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How to Avoid Imitating Your Idols

Almost every photographer enjoys the work of other photographers in the industry. When you start your photography journey, it’s natural to look at work of professional photographers and think, “I want to make photographs just like that.” That’s fine in the beginning because you can use photography inspiration as fuel for study. The reality is, it’s likely going to be years before you make photographs close to the standard of your inspirations. As time moves on, you risk falling into the trap of no longer using a photographer’s work as inspiration, but as something you imitate.

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My First Photography Inspiration

My earliest influence was Robert Frank. Like many photographers, I became deeply connected to his photobook The Americans. It was the first time I saw photography that genuinely made me feel something. Up to that point, I had never understood just how capable photography was for documenting society and telling stories. From that moment on, I wanted to make photographs like Robert Frank.

Each day, I would try to see the same scenes he saw and find a way to replicate his work. I was naive back then. First of all, nobody can replicate his work. Secondly, I was nowhere near talented enough to create the type of work Frank did. However, the way he felt about the world and how he applied it to image-making became a part of how I approached my photography.

Photography Inspiration vs. Imitation

Sixteen years after picking up a camera, I see photographers leaning too far into imitation rather than inspiration. Some of it’s blatant. For example, I can’t count how many “Humans of…” I have seen since Brandon Stanton did the first version of the series in New York back in 2010. In other examples, it’s more subtle. It’s the type of photography that makes you say, “That could have been taken by [insert established photographer]. Some photographers like that type of compliment: being told their work is like that of a professional. However, in my opinion, it sends the message that a photographer is yet to discover their voice. So how does one find the balance between inspiration and imitation?

Diversify Your Photography Inspiration

Photography fandom can be intense. Some photographers fall so in love with one photographer that they fail to enjoy the work of others. One of the best ways to avoid becoming an imitator is to spread your love across multiple photographers and genres. True fans of photography can appreciate the talents in all areas of the craft. By having numerous influences, you won’t become bogged down in creating in a certain way. You can instead take a little dose of each photographer you love and combine them with your personal style.

Also, remember, even the most established photographers were not perfect. Each of them had ways they could improve. When viewing their work, sit down and ask yourself, “How could I improve this image?” Such an approach gets you thinking with your own perspective of what makes a good photo, rather than following trends of others.

Don’t Have Photography Inspiration

It’s always felt strange that the status quo seems to promote the notion of having photographers who inspire how we create. It’s never been essential to fall in love with a photographer’s work or to use it as inspiration. What’s the best way to avoid imitation? Just ignore what everyone else is doing and develop your style from the moment you start making pictures.

I’m not alone in this thought process. I spoke to Magnum Photos nominee Hannah Price about influence in photography. She told me:

“I am probably one of the oddest photographers you will meet. I don’t constantly look at photographs, don’t have a favorite book, nor a favorite photographer. I have favorite images that speak to me, but I don’t obsess over them. My inspiration comes from everyday life and social behavior, topics that I want people to think about.”

Spend More Time Making Photographs

Studying the craft is important. However, the best education you will ever receive comes when you are in the field practicing. While it’s good to research, don’t become too immersed in photobooks and portfolios. The more time spent looking at the work of other photographers, the more their style becomes embedded in your mind. The photographs you should reflect on the most are you’re own. That’s where you’ll learn the most about the direction you want to take your work in.

Final Thought

I firmly believe a photographer’s main goal should be to develop their personal style. Also, I feel it’s essential to the industry’s sustainability to create photography we haven’t seen before. We don’t want photography to look like it did 50 years ago. We should strive to evolve to the point where we bring new masters and influencers to the forefront.

Sit down with your work and ask yourself, “Do I see inspiration or imitation?” If you answer the latter, it’s time to get to work. The photo world doesn’t need another Robert Frank or Annie Leibovitz, it needs something new. Thanks for reading.

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