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. 

Not easy

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

Practically perfect in pink!