October 4, 2012

What is Vision?

Recently a friend told me of her frustrations as she sought to find her Vision and this brought back memories of my own journey. For years I was confused as to what Vision was and frustrated because I didn’t know how to find mine. 

I use the word Vision so much that I forget how hard of a concept it was for me to initially understand. For most of my life I struggled to find myself photographically and people would frequently tell me that I just needed to “find my own Vision.” But what was “Vision” and what was “My Vision?” Did that mean I needed to develop a specific technique, a particular look or a unique style?

I had absolutely no idea how to find my Vision. I was told that I had to keep working at it, but how? It was frustrating because it was such a nebulous concept and I had no idea how to proceed.

And the truth was that I wasn’t sure that I was capable of having Vision. I was raised in a home where the arts were not emphasized and I never developed creative skills; instead I was logical, methodical and gravitated towards mechanical things. I wondered if  some people were just naturally creative and others were not, and feared that I was in the “not” category.

The good news is that not only did I find my Vision but I am absolutely convinced that everyone has one. It may be buried deep under a lot of “stuff” and it may be atrophied from lack of use, but it is there and you can find it.

What is Vision? It is the sum total of my life experiences that makes me see the world in a particular way. Because my experiences are different than yours, my Vision will be different than yours. And since my Vision is based on my experiences, it will change with time.

Vision is what makes me see an image that others may not see, or see it differently. Have you viewed a great image that was created where you had photographed before? I used to wonder why someone else could see that image and I could not, I believe it’s because we have different Visions. The good news is that  it works both ways and sometimes you’ll see an image where others do not. The important point is that you should pursue your Vision and not try to see what others see.  

Because Vision is simply your experiences and how you see life, I am convinced that everyone has one. It just needs to be discovered. Sometimes that is hard because it can be buried beneath a lot of “stuff” such as self doubt and a lack of creative experience, as was in my case. But I found mine and am absolutely convinced that each person is capable of finding theirs too.

So how did I go about finding my own vision? I had this idea that to follow my Vision was synonymous with following my heart and so I took all of my images and divided them into two piles; ones that I REALLY loved and everything else. I purposely ignored “good” images or ones that others liked and ones that sold the best because I didn’t want to consider what others thought, I only wanted to consider what I thought.

Then I started studying those images to understand what they had in common. I noticed that when I was doing what I loved and pleasing myself, my images had a particular look and mood. I also noticed that what I was photographing and how I was photographing was changing; I was moving away from my landscape roots and creating a different kind of work.  

Once I found my Vision, there was still a challenge, and that was to religiously follow it. I was so used to copying others, pleasing others and following trends that I had to train myself to only pursue images that followed my Vision. When you copy others, the best you can ever hope to achieve is being a great imitator. When you seek to please others, you end up not pleasing yourself. When you follow trends, you are like the blowing grasses which are buffeted by every wind.   Following your Vision is the only way to achieve satisfaction.

Over the course of two years (it was a slow and painful process) I found my Vision. It was not a “Eureka!” moment, but rather it crept up on me slowly until one day I just realized that I had one. I cannot put my Vision into words, but now I understand it and what was once so mysterious now seems so simple. 

Finding my Vision gave me a tremendous feeling of freedom and confidence. I no longer felt constrained or bound by the opinions of others, I was free to create what I wanted and how I wanted, regardless of who liked it. The most important thing was that I was happy with my work. Finding your vision does not guarantee critical or financial success, but it will bring about personal satisfaction. Ironically, as I stopped caring what others thought and created for myself, my work became more popular with others.

Vision is more important than your equipment, your location or your processing techniques. Vision is the most important ingredient in a great image and I am absolutely convinced that everyone can find theirs.




23 thoughts on “What is Vision?

  1. It’s all confusing this Vision thing. So Cole is your vision an image that you have taken that you absolutely love and can be on any subject? I love your work and came across your website and blog a few years ago by funnily enough typing into Google “Fine Art Black and White Photography” after having a semi meltdown because I was sick of the infighting and gearhead type posts on DP Review. I wanted something different and something that I have a passion for. I found it in your blog, work and website.

