What would it mean to me if I could create work that is worthy of my viewers’ time? What if I could create a toy photo that was more than what this scene looks like, but also what it feels like? It would mean I was creating work that is worthy of my audience.
Don’t shoot what it looks like. Shoot what it feels like.– David Alan Harvey
As many of you already know, before I was a toy photographer, I took photos of women underwater. I was interested in capturing a moment in time, an emotion, a gesture that normally remains invisible. Being underwater transported me and my model into another universe. By doing this I was able to pry us both loose from our preconceived notions of what a photo should look like. Because I believe there is more going on in this universe than our brains can imagine, I wanted a way to enter that world of the imagination.
Photography does deal with ‘truth’ or a kind of superficial reality better than any of the other arts, but it never questions the nature of reality—it simply reproduces reality. And what good is that when the things of real value in life are invisible?– Duane Michals
I believe in the imagination
Recently I had the absolute joy of listening to an interview with Duane Michals on the B&H Photography Podcast. Michals is in his 80s and he’s a hilarious and unpretentious artist. While he’s best known for his photography, he doesn’t know the first thing about how a camera works. For Michals, the meanings a photo holds are more important than any technique.
His words are a powerful reminder of the limitations of photography. I can easily create a photo, but can I make my viewer feel something? Can I capture a feeling, a moment in time, the unseen—not simply the scene that is in front of me? Can I capture those glimpses into another world with toys that I was able to “see” with my underwater work?
I believe in the imagination. What I cannot see is infinitely more important than what I can see.Duane Michals
Touch the heart
It’s easy to keep plopping toys down and taking photos for social media. I’m not immune to the dopamine hit that comes from the interactions and likes from a photo that lands strongly. But that is not the same as creating a photo that touches the heart. I was reminded of this by the photographer turned creativity evangelist David duChemin while listening to Episode #24 of duChemin’s A Beautiful Anarchy podcast.
In this episode he talks about creating work that touches the heart. Not just any heart, but the photographer’s heart first. If I can’t create a photo that comes from my heart and moves me, then how can I expect anyone viewing my photo to be moved? Every photo starts with an audience of one: me. If my images don’t move me, then how can I expect them to move you? I want to create work that is worthy of my audience’s time.
The world has enough photographs that show us what something looks like. Show us how it feels.– David duChemin
duChemin reminded me that creating work that has power requires a vulnerability on the part of the photographer. Anyone can create an interesting photo of a toy doing crazy, humanistic poses. I want to create a toy photo that reveals something about our mutual humanity. Of course, I’ve really made this hard on myself by choosing a toy that is predominantly yellow, has limited articulation and has a perpetually joyful attitude toward life. To create work that is worthy, I have to reach deep into my own vulnerability to capture images that will touch the heart of my viewers.
Just writing this out is a reminder that creating work worthy of our viewers’ time is not easy. But that’s ok, I’ve never done things that are easy. Besides, easy images don’t tend to be very rewarding.
I know from past experience, I don’t have to go on this journey alone. Besides books and podcast to inspire me, I also put a support and accountability system into place. My friend Kristina is my secret weapon. To have a talented friend who isn’t afraid to push me to reflect on not only what I’m doing, but why is a gift of immeasurable value.
She has invited me to join her monthly podcasts where we take a deep dive into a single word. These are challenging words, like Hope, Normal and Escape. Each discussion has revealed a new understanding of what we’re creating, but also work from our participating audience members. While not every individual attempt is a success for me, this journey is.
And practically speaking it is that work, the work with the most at stake, the work that contains a vulnerable piece of yourself, and the work that touches courageously on deeper themes, that solves a heartfelt worry or concern for others, it is that work which will command higher prices and get more attention, because we’re drowning in fluffy stuff right now. We’re being overwhelmed by the same-old same-old.– David duChemin
Am I successful?
Am I successful in my quest to create art that is meaningful to me and worthy of my audience’s attention? Sometimes. And that’s enough. This is a journey, there is no end game. The goal is to keep going and create work I’m proud of—work that not only captures a feeling but that is worthy of my viewers’ attention.
There are plenty of photos of toys in the world. But are there enough photos of joy?
Shelly this is a great article, i enjoyed every word of it. This is exactly what i want to achieve as a toy photographer. I know sometimes i’m not successful and i know sometimes i am. But this is what drives me and makes me doing it. Thank for sharing!
Marco we are like minded. It’s never quantity – its quality. I love your work and I applaud your commit to making it the best work it can be.
Great article, Shelly. Thank you for articulating my thoughts. I digested every word and like Marco, this is also what I want to achieve as a toy photographer…going beyond just shooting a nice picture. And thank you for introducing me to Duane Michals. I clicked on the podcast link immediately and I can so relate to him! I hope to be still shooting toys when I am 80!
I hope to experiment more and do things differently,..a challenge, but a most welcome challenge.
Sunny Im glad you enjoyed both the post and Duane Michaels. I think you both have a similar outlook on life!
