February 15, 2018

Creating “Honest Work”

In the many conversations I have with myself, I frequently refer to the concept of creating “honest work.” So what does “honest work” mean to me?

• It is work that I have created from my Vision
• It is work in which the idea originated from within.
• It is work that was created for myself with no thought of pleasing others.
• It is work that I love regardless of how others feel about it.

“Honest work” has become my most important standard. It is a test that I apply to myself and to my work to ensure that I am staying true to the principles that allow me to follow my Vision.

When I create work where the ideas and Vision are mine, then I have confidence in my creations. But when I am creating to win awards, gather likes and to please others… then the satisfaction is shallow and fleeting. Each “like” must be followed by another and another and another in order for me to believe that my work is good.

Creating honest work is the only way that I choose to work because it guarantees internal satisfaction. My work may not be liked by others, it may not win awards and it may not sell…but when I look at it I am proud of what I’ve created.

But for all the benefits that come from creating honest work, there are some things that it cannot guarantee. It cannot guarantee that my work will be unique or that it will be liked.

I’ve created two projects that I considered to be honest work only to find out later that were very similar to other people’s work.

The first was my Grain Silo series which was the first portfolio that I submitted to LensWork. Brooks Jensen responded that they had just published a very similar body of work by a photographer named Larry Blackwood. Ironically Larry and I knew each other and we were both working on our projects at the same time, unbeknownst to one other. (1)

I had created honest work, but it was not unique work.

The second example occurred just recently. For the last several years I have been working on a portfolio entitled “The Dunes of Nude.” The idea was honestly conceived and executed, but when I submitted it to LensWork it was rejected and I was told that they frequently see work just like this. (2)

Creating honest work did not guarantee that my work was unique.

Was I disappointed when I discovered that my work wasn’t unique? I was disappointed that it didn’t make it into LensWork, but I was not disappointed with the work itself because in a way the work really was unique…not unique to LensWork or the photo world, but it was unique to me.

Unique to me…what does that mean?

It means that I came about the idea on my own, I was not influenced by another photographer’s work and I created the images through my Vision. It was an honest creation, it was unique to me.

But shouldn’t my goal be to create work that is unique and different from everyone else’s? Unique is good, but only if it’s a by-product of an honest creation.

There’s something else honest work cannot guarantee: even if you follow your Vision, create for yourself and produce unique work…there is no guarantee that people will like it!

For a long time I believed that if I was sincere, worked hard and created passionate work from my Vision…that I would have a shot at becoming the next Ansel Adams!

However, that just ain’t so folks.

I have come to accept that the work that I create appeals to a very niche audience. And as long as I am true to my Vision and create honest work, my audience will remain small. But that’s okay because it’s more important that I love my work than to have a larger audience.

Would I like to have both? Absolutely! But I cannot control both sides of that equation, I can only control what I do…and I choose to create images that I love.

On my journey to find my Vision, I listed ten things that I was going to do that would assist me on this journey (http://www.ColeThompsonPhotography.com/2014/05/09/finding-Vision/) One of those items was to create only for myself regardless of the consequences. I recognized that in order to create from my Vision, I had to exclude all opinions except my own. I had to have what I refer to as “pure motives” in order to create “honest work.”

Creating honest work allows me to create from my Vision and creating from my Vision allows me to create honest work. It’s a symbiotic relationship that works for me and while it does not guarantee external success, it does guarantee internal satisfaction.



(1) Brooks led a round table discussion on this topic in volume 76 and began the discussion with the story of Larry and I creating parallel work, calling it “Fellow Travelers”

(2) Some would argue that this is one of the many disadvantages of practicing Photographic Celibacy; you don’t know what work is being created by others. I don’t see this as a disadvantage however. Even if I knew what others were doing, how would that help me to create better or more unique work? My best strategy is to not worry what others are doing and try to create my best work from my Vision.

9 thoughts on “Creating “Honest Work”

  1. Thanks again Cole for putting into words many of the things that I feel about photography. I do enjoy viewing other photographers work, going to exhibitions and even watching how trends in photography over time change. But put a camera in my hand and I have my own vision, I have thought through my project and this is open to change, I let it develop with the vision so even if it does look similar to another photographer’s work, it is my own work and I get great plesure from it. Well put Cole.

  2. Thanks for another inspiring post, Cole.

    While I practice Photographic Celibacy, I do not practice Art Celibacy, as I look at the work of many painters and artists of mediums other than photography. It is from those artists that I get inspiration to create more abstract work. As I move toward non-representational work, I’m still struggling with solidifying my Vision. The challenge continues.

  3. Cole,
    If it’s not asking too much, would you comment further on Photographic Celibacy you discussed in the referenced past blog. You state you stopped looking at other photographer’s work so as to not immerse yourself in their visions. I find B&W intriguing and am inspired by your work as well as others like Michael Kenna & John Sexton. I study perspectives, composition, lighting, shadows etc rather than trying to replicate the actual image or even style. I recently returned from Death Valley where I made a photograph of a long straight road and was surprised to see your photo of the same road in your “for sale” group. We photographed the road from two very different perspectives, yours more close up, mine more distant. I like mine and yours equally. I didn’t say to myself “Damn, why didn’t I shoot it like Cole”. Furthermore, I wouldn’t go back to Death Valley and reshoot that scene to copy you. So, I don’t see reviewing the images of others as trying to copy their vision or even influence my own vision. In my mind, as someone relatively new to photography, this is part of my growth and learning process which allows me to build upon and refine my own vision. Your thoughts would be sincerely appreciated.

  4. Agreement here. If I were shooting entirely for likes and acknowledgement, I would have quit long ago for lack of satisfaction. Good thing I enjoy my own work, and that I enjoy capturing and creating it too.

  5. Another insightful post!
    Keep doin’ what you’re doin’! As I know you will. You have established (and practice) a good credo and approach that works for you.

  6. Cole,
    Your Honest Work ideas relate and support my approach.
    Very nice to read your articulation of your philosophy and approach.
    Thank you.
    Jim Amato

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