to be vigilant about tending the flame of passion in our lives, and that passion is a very delicate commodity that has to be treated with patience, discovery and enthusiasm.

In a class I have the honor of teaching, Crafting a Meaningful Career, at the Art Center College of Design-Public Programs, it is not uncommon for a participant to come in with a long and pained expression and complain that they feel a general unease with life. It may be because they feel they have no career direction, or maybe they had a direction but lost it along the way. It could be that competition has taken away their clients by underbidding them, or their clients are no longer calling them or returning their calls. Sometimes they feel overworked and that work is getting in the way of their creativity. Others have had the rug pulled out from underneath them when they recently got fired, or possibly a personal loss has disoriented them. And some are just plain bored and have no idea why they no longer are motivated. They now desperately need to jump-start their careers or they feel they will never recover. Do any of these observations sound familiar? They should because the creative process not only expects change, it requires change.

Digging into your Career History

Some years ago I had a few of those thoughts myself. I took a little time and dug into my own career history and found a few unsettling yet interesting things. First of all, I discovered that over the past twenty-five years, I had a history of getting all excited when I started a new career direction and I was gung-ho about showing new work, making new connections, renewing old ones, and generally enthusiastic about getting others excited about the work. But then, a few years later, once the work was accepted, there came a period of time when clients would ask for the same type of work to be executed over and over again, and eventually the work seemed unchallenging. The problem with this stage was made even more uncomfortable because by this time I had made multiple commitments (such as a house, a new car, a larger work space) and now I felt as though I was working to support my commitments, but I was not growing creatively. The next inevitable phase was the worst because the clients who had been supporting me went elsewhere in search of the latest look and I took it personally thinking they had left because I was no longer relevant; no longer a viable player in the marketplace.

It took a while but when I got over my pity party I pulled out a large piece of paper and made a graph of my career to that point. I labeled the y axis Income and the x axis Time, as in years. What I discovered astounded me. Roughly every five to seven years I had to reinvent my career. In other words, I recognized a recurring pattern of a period of excitement about new work, followed by a period of executing the same type of work over and over again, ending in a period of dismay and self-doubt, which then caused me to find something to get excited about all over again. I labeled the three phases respectively: The Creative Assent, The Plateau of Mediocrity, and The Valley of Despair. It was amazing to me that in retrospect my career had been so predictable, and what’s more, it opened my eyes to the fact that I could actually anticipate The Plateau of Mediocrity and be proactive so I could minimize, maybe eventually eliminate, that horrible Valley of Despair altogether!

But that wasn’t the half of it. The more I mentioned this process (that I thought was unique to me) to other people in creative fields, the more I realized that most of us go through the same experiences. I also realized that this is perfectly normal, maybe even necessary to our creative career growth to go through these phases.

It was then that I decided to put more energy into understanding this phenomenon and that has lead me for the past twelve years to study it, to discuss it with other creative entrepreneurs, starting with photographers, and to lecture on it, give classes, consult on its dynamics, and write a book titled, “How to Grow as a Photographer: Reinventing Your Career.”

Necessity to Change

What is at the root of this necessity to change? At the center of our being is a basic requirement to evolve. Deep within that is our appreciation of our passion—our need to follow our bliss as Joseph Campbell, professor of comparative mythology and religion, has eloquently described it. There is something embedded within each of us that uniquely resonates with us when we perform it. We even have a phrase for it, we say, it moves us. I have met and interviewed a number of photographers who have said there was one pivotal moment when they took a picture, or saw it come to life magically in the darkroom (remember those), or when they caught the light just right glinting for a miraculous nanosecond, and that moment was so strong they knew right there they had to commit their lives to capturing images. Jay Maisel, brilliant photographer and master of Light, Gesture, and Color told me that he knew the moment he saw his first photograph printed in a school publication that he was going to be a photographer. Since then he has seldom been without his camera and encourages others to always carry a camera. When that strong need comes to us it will not, cannot be ignored. That need is passion, and it is a gift that requires nourishment, and has to be cherished. If we ignore it we run the risk of leading a life of quiet desperation—a life that yearns for meaning.

What is passion?

In some ways passion is like a jealous lover that consumes your thoughts, is demanding, is self-absorbed, and generally dominates your time. Have you ever worked all day and night on something without regard for eating, or sleeping because you were so driven to create your artwork that you were compelled and you could not stop until it was done right? Have you ever wondered some outrageous thought of creation and it not only invaded your dreams but also your waking moments so much so that while you were creating you felt you were living a dream? Then you have an inkling as to the power of your passion.