    So back to Vision.I mean you have a picture of a man reading a book on a pier (who I once thought was you but his name is Gabriel?) then you have a picture of a Turtle. Both great images. It’s not just a picture of a man and it’s not just a picture of a Turtle either. They certainly aren’t snaphots, but fineart.
    Actually I’ll stop right there because I don’t know what I am talking about or trying to say.

    Not sure what my vision is, but I recently printed off a picture that I had taken of a lone surfer walking out into the waves. It was almost like a church, a surfers morning worship with the sky and sea. It looked great in a pale diffused colour. But for a local Exhibition I printed it off in mono, my partner disliked it preferring the coloured version. I stuck to my guns and won first prize. $150 thankyou very much and two of my other images were highly commended. As for my Vision who knows what it is!

  2. Thank you for sharing your vision and thoughts Cole. The only subtle point that I’d like to make as an educator is this. I feel there is a time when copying and studying others is acceptable. This is when someone is learning their craft. Other than that I totally agree with your thoughts on vision. It really is individual. Those who have a unique “style” and they are few, have done what you share here. They are not chasing a vision or style based on what they’ve seen. Instead, they are photographing what appeals to them! They are experimenting and playing with techniques and processing that makes them happy…. and all of a sudden they are creating images that make their heart sing.

  3. Fabulous post, Cole! The work will always be stronger if it’s personal, mechanics are just not enough. Art is not just an end result, it is a process- a process of self discovery and expression. We all need to take advantage of our uniqueness, our individual way of seeing the world, and let that shine in our photography!

  4. Cole, thanks for a terrific post. You are so right. Vision is more important than equipment. Additionally, equipment and technique can interfere with vision, and can dampen it. Finding one’s vision in photography is complicated by the need to have some technical control. It can be a struggle, I think.

  5. Well put!!! I like to link my “Vision” with the way I “see” things that just stand out to me as images for photographs. Then, my energy goes into creating an outcome that reflects what I “saw.”

  6. John, thanks for your comment on “a time for copying.” I am frequently challenged on this point and I do wrestle with this concept myself.

    If I were to be completely honest; I do not think copying should ever play a role in creative development. I know that many believe that art is evolutionary and that we build upon the work of others, but I think we continue to grow DESPITE of our copying, not because of it.

    I think that copying is never the best way to learn. Yes, we all do it, I do, we cannot help it. We have millions of images stored in our heads that we cannot escape, and we cannot help being influenced by them! But to purposely copy in the name of learning…I don’t think that’s the best way and it certainly is a hard habit to break later (speaking from experience).

    But, and I’ll be completely honest again, the one thing I have learned in my life is that I don’t know squat! And what I think “I know” today, will generally change and tomorrow I’ll look back and say “well I was wrong, I guess I shouldn’t have been such a big know-it-all!”

    As an educator, you certainly have been trained to teach and have observed how people learn, and so I will keep an open mind and try to understand and appreciate this point of view.

    Unfortunately I tend to see things in Black and White!

    Thanks for opening that topic John.

  7. Interesting reading, and timely for me personally. For the first time since I started pursuing photography in a more serious and deliberate way, I feel like I’ve been stuck in a creative block. For a while, it seemed like my work was coming together nicely and I didn’t worry about vision so much. Lately, it seems like the work is not coming together so well and I’m wondering where the vision went that seemed so natural early on. It’s helpful to read the insights of others on this topic. Thanks!

  8. Misha, don’t worry, everyone goes through those phases. What has worked for me is to appreciate that this is a part of the creative process, and that sometimes we let our fields lie fallow to rejuvenate them.

    Enjoy the change of seasons and don’t sweat it. Worrying about it never makes it better!

  9. Dear Cole thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us. Sincerely I also dazzle in so many subjects and still do not find my own vision. While reading your thoughts it gives me strength to continue my journey and hoping one day the Vision will appear. Thank you for this Cole!

  10. I found this entry thought provoking at this time in my photography journey. I have defined my quest for vision as being able to “see with my own eyes” and not the eyes of others. Your thoughts somewhat echo that. I am trying hard to not look at others works except with an eye to technique. While taking images that strongly appeal to me, I am asking myself why. So, as I continue down the road of vision as a journey and ultimately a destination, I will think of your words. Thanks for interesting thoughts.

