The Apathetic Photographer

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 understanding, 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 photography might take.

Harlansburg, PA
Harlansburg, PA

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 the 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 subjects to reveal themselves to us in all their glory.

Forsyth Park (Savannah, GA)
Forsyth Park (Savannah, GA)

When I talk about apathy, I’m not necessarily talking about the lack of photographic activity that may occur during dreary winter months.  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 express itself in different ways depending on where we are in our photographic development. 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 oversaturated 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 a while 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 any lack of innate creative ability – because one can still be highly accomplished artistically, but deficient in will power or passion; just as there are people out there who are extremely intelligent, yet lack initiative.

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 subjects, 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.

Farm in WV
Farm in WV

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.

Unfortunately, there really is no magic bullet to overcoming severe photographic apathy – as this may be a byproduct of a deeper-seated issue rooted in our own personal depression. I would certainly encourage those of you with more profound feelings of depression and creative detachment to seek out professional advice.

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.

Old Mill in Western PA
Old Mill in Western PA

Are you feeling apathetic?  If so, maybe you should consider one of the below recommendations:

  • Start a photography project: find a subject that is close to your heart, 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 empowering.
  • Get out of Dodge: plan a simple day trip or overnight excursion a few hours away from your home.
  • Explore a new genre or technique: whether night photography, macro or film, try something new.
  • Donate your photography: take pictures for a worthy cause or give away your prints for free.
  • Turn off the Internet: stop living your creative life in a virtual world, it’s just an illusion.
  • 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.
  • Sign up for an art show or street fair:  rent a table and share your passion with others.
  • Join a photography club: share, mingle and explore with like-minded enthusiasts.
  • Re-do your photo website: re-envision a new website that will be the perfect showcase for your art.
  • 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!
  • Accept your current status with grace:  If you’re not happy with where you’re at, do something about it.
  • It’s about the experience, stupid!:  let your experiences validate your photos, not the other way around.
  • Get off the couch:  stop making excuses. Get your lazy ass off the couch, you’ll thank me later.
  • Hug a tree:  No matter what time of year, fresh air and bonding with nature does the body (and soul) good.
  • Photograph in the moment: stop lamenting the past and worrying about the future.  Photograph in the Now!
  • Take baby steps: set clear achievable goals that will slowly yet surely move you in a forward direction.
  • Embrace chaos: you can’t change the universe swirling around you; but you can change how you react to it.
  • Imitate your kids: don’t be so serious. Approach your photography with child-like wonder and curiosity.
  • Close your user manual: settings schmettings – stop complicating things and just focus on fundamentals.
  • Take ownership: increase accountability and motivation by sharing your dreams and goals with others.
  • 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 in a rut when you’re out of practice. Not every shot or photo trip has to be epic.
  • Take a sabbatical:  major life events can drain us mentally.  Sometimes we need to take a short break.
  • Be realistic:  just because you’re not as obsessive as you once were, doesn’t mean you’ve lost interest.
  • Brain freeze:  you can still get great images during winter, so don’t be so quick to put your camera in the closet.
  • iPhone fever:  stay polished and fine-tune your seeing skills by using your smartphone for fun and practice.
  • Stop hoarding:  stop obsessing about the equipment. Your camera is just a paintbrush. Focus on the art.
  • Revisit old pictures:  seeing where you started just might give you clarity on where you’re going.
  • Look at other art:  seeing the world from another’s eyes can be both enlightening and motivating.
  • Information overload: take a break from EVERYTHING photographic, and just focus on simply taking pictures.
  • Celebrate the mundane: unique image opportunities are everywhere, even in your own backyard.
  • Be happy: remember why you fell in love with photography in the first place!  This is all that matters!
  • 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, 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 its 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.

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