In some other ways passion is like a compassionate companion, a muse that encourages and supports your creativity, and is never far away (as long as you acknowledge it). It respects your idiosyncrasies, even delights in them. It provides hope in you even when you have given up on yourself. It recommends and you take its advice. It encourages you to try things you have never risked before because you trust it. Or conversely, you shy away from expression because you are afraid of its power, fearful that once you give in to its call you may never be able to return.

The Emergence of Passion

Initially in childhood it comes from the discovery during play that you are good at doing something. When you share your discovery with others you get the adulation of family and friends. That positive reinforcement leads to your wanting more notice until you are on a path that grows into increased opportunities. It’s an evolutionary process, and the more you work at it, the more it provides rewards.

Renowned photographer Pete Turner once told me that when he was a boy he had a stamp collection, and he loved it because of the colors and shapes of the stamps, and the exotic locations they represented. He also had a neighbor who let him use a darkroom where he learned how to develop prints. Those two experiences, stamp collecting and working with images, have been at the heart of Pete’s career as he has given us some of the most striking and memorable images of exotic lands, combined with vibrant colors, in graphically powerful photographic compositions.

Developing Passion

During the teen and early adult years, the execution of your passion can give you peer recognition and take you to new heights of acceptance. The acting out of your passion helps you define yourself, and (though it is an early step in your development) doors start to open as people take notice of your talents. You can individuate yourself through your passion and that gives you a sense of importance; a place in the world.

In the adult world, if your passion is at the heart of your work, you may experience career advancement, salary increases, and fame. More importantly you may discover a sense of authenticity and an ability to inspire others so they may find their voice. By so doing you tap into the universal power that drives the engines of innovation. The concept brings forward the product, which creates the job opportunity, which builds careers that fuel the economy.

Activity 1: Create a Timeline of your Work and Personal Histories

The first step to understanding the potential of our passion is to do a little personal introspection. For some of us the closest we get to thinking about our past accomplishments is to do a resume. That is insufficient since a resume is designed to only highlight the glory and it is necessary to have a bigger picture of our past (warts and all) for us to honestly evaluate how we are to proceed. To have a deeper understanding of how the past may hold the keys to our future and to gain a perspective on the roots of our passion, I suggest the following activity.

Create a timeline of your Work and Personal histories.

  1. Draw a long horizontal line on a large piece of paper, or on a dry erase board, or any large surface you may have access to.
  2. Along that line mark periods of time in years (say in one, three, or five year increments) starting at some point important to you—beginning with your childhood, high school, leaving home, college graduation, whatever you deem important—and end with today.
  3. On the top portion of the timeline, write down significant events in your work history, and below the line write significant events in your personal history.
  4. When you are finished stand back and take a look at any recurring themes that emerge on how you have handled challenges or what important choices you have made.
  5. Can you see the way(s) in which passion has played in your life up until now?
  6. Consider the steps you have to take to write the script for your next creative venture and how it will impact your life.

Share your experience: You can compare notes on this activity with other photo.net members in this Business Forum thread on Creating a Timeline.

I do this activity frequently in my workshops and what is amazing about this exercise is that the participants end up creating one self-described pictorial of their life. Also interesting is that some people prefer to make the center line more of a winding road metaphor for their lives, complete with diversions that show an arabesque of their life as they have chosen to live it. Other people may choose to use sophisticated software to print out a design of their lives with additional categories (income, quality of life, creativity), and others tape together pieces of paper that create a patchwork of significant events.

The means of expression is not as important as the way people end up describing their own narrative, and the way in which they perceive the role passion has played in their lives. If passion has not been a major factor in the development of their lives there is a definite sense that something has been missing, or an opportunity has been overlooked or repressed, and that condition must be addressed in order for them to design the rest of their story as a fulfilling one.

The value of the Timeline exercise is that, once completed, you have before you a visual representation of your life up to now. There, in one creative expression, you have outlined your own personal narrative of where you have been and how you got here. Once you have absorbed the meaning of the Timeline you are now ready to move on to the next step in which you may now start looking for new creative possibilities.

