Photos and Text by Daniel Stainer
At some point in our photographic lives, we all experience apathy. This demotivating condition can best be described as a state of indifference; the suppression of emotions such as concern, excitement, motivation or passion. Like any other psychological ailment, photographic apathy manifests itself in varying degrees of severity.
Taking some creative license in my definition, I view the opposite (or antonym) of photographic apathy to be inspiration – to be inspired in both action and thought.
When we’re inspired in action, we proactively seek out interesting subjects to photograph or personal projects to tackle; we get off that proverbial creative couch, never letting excuses like bad weather or lack of time get in the way of our passion or goals. When we’re inspired in action, we are driven to photograph – and are excited to do so, no matter what form this activity might take.
When we’re inspired in thought, creativity comes as a revelation and we are transported to a place where our ideas resonate freely with one another in our mind. To be inspired in thought is to see subjects in unique ways; to find that still point in ourselves where we’re photographing in the moment, allowing the essence of our subject to reveal itself to us in all its glory.
When I talk about apathy, I’m not necessarily talking about the lack of photographic activity that may occur during dreary winter months, for example. I think we can all agree that there’s a difference between seasonal inactivity and negative thinking. Everyone has an apathetic (or lazy) moment from time to time, but this doesn’t mean that we’ve reached the stage where this negative thought has become debilitating to our artistic growth.
Apathy is not a one-size-fits-all disorder, and will manifest itself in different ways depending on where we are in our photographic evolution. For the seasoned pro, apathy may be the result of photography becoming too much like work, and therefore, our once unwavering love of the craft has started to wane.
For the talented advanced amateur or emerging artist, apathy may be the result of an inability to parlay our talent into something more meaningful or sustainable, such as a full-time career. Let’s face it, it’s not easy getting noticed in today’s over-saturated Internet world. And even when we do get noticed, it’s often fleeting.
For the beginner, apathy typically results from a continued failure to translate technical understanding into predictable and repeatable creative results. Many beginners fail to progress beyond this stage. Not to sound like Oprah, but it took many of us quite some time (and a lot of trial and error) before we finally had that technical “Aha! Moment.”
I won’t go into all the different variations of apathy, because no matter what stage we’re in or how we ultimately ended up there, the symptoms are remarkably similar. Photographically speaking, do you feel like you lack a sense of purpose or meaning? Maybe you’ve lost sight of why you like to photograph or what you hope to accomplish in your photography?
Do you sometimes feel like you don’t possess the level of skill required to be successful? Are you frustrated because your images lack a creative spark? Or maybe you feel hopelessly inadequate when compared against seemingly more accomplished or established photographers?
Even when presented with ample opportunity and time to photograph, do you sometimes find it easier to disengage? Or maybe the limited time you do get is not producing the results you want or expect?
If you answered yes to any of the above, then maybe you are experiencing some form of photographic apathy.
Apathy should not be confused with a lack of innate creative ability – because one can still be highly accomplished artistically, but deficient in will power or passion.
Of course, I would argue that apathy can impact photographic creativity, because without inspiration, we run the risk of merely going through the motions when participating in any photographic activity. When we’re not fully engaged in the creative process, our photos suffer. Or stated a slightly different way, if we don’t connect with our subject, our viewers won’t connect with our photos.
While this inspiration doesn’t always equate into more compelling images, it does spur us to action, providing a much-needed kick in the pants. And sometimes, all we need to do to re-ignite our passion is to just get out there and start photographing.
I think it is fair to say that technique and results are independent of any inspiration, and therefore it is still possible for our photographic skill to be insufficient to our inspiration.
Clearly, there is a certain degree of technical proficiency that is required to achieve any artistic vision – and I can’t emphasize how important it is to move beyond technical understanding.
Undoubtedly, we all face overwhelming responsibility and stressors in our lives—in our jobs, family, health, personal relationships, finances, environment, what have you. And I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that these challenges can easily spill over into our photography, contributing to a self-fulfilling and potentially destructive pattern of apathy and disconnectedness.
It’s hard to be motivated and creative when we’re being pulled in a million different directions and have the weight of the world on our shoulders.
