What is the purpose of the drive?

“Anyway I wrote the book because we’re all going to die.”
– Jack Kerouac reading from On the Road and Visions of Cody on the Steve Allen Show.

I listened to Craig Tanner’s podcast on Finding the Heart of Your Work. I’m impressed that Craig saw the original article as a challenge, and was able to see this dark time of questioning as a smaller phase in a larger creative process. I’ve had a lot of teachers in many different disciplines throughout my life, but nobody has been able to succinctly communicate the idea that we can acknowledge the darkness, find some learning there, and proceed with a plan to move on. I’m working on it.

I like Craig’s idea of a “purpose statement” rather than an artist statement for photography. The world doesn’t need any more “I’ve always loved to photograph. My father gave me an Instamatic when I was 5 years old….” clichés. But a purpose statement — that sounds useful.

Craig talks about acknowledging our frustration with the gap between how our pictures look now and how we’d like them to be, and using a purpose statement to stay on track. I want to clarify that I’m not worried about making better photographs. That’s not the gap for me right now.

Craig’s discussion of pushing your limits, shooting beyond comprehension, kicking the fear of failure to the curb — this is what I was talking about in my original post. Ninety miles an hour in the dark with no hands on the wheel until you catch the glimmer of the next stop out of the corner of your eye, grab the wheel, push it up to a hundred and head towards the light.

Tuning in to these glimmers, writing them down, and creating the time and space to explore them is what will keep fueling the engine. I’m doing that with gusto. I’m also pouring a lot of stimulating music, film, and art into the tank. The car is running great. The gap is existential. The question is “what is the purpose of the drive?”

And yes, sometimes we need to spit shine the car and take it to the show and hope that people think it’s pretty. There is certainly some learning we can do at the show, but that’s really just a pit stop on a much bigger trip.

So back to the idea of a purpose statement. How many of you can clearly and concisely explain the purpose of your photographs? Two sentences maximum. No biographical information. This is not an artist statement. What do you want to communicate with your photographs and to whom? It’s a tough question. I’d love to hear your answers.

11 thoughts on “What is the purpose of the drive?”

  1. I agree with Craig Tanner’s reference to Ted Orland’s “Art and Fear”. Orland discusses this issue much better than I could ever summarize. Ironically, Brooks Jensen’s recent podcast also recommends this particular book. This book may not be the perfect answer to this question, but it helped me with this question more than any particular book (or blogpost, or whatever…) that I’ve come across so far.

  2. Two sentence purpose statement copied and pasted directly from my web page:
    “The nature of ShadowOfLightProject’s night photography, through the bending lengths of time onto one frame of film opens a new dimension. Instead of replicating what the eyes already see, SOLP uses the camera and film to open an entirely new reality for sometimes even the most mundane objects.”

    I have always tried to detach myself from SOLP. Therefore, the purpose of the photography has been easier to separate from myself.


  3. I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot over the past few days. This morning I was listening to the latest podcast on Ibarionex Pecello’s The Candid Frame. He interviews photographer/teacher Marco Antonio Torres. One of the interesting comments that came up was when Ibarionex said, “Everyone is hungry for stories.” Marco replied that, “Telling stories is more important than mission statements.” He goes on to talk about how successful photography succeeds as a form of storytelling. I’m thinking about replacing all of my mission/purpose statements with a storyline, or a story summary that verbalizes what I want to say.

  4. Hi Andy – I picked up a copy of Art and Fear, and I’m really enjoying it so far. I’ll check out the latest Candid Frame podcast, too. We’re getting closer here — abandoned places are a metaphor, time exposures are a tool to study the metaphor, and telling stories from the zone between waking/dream states is the goal.

    SOLP – your conscious decision to separate your work from the person behind it has always interested me, and I’m beginning to see why. There are already plenty of egos in the photography world to go around. It’s a thought provoking idea to present the work under more mysterious circumstances. Less ego and more mystery. Cheers indeed!

  5. Interesting and helpful blog. Statement from my website about my work. “I want my pictures to take me to another place”.

  6. “I was 11 years old when my grandfather taught me how to use his Pentax Spotmatic….” :-)

    Just kidding. However, I think for a lot of people, it’s just that. It’s a hobby. The purpose is to pass the time somewhat creatively and intelligently. It’s better than sitting on the couch, watching the crapola on TV, and stuffing their pie-hole with excessive calories. For these folks, the purpose of their photography doesn’t go much deeper.