Activity 2: Asset Matching

As mentioned earlier, passion needs a focus on a form of expression, special tools to execute that expression, and nurturing. One way to appreciate what you have going in your favor is an exercise I call Asset Matching in which the responses you give beneath each column help you see options for your creative expression you may not have entertained before.

  1. Make five columns with the following headings: Work Experience, Personal Experience, Skill Sets, Interests, and Influences.
  2. Under the Work Experience column, list your job titles or names of job positions you have held. Beneath Personal Experience, write experiences that have had an impact on your life (positive and negative). Under the Skill Sets column, you may write a list of the skills you have picked up along the way such as computer skills, languages, managerial, etc. Next you may list the things that Interest you, the things you especially love to do; things you enjoy doing even if you don’t get paid for them. And under Influences note the people and things that inspire you the most. Together these lists will paint a picture of your achievements, involvements and aspirations.
  3. Now examine those five columns. Take a step back and look at your assets and see what is revealed.

You may see a gestalt emerge that provides a career opportunity you had not thought of before, or you thought of but did not take advantage because it did not seem realistic. And, on occasion, you may be able to pick something, or things, from each column and see a new option open up by mixing elements of your background with other interests, which evolve into new entrepreneurial ventures.

Share your results: You can compare your emerging career opportunity ideas with other photo.net members in this Business Forum thread on Asset Matching.

What does passion need?

Passion needs a few very important things to manifest its own identity. First of all, it needs the right tools. For the emerging photographer, education (self-imposed and/or institutional education), and assisting are ultimately important since beginning professionals have to understand what is expected of them when they turn pro. Some things can be taught in school, other things can be learned only by experience, watching, and listening. For the veteran photographer, the world is changing at an enormous rate and technology has created a much different landscape causing some photographers to become uneasy at the prospect of reinventing their careers. They may feel they have already paid their dues and are indignant about having to learn new tricks. Technology is just another tool and the dividends of learning new methodologies are enormous as long as the core passions are attended to.

Craig Barnes, creative photographer

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One professional photographer for whom I have high respect is Craig Barnes who graduated as a photographer over twenty years ago. Over the years, he built a formidable commercial production business. A few years ago, he woke up and realized he had not shot anything for himself in seventeen years. Craig made a commitment right then that he would start photographing professionally again. Since he left college, though, the photography landscape had changed dramatically and there were many obstacles to overcome. He became proactive about his expanded career choice and started making changes in his life. One of the things he learned about himself was that he was drawn to portrait photography, and he also became enthralled with the options Adobe Photoshop gave him to place his subjects in intriguing, romantic settings. He attended classes, including mine, to sharpen his skills, define his objectives, and met other artists who encouraged him and gave him suggestions.

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Now he is creating a new body of photographic work, which brings together his talents, interests, and skills. This new work is exemplified in his latest series in which the backgrounds were photographed in a Cambodian temple, and the actors were photographed in his studio and then incorporated in the temple environments.

Craig Barnes is a member of photo.net and his exquisite photographic narrative on the Apsaras (female spirits in Hindu and Buddhist mythology) can be viewed in his photo.net portfolio.

Passion also requires time and a lot of people stop short of pursuing their passion because they feel it will take too long to learn the tools and get to a position of respectability. However, you only have to ask yourself what life will be like ten years from now if you don’t take advantage of going after your dream now and the issue of time becomes moot. With the help from a creative career consultant you can write out a realistic plan that can eventually get you to the next meaningful level of your career.

Gail Mooney, photographer and multimedia documentarian

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Photographer and multimedia documentarian Gail Mooney and I met some years ago at a PhotoPlus Expo conference in New York. She told me at the time that she had a subject she desperately wanted to shoot but wasn’t sure how to go about doing it, and how to get the project funded. Serendipitously she also attended a Blue Earth Alliance lecture during that same conference and discovered how she could execute her dream to document the Delta Blues Musicians of the Mississippi Delta region before their legacy was lost. She eventually created a beautiful, lively, and respectful photographic and live action story on those great musicians who have contributed so much to American music.

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Now she is working on a documentary in which she has taken, “two groups of high school students—one group all black from a school in Harlem joins another school all white from suburban NJ to retrace the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s.” Included in this article are some enthralling images of the young people Gail involved in this life enhancing experience. Imagine if she had put off that dream and the world had never had the chance to relive her meaningful multimedia narratives of the people who created an authentic American form of music, or the impact of the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement.