But let’s be honest with ourselves too. Our lives will always be complicated. If our passion for photography is to be sustainable, we must figure out a way to harness creative inspiration year round—even in the midst of endless life challenges. Luckily, there are small steps we can take to re-energize our creative spirit.
Are you feeling apathetic? If so, maybe you should consider one of the below recommendations to help get those creative juices flowing once again:
- Start a photography project: find a subject that you love and tell a story.
- Book a photo workshop: sign up for that cool workshop or tour that you’ve only been dreaming about.
- Start a photography blog: documenting your thoughts, ideas and experiences can be quite empowering.
- Get out of Dodge: plan a simple day trip or overnight excursion a few hours away from home.
- Explore a new genre or technique: whether night photography, macro or film, try something new. Maybe it’s time to dust off that old film camera.
- Turn off the Internet: stop living your creative life in a virtual world, it’s just an illusion. The good stuff happens when you turn off your computer.
- Publish a photo book: achieve a sense of accomplishment by inexpensively self-publishing your own work.
- Get your images printed and matted: photos become much more real when you can hold and hang them. This is where the rubber meets the road!
- Sign up for an art show or street fair: rent a table and share your passion with others.
- Join a photography meetup or start one in your area: share, mingle and explore with like-minded enthusiasts. Check out the NANPA Meetup Program!
- Re-do your photo website: re-envision a new website that will be the perfect showcase for your art. Be selective!
- Become a student again: pick up a book, take a class, read an article–it’s never too late to learn something new.
- Stop comparing yourself to others: no good can come out of these comparisons. Cast away all envy! Be competitive with yourself!
- It’s about the experience: Galen Rowell once said (to paraphrase), “Let your experiences validate your photos, not the other way around.” I think he was on to something.
- Hug a tree: No matter what time of year, fresh air and bonding with nature does the body (and soul) good.
- Imitate your kids: don’t be so serious. Approach your photography with child-like wonder and curiosity. Be spontaneous!
- Close your user manual: settings schmettings – stop complicating things and just focus on the fundamentals and simplicity.
- Collaborate: enjoy some synergy by working with another passionate photographer.
- Switch mediums: pick up a paintbrush or write a poem – it just might spark something new in your photography.
- Practice: it’s easy to get into a rut when you’re out of practice. Not every shot or photography trip has to be epic.
- Take a sabbatical: major life events can drain us mentally. Sometimes we need to take a short break.
- iPhone fever: stay polished and fine-tune your seeing skills by using your smartphone for fun and practice. It is true – the best camera is the one you have with you!
- Stop hoarding: stop obsessing about equipment. Your camera is just a paintbrush. Focus on the art. Buying a shiny new toy won’t solve all of your creative problems!
- Look at other art: seeing the world from another’s eyes can be both enlightening and motivating. Appreciate what you see, but forge your own style!
- Celebrate the mundane: unique image opportunities are everywhere, even in your own backyard.
- Go light: ditch that 35 pound pack for a smaller camera and 1-2 lenses. Today’s new crop of high IQ mirrorless systems make this easy.
- Be selfish: most importantly, photograph for YOU, not for others!
When it comes to photographic apathy, the aperture really is half open. When you’re passionate about something like photography, it normally doesn’t just disappear altogether, although it might dwindle from time to time, especially if life is coming at you hard, or if your mood is unusually influenced by seasonal changes.
This is normal, so don’t fret—not every moment has to be at peak intensity, and most likely you’ll bounce back to your normal obsessive photographic self before you know it. Like the ebb and flow of the tide, our interest in photography will always have ups and downs. In fact, if we never had any downs, we wouldn’t appreciate and value the ups.
The faster we acknowledge and accept this reality, the sooner we can reconnect with our creative muse. Often, just a slight shift in behavior, attitude or expectations (or an exciting new project to think about) is all we need to get our passion and inspiration back on track again.
About the Author
A new member of NANPA, Daniel Stainer is a published photographer and blogger living in Northwest, PA. Daniel’s work has been showcased in media outlets ranging from the Singh-Ray blog to CNN. Most recently, he was asked to write the Foreword for “Nature Photography Photo Workshop,” a top-selling paperback published by Wiley & Sons and available on Amazon. More of Daniel’s work can be found at: www.danielstainer.com