YES! Fantastic post, Shelly. Like Marco and Sunny, this is something that truly speaks to me and puts into words something I myself haven’t quite been able to. I love your distinction of a photo being “worthy.” Not just of your audience’s time, but *your* time as well as an artist.
Since taking a break from social media and photography, I’ve had a lot of time to think about this very subject. Totally unplugged from that world and those expectations (even if they’re just expectations I put on myself), what now do *I* want to do? What photos speak to me, and what stories do I feel I need to tell?
I haven’t quite found the answer to those questions yet. And part of the artistic process is that we’re always searching for and re-evaluating those answers. I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one thinking about this, and pushing back a bit at what we’ve come to expect from this medium.
James Im glad you found some value in my musings. You are missed here in the toy photography community, but I understand a need to regroup and dig deep. I think the expectations we put on ourselves are far larger than any that are put on us by the community or the platform. But where ever you feel the pressure, a break is a good thing. Im sure that you’re turning this all over in your head, even when you’re not. Cheers and thanks for reading!
Wonderful words, Shelly- you’ve touched on something that I’ve always wanted to be able to do and only manage it on rare occasions. And now I am off to listen to Duane Michaels. Thanks for the link as well as this post!
Mary I think we all reach the pinnacle of “worthy” only a handful of times. They all cant be winners. But we find our way by making the mistakes. I hope you like the podcast as much as I did. What a character!!
What a wonderful post Shelly. I love this frame on toy photography and I enjoy the challenge. Personally, I think any photo that has meaning to the photographer is inherently “worthy,” and I love your push for us to join you in considering the emotional pitch of our pics. For me some are simply fun or joyful and others sometimes go deeper, or at least I hope so. The podcasts you and Kristina have created are wonderful teachers — and fun! I really enjoy each month. Hope you and yours are well in this challenging moment.
100% agree with everything you shared and like the others, I’ve added the Duane Michals to my podcast list to listen on my way home.
For anyone that hasn’t checked out “A Beautiful Anarchy” by David duChemin, I highly recommend it too! I find myself re-listening to some of his podcast to remind myself about reaching the deeper work that truly matters.
It’s a constant reminder to pull away from the “dopamine hit” (I love how you called it out in your article) and to ask myself, “Why am I doing what I’m doing with this hobby?”
Janan – social media is a dopamine hit! Plus it rewards work that appeals to the masses or to some hidden algorithm. A photo that is liked has no more importance than a photo with a fraction of the likes. We live in a weird world where we have to rise to a higher internal judgement. Which as we all know, isn’t easy.
I love getting a fresh perspective from creatives that are from different disciplines or are farther along in the process. I feel less lonely. Beautiful Anarchy is a wonderful resource for that perspective.
Doug Im glad you enjoyed the post. If you find the photo worthy, then so do I. We are our own worst critics. And a photo that digs “deep” is no more worthy than a photo that is simply fun. Fun is sadly missing these days, so I applaud whimsy and silliness alongside those deeper subjects! Stay safe and sane my friend!
I would like to know if I am infringing on copyright when I photograph toys. I have some disney and WWE figures. Please someone let me know what issues if any do I have. Great article.
Linda – Im sure you’re infringing on someones copyright if you are photographing a toy from a Disney IP or WWE figures. But they are your toys and you can do with them as you wish. If you start making money from your photographs, that is when the waters turn muddy. But if you can keep your images firmly in Fan Fiction territory you should still be ok. If you really want to be safe I wouldn’t mention anyones IP, Movie, Franchise etc….trading on another companies “good will” is where the lawyers will get you. That’s the quick response, I hope it helps.
“Worthy” is my filter on the idea stage. When I don’t feel the idea I don’t even try to take a photo. Sometimes it happens when I have a picture already. I try to post pictures I want people to feel. I try to avoid posting only because I have a photo.
Thank You so much Shelly for this thought provoking post!
Thanks for your comment Tomasz! As long as you are posting work that is important to you, that holds up to your personal standards, then you are creating worthy work. Im pretty sure you are your own worst critique. Now go and enjoy that vacation!
I struggle with whether or not i should care if my work is worthy or not. In the end the best answer i can come up with is that worthy means that something accomplishes its purpose. So determining the purpose of the work is primary. Purposes can vary. They can range from trivial to world changing. I create a lot of trivial work, and very little world changing work and a bunch of work that falls between the two.
How does one judge this?
I guess you feel it. I often like things that are teivial, and if i acknowledge that it doesn’t have to have great meaning to me to be able to like something then im happy to share it. interestingly our photo print swap showed me that the work my partner found worthy was work that i posted as trivial work. So it’s best not to think about it too much, unless you are trying to build a brand on IG… then worthy takes on a whole new meaning. Ick. But necessary if you are in it for profit or the follows.
Lastly… how do i know something isn’t worthy? My wife tells me. She seems to know when something I’ve done isn’t up to whatever standard it needa to be to accomplish whatever it’s purpose is. Not that she tells me how every photo could be better (she could) but she seems to know when i haven’t done something justice. And she is almost always correct.