    But in all seriousness, here’s my answer summed up in two lines:

    “I photograph because I want to do so on a very deep and personal level. I have an overwhelming desire to visually communicate and share my meaningful and emotional experiences in nature with other people.”

    If you’d asked me what my photographic purpose was several years ago, you would have received the “I was 11 when I first learned…” statement. I think I’ve grown photographically from the gear-loving, technically-oriented phase to the “meaningful” phase. I feel that my photos have grown from being just “cool shots” to images that really mean something.

    The tough part now is that the direction isn’t clear. The photographic and artistic worlds can be very abstract. And because different people can sometimes take completely different views and meanings from your work, you don’t always have a good indicator that you’re achieving your purpose.

    I love your analogy of taking a fast drive in the dark. That seems to fit well, and I feel about the same way. I’m actually not completely sure of where I’m going, but it feels good and it scratches that creative itch. I’m disappointed when I don’t satisfy my purpose, but at the same time, I don’t care. The ride is still exhilarating.

  7. I just want to have fun and I haven’t wavered from that in 50+ years. I shoot what I see and like to share it with others that would like to see what I see. Life and photography is pretty darn simple if you don’t over think it!

  8. “My purpose as a photographer is to inspire others. Through teaching photography and sharing my work I connect people with nature and beauty and JOY.”

    So when an opportunity comes up I first determine if it is true to my purpose. I believe by staying focused on my purpose it will lead to my bigger goals and dreams. Keep me pointed in the right direction.

    TJ brings up a good point regarding the indicators that you’re achieving your purpose. I think if your purpose includes an external measurement it’s your ego demanding a means to an end, a specific goal, or measurement of “success”, which is in the future. TJ, you do have a very meaningful purpose, now the next step is to determine HOW you fulfill your purpose. It may be many steps or phases. So as long as you’re making progress today, right now, you’re on track!

  9. To me, asking the question “defining my purpose in photography” takes me back to my much days in school when a teacher would say a word and then say write a composition of 2500 words on the “word”. I get brain freeze and just sit here think of what to say. It is like finding that “first sentence” when getting to write or maybe what key to I want my next piece of music to be in. Photography, to me, is just a whole lot of fun (I don’t depend on it for a living), a lot of challenge (technically as well as compositionally) something to share with friends and fellow photographers.

    So, my purpose in photography is, first of all, just having fun looking at the world in a different way each time I shoot, continuing education in the use of the camera as well as how to put what I see, into a composition that someone else might enjoy looking at, allowing my photography to fill a gap in my life with the joy of seeing in a new way. Hope that isn’t too cliche but it comes from the heart. Now, I must add more joy to my life, grab the camera and head for the hills.

    Thanks for your site Joe and for forcing us to think about our purpose in photography and actually putting that purpose into words. I am sure parts of my purpose with change over time, as I also change over time but the idea of developing a purpose is such a great thing to get into.

    And I would like to thank Craig for sending us to your site.


  10. TJ – Your statement really boils things down to the two reasons to make photographs. The first part is an instrument to examine something on the inside by looking at something on the outside. The second part is to use the resulting image to share the feeling with others. The ride can indeed be exhilirating. Sometimes we can just get in the car and go. Right now I’m trying to find a map to figure out where to go next.

    Murry – your spin on TJ’s comment is great. Maybe shooting and sharing is enough for a lot of us.

    Lucy – Thanks for your comment. As someone who’s done a lot of project management, I’m a strong believer in mapping your actions to your purpose. Right now I’m on a plateau where I can’t see a purpose beyond shooting and sharing. Again, maybe that’s enough, but I want to make sure.

    Wes – you’re not the only one who finds the question to be difficult – glad you found the purpose statement idea to be stimulating!

  11. Having fun and getting enjoyment out of photography is certainly a great purpose. Even the act of having fun, by itself, could be a valid purpose :-)

    Maybe that’s it. Maybe the reason we continue the fast drive in the dark is that it gives us so much enjoyment and fun. Maybe the path we follow is done somewhat blindly, but is really led by our desire for excitement, fun, and enjoyment.

    I can put it this way, if my photography wasn’t fun and enjoyable, then I wouldn’t be doing it :-)

    There’s also an extra something there, and I cannot explain it. The best way to describe it is that it’s a “creative itch”. It must be scratched!

Comments are closed.