“The reward for conformity is that everyone likes you but yourself.” – Rita Mae Brown
Sunset, Canyon Junction, Zion National Park. On any given weekend, Spring, Summer, or Fall, photographers gather before dusk on the bridge facing south towards the iconic sandstone monolith, The Watchman. Below, the Virgin River carves a gentle curve amidst cottonwoods draped over her banks. These photographers are here hoping to capture a specific moment; a dynamic sunset over the Watchman complemented by the leading line of the river. It is a photograph that sits in the postcard display of every gift shop within 25 miles of the park.
Welcome to the Sheeple. The culture of compositional conformity and copycatting that plagues popular photography.
The Sheeple are not just newbies, tourists, point and shooters, or self-proclaimed iPhone-ographers. They include passionate amateurs, workshop groups, even seasoned professionals, mostly men, planted on that bridge, tripod legs entwined, trying to nail “that” shot.
To be fair, we all are Sheeple at some point in our journeys. Whether new to photography, or anything really, we learn through degrees of inspiration and emulation. There is usually a standard, a level of someone else’s accomplishment, that we initially aspire to. And, in popular landscape photography, the images often aspired to are known compositions of familiar beautiful places that can now, thanks largely to the Internet, be easily interpreted or guided to. And this hunting down and capturing of these already captured images is what many photographers do. It has become routine.
“So what?” you say. What’s wrong with people taking similar photographs? They’re having fun. They aren’t hurting anyone.
I, respectfully, beg to differ.
The ubiquity of photographic technology, amplified in the digital age, is a long standing blessing and curse. Unlike, say, dance or sculpture, one’s entry into photography is a relatively quick and easy path. Buy a camera, go to a pretty place, snap the shutter, you have a pretty picture. That cycle can go on pretty much unabated. More pretty places, more pretty pictures. But, eventually, you arrive at a style in your photography that, disappointingly, looks similar to everyone else. You have, perhaps unwittingly, taken a too easy path to visual cliché. And that path puts you on a bridge with 50 other photographers, attempting to capture an image that, if reflected upon, offers little that is new or compelling.
So, to the question, who do the Sheeple really hurt? They hurt themselves.
Emulating styles or copycatting popular images may earn you Facebook or Instagram likes, maybe even some actual print sales. But it will not, over time, result in a genuine sense of accomplishment. In other words, it’s not going to make you happy. It will not fulfill you. Instead, it accomplishes just the opposite. It slowly robs you of creative integrity and an accompanying sense of self-worth. It denies you the opportunity for personal growth. Many of the photographers caught in this cycle, eventually lose interest and quit.
True growth in photographic ability necessitates, demands even, growth in yourself. The aspiration to be better, to deepen your knowledge, your craft, requires a personal commitment to move beyond the Sheeple. It means making an honest evaluation of your work and asking the question, “Does it reflect unique perspective?” Does it reflect what I love? Does it convey a depth of intimate understanding and insight? If you’re caught in the Sheeple, an honest answer will invariably be “no”.
The fork in the road represented by the “no” is a gift. The realization is the very opportunity to shed the Sheeple mentality and enter a new path of photographic growth. To the wholly committed, your practice and approach starts a new phase. Accepting and becoming more attune to yourself empowers you to become more intimately attune to subject matter. And vice versa. The relationship is reciprocal. You begin to explore, discover and work with greater intention and mindfulness. The subject matter, and your relationship to it, informs, deepens, and expands your photography. You practice with the knowledge you will make lots of not particulary good photographs in order to occasionally make great photographs. And, yes, eventually, great photographs will come.
This, I believe, is the essential path one must follow to achieve mastery. To find the artist within.
It is a path, while stuck in the Sheeple, one can never know.