Very importantly passion requires a support system of like-minded people; trustworthy people whose opinions are respected. It is imperative for all creative professionals to seek out those with whom they can exchange candid feedback and to whom they can contribute a word of encouragement. The best thing about being among like-minded people is that you don’t have to explain what you are doing, or why you are doing it, because they will give you the latitude to express yourself.

Where do we find passion?

The interesting thing about our passion is that at times we have to look very hard for it, and then other times, we have to sit back and patiently let it find us. I make the analogy of an athlete who works very hard at his fundamental skills, working hard each day at practice, looking at game film, working out in the gym. But come game time, he waits for the game to come to him as he gets in the rhythm of the contest, and he executes while never second guessing his decisions. The lesson is to prepare your self through exploration and education, then spread the word that you are ready for the steps to get to the big leagues.

Conclusion

In this first part of our investigation into the nature of creative passion we have looked at where our passions come from and how to mine for new opportunities. I believe that we already know what we need to know about moving on to the next station of our careers but we sometimes sabotage ourselves because of a fear of risk, or a fear of failure. Those fears melt when we realize how much we truly have going for ourselves and how much more we have to offer. The exercises we have examined here provide some of the introspection necessary for us to get closer to our authentic self. Our examination of our passion is a driving force that helps us to define who we are and who we need to be. Life is too short to be wasted on that Plateau of Mediocrity, or worse yet, that dreaded Valley of Despair. With a little help we can all be proactive and prepare ourselves for our next Creative Assent. In Part 2, we will examine where our passion goes from time to time, and how to reclaim it and its creative power.

More

Tony Luna—the President of Tony Luna Creative Services, a Creative Consultancy founded in 1971, and Artist Representative/Executive Producer with Wolfe and Company Films. Mr. Luna has been an Instructor at the Art Center College of Design since 1985 where he teaches “Career Perspectives” in the Photography and Imaging department, and “Crafting a Meaningful Career” and “Living the Dream” in Art Center’s Public Programs. He is the author of, How to Grow as a Photographer: Reinventing Your Career (Allworth Press): an informational and inspirational guide to career evolution. Tony will be presenting a lecture titled “Taking Your Career to the Next Level” at PDN PhotoPlus Expo in October 2008. He has helped well over a thousand artist-entrepreneurs begin, sustain and enhance their careers, and hundreds of companies to grow and prosper.

Text ©2008 Tony Luna. Photos ©2008 Craig Barnes, Gail Mooney.

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    • Great touch of words, in through the feelings and amazement that we have lost while messing around with our equipment. Sometimes to shoot what you think and sometimes to think what you shoot. That's the balance of our art and technique. MF
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    • Wow! I've dabbled in photography for over 30 years but always ran into a wall because I didn't have the nerve to express myself to others. But my other carreers in aviation and IT have followed a very familiar (now, thanks to Tony) 3-5 year cycle. Very insightful. Now to work on expression... Thank you Tony
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    • Spot on, and a timely perspective for me personally. I eagerly await part two!
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    • I like the article! (Only three comments on this in 10 days?) The metaphor I use is that of being creatively "becalmed", during those moments when no fresh wind of creativity is blowing me in new directions. I like your way of charting this on X and Y axes. It's a good way to take a bigger picture lifetime view.
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    • I am encouraged to see this article here. In this day and age of the gear collector hobby, well it gets to be too much to even come to this site at times. I have been shooting for 33 years, I am now 41. I never grow tired of it, never burn out, never run out of ideas. My only regret as to my life as a photographer in both a spiritual and professional sense is that our life spans as humans are not long enough. If I could live to be 150, well that might be enough. The passion has always been there for me, it just never stops. And yes, I count my self as very lucky.
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    • Your article is very encouraging for me. Passion never burns out. It is my drive too. But the problem are people when I communicate with them, trying to do business. I still live in a row country, speaking about creative business.
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    • Very nice job with this article... excellent reading for all no matter what interests someone may have.
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    • Thanks fo this contribution Tony. Passion for photography does ebb and flow, according to one's place in life. I find when the passion is waning it's because I'm focussed too much on doing the same thing over and over...usually what pays the bills. It's good to take a pause and consider new bodies of work, or even changing up your equipment. The move to digital was very freeing to a lot of photographers as it gets them out there shooting more.
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    • It helps me know that what I feel is normal. being creative in todays world makes you different. You also can apply this concept to other areas in your life. I love the article. Thank you.
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