  11. Hi Cole – Great post! Thank you so much for expounding on this concept. I find it somewhat mysterious, though I may be on the verge of “finding it”. Many years ago, I tried to “find” God and spirituality, so I opened up a Bible and started reading at page 1. I only made it to page 5 and realized that it wasn’t the kind of thing I could find by actively pursuing; it seemed the harder I looked for it, the farther away it got. Once i relaxed about it, and let it happen, it came to me. Does that make sense? Maybe it’s the same way with Vision. Just keep practicing and it will come. Thanks again. Your words inspire, as always.

  12. Thanks for your thoughts on this. For me, my vision is a mirror of not so much what I “see” but what I “feel”. When a subject strikes my soul with emotion then it becomes my vision of what I’m seeing. It’s very personal and certainly not global.

  13. Thanks for sharing the process you used to find your vision, so often the advice is to just take lots of pictures and it will develop with time. I like your approach of studying only the pictures YOU love to help figure it out. While I haven’t purposely copied other people’s work and fully subscribe to following your heart and shooting what appeals to you, I do try techniques that other people use. Lately I’ve been rather uninspired by my results, finding many images flat. Thanks for pointing out a direction to figure out what I’m searching for.

  14. Very well stated Cole. Perhaps it as Lao Tzu stated in the Tao Te Ching about the good traveler. If so then perhaps artistic vision is the evolutionary bi-product of one’s individual journey enjoying each step along the way, with no preconceived destination. As always thanks for sharing your journey with us.

  15. A great post on Vision, Cole.

    I would like to add that shooting a project (or series) will help develop that Vision.

    Too many newcomers to photography strive to get that one great image – I don’t think it works that way.

    Creating one beautiful image, and creating a meaningful series of images is a different thing.

    If you are passionate about a subject, your beliefs and values will shape that Vision. It should be effortless.

    To paraphrase Seth Godin –

    “Art is original. Art is a gift. Art is a personal gift that changes the recipient. If no one experiences it, there can be no change. If there is no change, there is no art.”

    “Art is the product of emotional labour. If it’s easy and risk free, its unlikely that it’s art. The medium doesn’t matter. The intent does.”

  16. Cole…excellent discussion on Vision. Some may disagree, but, for me, if don’t channel my vision into my photography, then all I’m doing is wandering around taking pictures.

  17. Thank you Cole for this illuminating post.

    Vision and Style are two illusive terms for photographers.

    Years ago I was interested in trying to establish my style. I spent many hours wondering what my style was, I reviewed many of my images, I made notes, and read books about art and photography history and I still couldn’t put my finger on what my style was. I eventually gave up, I decided instead of defining my style I would simply make images that interested me.

    Without giving style a second thought, I made hundreds, even thousands of images over many years. Eventually I discovered that I was making images in a way that was unique to me.

    I don’t believe I’ve fully discover my Vision, but I do know what direction I want my vision go, and I’m working toward that direction with each day of shooting.

  18. Very interesting read, Cole. I always thought there is not much difference between the challenge a poet or writer and a photographer has. Isn’t it about “having something to say”? And first I thought “having to say something” means to spread incredible news, stunning stories, never seen or heard facts. I wanted to impress because I felt this is the only concept that legitimates being a poet/writer/photographer.

    When my first son died, my life, in the same time, forced me and invited me to rethink “what I have to tell”. Photography became much more intimate. Suddenly, I felt my story is always worth telling. I simply cannot expect the whole world to read and admire my story. So, vision to me became something that is much more a dialog with myself and photography has become one vehicle for this dialog.

    Doing away with the concept of “hunting things that are worth to tell” frees the mind. Just as you write: telling the own story, telling about everyday encounter is key. The only real obstacle in doing so is the feel, that the story isn’t going to be published on mainstream news media front pages. Developing a vision is, imo, a process of becoming honest with your own interests and getting in touch with your own feelings and becoming open to the countless wonders that happen everywhere every second of every day.


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