On How Life Shapes Our Path As Photographers
Discovering why you start, and how to experience the journey
Over the years, I have spoken with many of my photography students about an essential question.
The question that drives us all to pick up a camera is universal.
It does not matter what country we are from if we are male or female, our race, or what we believe in — we pick up a camera to capture who or what we love.
And the question beyond the who or what we love about photography that is more important to understand is why we photograph.
Why did you begin? Why do you want to take photographs? What drives YOU to do what you do?
How to identify the why
To accurately explain the methods for discovering the why to you, let me give you some perspective.
I started photography because I had a Grandmother that gave me a camera at age 10.
At first, I did not dive into photography head over heels. I started on a family vacation to Disney World.
What was my first reason “why” I photographed? It was spending time with my family and remembering the moments we shared.
I would end up photographing alongside my Grandma, and eventually, I got into photographing for money.
There was a distinctly different feeling inside me that felt more hollow when I simply photographed for money.
I did not feel warm/excited/passionate/inspired by many things over the years that I photographed for money.
Yet, these things that I photographed commercially went into the “why” I needed to make a living category instead of the actual answer of why I photograph.
Discovering the why with personal projects
I remember distinctly visiting Chicago for the first time on a trip once.
I saw a man with a black Nikon camera with a huge lens that kept standing up to photograph everything and everything that he saw.
I felt inspired simply by viewing the size of his camera and lens, and I thought, wow, I need to get myself a camera and lens like that to inspire my photography.
Yet, much later down the road, when I achieved my goal of purchasing a black Nikon camera with a huge lens, it left me feeling hollow again.
I made photographs — sure. Yet, it did not light me up or resonate in the sense that I was doing something that really led to anything. I was simply pushing the button for the sake of pressing the button.
And my first collection of images I made an attempted book out of for a personal project went back to what I started with subconsciously.
I made a book of images of my family and the things that we experienced at age 25.
Was this the New York Times Best Seller that I dreamed of? Nope. Did anyone else care? Nope.
Three copies of the book are in existence. In fact, no one else in this world has a copy of this book except my parents, brother, and myself.
Yet, I felt more alive in capturing these images than I thought by working for others.
In my early 30s, I was laid off from a corporate position where I worked. I was presented with the challenge of what to do next.
My ex-wife suggested that I could continue searching for another corporate job or take time to return to college and finish a degree program.
I chose the degree program as I saw the value in education as a way to improve my situation outside of a soul-sucking 9–5 job.
I enrolled at the University of Michigan’s Art and Design School and found my “inspiration” return.
I was making many things that I enjoyed and loved simply for the sake of doing them, and I excelled in all of my classes.
In my senior year of college, I had a good friend that passed away from bulimia.
No one that was a friend or family to her knew how much she struggled.
She would starve herself to the point where her organs eventually shut down, and she passed in her sleep.
When she passed, it hit me really hard. I felt a fire inside me that I had to speak out about this. And I have always spoken out about what I think over the years through my art.
This timing coincided with my senior thesis at the University of Michigan, so I produced a book called “Resonance” on body image.
Many years later now, I understand that this project was about me trying to understand exactly why my friend went through what she did before she passed.
I photographed over 100 people ages 18+ totally nude, and we collaborated with their written statements of what they wanted to say about body image alongside my photography.
It gave people a voice and a platform to speak out about how they deal with body image and the pressures of society that eat away at individuals.
And when it came time to host my senior thesis show, I thought no one else would show up. Yet, I was greeted by applause and support when I got to the gallery.
I was overwhelmed with emotion and broke down in tears in front of everyone.
The lesson learned: I understood that if I found something that I was passionate about that lit a fire inside me, I had to get it out of me.
During my college study abroad, I was assigned by my professor to photograph ten rolls of film.
I was living and studying in Florence, Italy, at the time, so it was straightforward to find things that inspired me, being it was all a new experience.
My professor told us to hone in on one thing for our project (niche down).
I have always personally struggled with niching down because there are so many things that I am passionate about in life. And my Mom always tells me that my mind drives 100 miles per hour every second of the day.
Long story short, I ended up with a collection of street photography and adventures for my project. I had to decide on more than one thing.
And for my final class presentation, I showed all ten contact sheets as my last works instead of choosing to share specific images from my collection.
It was more about the journey than the destination in this sense.
Years later, I decided in 2015 to publish the collection as a book called “Glimpses.”
I was in my first year as a professor, and I thought I couldn’t send my students on a journey to photograph without sharing my own work and mistakes with lessons that I had learned.
I used this book as a teaching tool, and I sent countless students out into the world with the meaning of the importance of mistakes to learn and make their own work.
On April 5th, 2016, I was photographing behind the scenes for my friend Jordan Matter on his Dancers After Dark project.
We were in Times Square in New York City, photographing three nude dancers and shooting content for Shutterbug Magazine (see the original story here).
I remember specifically when the dancer jumped in the middle of the chaos of Times Square that Jordan froze the dancer perfectly every single time as they practiced.
At this moment, I wondered what the photograph would look like in motion instead of perfectly frozen.
The rebellious nature in my soul told me on this night that I had to do something different. It may be my curiosity. I may have had my new fire inside of me.
I definitely felt the fire inside of me again, and I contacted dancers I met through shooting with Jordan to ask if they wanted to be a part of my new project titled “Kinetic.”
The experience reminded me of what my legendary friend Robert Frank once told me. He had the pleasure of studying under the legend Henri Cartier Bresson who coined the term “The Decisive Moment.”
Robert shared with me once that he printed 136 images and hung them on a gallery wall, calling it his “Decisive Moment,” and that if he did not care for a picture, he took a lighter and burned the negative on sight so that it would never be seen again.
I was not the first to produce something that went against the grain of my mentor’s teaching clearly.
And I ended up photographing dancers and releasing Kinetic on October 20th, 2017. It was my antithesis of what my mentor Jordan Matter had taught me, and I felt alive.
Other tips for finding the why
Other things that have helped me to discover the why in my photography over the years are:
What is the reason that you photograph?
Let’s chat if you want to find the inspiration inside you and understand further why you photograph.
You can book a complimentary 30-minute Zoom call with me, and I will listen to your story to help inspire you on your photography path to give you direction.
Book a call here: https://calendly.com/cnpcall/30min
And as always, you can listen in about the topic of today’s post at https://anchor.fm/charlie-naebeck (also on Spotify, Apple, Amazon, and where podcasts live. Cheers!
Hi, I am Charlie Naebeck
I am a husband, photographer, teacher, writer, entrepreneur, and adventurer.
Book a complimentary Zoom call with me to form an action plan for your photography at: https://calendly.com/cnpcall/30min.
Also listen to the What Would Charlie Shoot podcast and subscribe at https://anchor.fm/charlie-naebeck (also on Spotify, Apple, Amazon, and where podcasts live).
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On How Life Shapes Our Path As Photographers was originally published in Share a Picture Magazine.com on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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