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who do you create for?

Bird in the Bamboo

As we turn the page to this new year, I’ve been observing the ritual “best of 2013” posts along with the plethora of new projects being launched (mine included) and I’ve noticed a handful of declarations to start making pictures for oneself, to ignore the Likes, Shares, +1’s and retweets, and to push back from social media. There is irony in making that announcement on Twitter or to write a blog post and promote it on Social Media but that’s not what I want to focus on, instead I’d like to point you to an article on blogging I read yesterday. While the writer  gives two excellent pieces of advice on blogging, I’ve been practicing this approach in my photography for some time now.

First, write for yourself, both your present self whose thinking will be clarified by distilling an idea through writing and editing, and your future self who will be able to look back on these words and be reminded of the context in which they were written.

This idea of creating for yourself is very different from those who believe their photography is about self-expression when they say they are making pictures for themselves. It is at the same time more selfish but less narcissistic and I think it leads to much better photographs. When I am photographing, I am always looking for a better way to say something and sometimes when I make a photograph, I realize what I thought I wanted to say isn’t exactly what I really meant. That’s when I go back to the drawing board. A good example of this is my night market project. After photographing the market the first year, I decided the pictures were not right. The content just wasn’t there and when I went back the second year, my thoughts around what I wanted to say and how it needed to be said became clearer to me. And as I edit and write for this project, I am even thinking of going back for a third year. I must admit though photographing for the future me hasn’t been something I’ve done with any presence of mind. I do have a gallery of single photographs that are markers of my journey. I remember the details of how they were made and more importantly why I made them. I keep them upfront because I want to be reminded of the important lessons along the way as I learned to exercise my visual voice.

Second, write for a single person who you have in mind as the perfect person to read what you write, almost like a letter, even if they never will, or a person who you’re sure will read it because of a connection you have to them.

I remember several years ago sitting at my first Artist Round Table (ART) listening to writer Wes Cecil  explain his process and share some stories from his writing life. He spoke about having one person for whom he writes, a friend in Seattle who reads everything he writes and provides feedback. They are so mentally and spiritually connected that once Wes was writing a piece and his friend already knew without having any kind of conversation with him. Following that ART, Ray and I spoke about this approach to focus my work and to not get paralyzed because of contrary albeit well-meaning advice. Making pictures for just one person is actually very freeing. No pressure to please multiple people instead I can just concentrate on the work, make lots of mistakes, and still receive critical feedback to help me move forward. The trick here is to pick that single person with great care and once you’ve done that, commit fully to this notion. I’ve seen people try this but the allure of validation from multiple sources is more attractive and they lapse back to creating (less successful) pictures they think will gain more attention. I’m not unlike many others with the same insecurities we all feel around wanting to be accepted but I just reached a place where the desire to make better pictures was far greater than needing to have this approval. That’s why making pictures for just one person in mind is good enough for me.

As you begin the new calendar year, I hope this advice can be useful to you.



  1. Tim A.
    January 7, 2014

    Back out from lurking on your blog for a while. Friend of Ellie’s 🙂

    I’m glad you are addressing this. It’s interesting to see how people go about sharing their work or writing their blogs. I’ve always shot for myself. While my “Photo a Day” thing that I started back in 2009 was partially to let my parents in Japan know their son is alive (…seriously…they freaked when I missed a day after months of posting regularly…), I never expected anyone else to be looking. Even on Facebook it never bothered me if my shots didn’t get any “likes”. But after a while, I realized I had a substantial number of people looking…just not commenting or liking.

    Then it took me a while to push that thought out of my head and continue like I was before rather than trying to get validation from a mass of people that will never give me one anyway as they just look but not participate. Social media inherently is…well…social. But I still think, in terms of work, it’s far better not to try to please the audience but only please yourself. Though I use social media like a friend nagging you to go to the gym. Just a tiny bit of pressure to post semi-regular.

    Now…with that said…I really need to get back into shooting again… Thanks for the blog post. Happy New Year as well!

    • Sabrina
      January 7, 2014

      Thanks for popping in Tim. Any friend of Ellie’s is a friend of mine 🙂

      Your comment made me realize I probably need to write a follow-up post at some point. This was more about the “who” we make photographs for but there is also a “why”. The line between the two is blurry but it is an important distinction to make.

  2. Ed
    January 7, 2014

    This is extremely good advice. I am maybe particularly prone to the second piece and do try to consciously avoid that trap up front and hope I am generally successful even while soliciting/accepting remarks, advice from elsewhere. Though Ray mentors me also, ostensibly I don’t think I make pictures for him; I think I make them for Alli, and Alex. It’s very interesting to think about that… more tk

    • Sabrina
      January 7, 2014

      Your comment leads me to wonder if we can see/feel this in our pictures or in pictures made by others and how we might recognize it or if we even can. I definitely believe we can see when that is absent though…

  3. Seeing the wood from the trees
    February 7, 2014

    […] Over the last few weeks I took an unofficial sabbatical from blogging.  It was so unofficial that I didn’t even tell myself.  Instead, somewhere deep in my subconscious I was looking to answer the answer to a question posed by a fellow blogger about who do you create for? […]

  4. Rhythms of Writing
    June 18, 2014

    […] audience requires a level of rigour that is under appreciated. Thinking about this, I remembered a blog post from a fellow blogger who I admire. Sabrina posed the question “who do you blog for?” […]


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