I’m just a guy with a camera and I really have no freaking idea how I do what I do. The work comes from somewhere else. It’s a gift and I’m entrusted with it. I’m a vessel, nothing more. The more I realize that the easier it is for me to deal with the ups and downs of the creative life. I have a tendency to overthink everything. If something isn’t going the way I think it should be going, I want to “fix” it. For a long time, I thought this was my natural state. It took me a long time to realize that it’s really a learned behavior.

Encounter With A Young Artist

Recently, a good friend was telling me about her 8-year-old daughter, who has had some trouble “fitting in”. It turns out that the young girl has a seriously artistic view of things. She’s very sensitive. She sees and feels things that other people miss. That sounds familiar. She draws and paints and gets lost in herself while she’s doing it. That also sounds familiar. So, I invited my friend to bring her to the studio. I wanted her to see that she’s not alone, that she’s not a freak or a bad person because she’s different, and that there are lots of other people just like her.

This made me wonder what my own life would have been like if, when I was very young, someone had recognized my artistic nature and validated it. What if someone had said “Oh, you’re an artist!”, and had encouraged me to explore and develop myself in that direction? And what if what they really meant was that being an artist wasn’t a profession or a career or a way to earn extra money but was instead was a calling; a definition of who I was as a person? How different my life would have been! What I got instead was essentially “Oh that’s nice, but what are you really going to do with your life?” So I began to think of my youth as a time of preparation for a more “normal” way of living. The subtle message to me was that life was to be viewed in essentially economic terms. The sum of my life was to be measured by my success in a suitable career and my ability to live and raise a family according to accepted standards. I was to do what was expected of me. I’m guessing that your life story is similar.

The only problem with that is this: you can’t change who you really are. You can suppress it and deny it, but it never really goes away. What happens instead is that a part of you goes almost dead and it takes other parts of you with it. You’re robbed of joy and of the fullness of a life honestly lived. That’s why so many of us come back to art when we’re older, after we’ve done all stuff we were expected to do. That entire part of who we are is un-lived. Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s never too late. Read this. I came back at 50 and I’ve learned more about myself and the world in that short time than in all the rest of my life. To get here, I had to sift through and strip away all the “normalizing” beliefs and behaviors I had picked up. And so I have a soft place in my heart for older artists who are returning to who they are. You’re not alone. I’ve walked that road the hard way and I’m here to help you figure it all out.

Why Your Photographs Are Important

“Artist” isn’t a profession or something you want to become. It’s who you are, at your core. We are different. We see the world differently and we see ourselves differently. For us, everything is viewed through that lens; everything is fuel for the creative fire. People who aren’t artists have a hard time with that because they can’t understand it. Their lives are based on a worldview so different from ours that we might as well be from another planet. But they’re in the majority, so society is arranged according to their view, and that view is increasingly based on strict economics. What that means is that artists are becoming increasingly marginalized. If you think that’s not true, try getting a project funded. It could be the most awesome project ever conceived and it may be the answer to all of our deepest questions but if someone can’t make money from it right away you’ll have a hard time. How much truly great work has died on the vine in this way? Despite the current thinking that artists and the arts are not important, we are needed now more than ever. Math, science, business, economics, etc. are taking over the world and we’re losing our soul because of it. Those things may give people the means to live, but what are they living for? Art provides the answers to that question. Without it, the world is a cold, gray place. It gives voice to passion, joy, love, fear, terror, beauty, and everything else we experience. Economics produces money and that’s it. It gives us no answers and no purpose. I’ll take the art, thank you.

That’s why your work, the photograph that you make, is important. Put simply, it makes you a better person and makes your corner of the world a better place. Why? Because you’re being who you truly are and you’re doing what you were meant to do. My job is to help you get to the bottom of it all so you can work out what your muse is trying to say through you. I do that by writing this stuff, by making videos for you, by encouraging you to go beyond what your eyes see, by pushing you to let go of thinking and engage feeling at the right time, and by sharing approaches and techniques that have worked for me and for my students.

The Young Artist, Epilogue

Yesterday, my friend brought her daughter to the studio at the school where I teach and we had a great time. Together, we set up a portrait session and she photographed her mom. We lit, photographed, culled, edited, and made a print. She witnessed other photographers at work and we talked about the stuff artists talk about while working. More importantly, she was exposed to a vibrant community of artists who saw her not as an 8-year-old girl, but as an equal. Each time she was introduced to someone, she was introduced as an artist. I told her it was ok to be different because she is different. And I told her to listen to that voice inside that tells her to do her work. She looked to her mom and her mom was beaming. That young girl now hopefully knows that she’s not alone, that we are out there, and that we support each other because we understand and the world doesn’t. And she knows that she’s welcome in my world any time at all.

If you know a young person who has artistic tendencies, be vocal and encourage them! Telling them anything else is the same as telling them that it’s not ok for them to be who they are. If you’re older and you’ve just re-awakened your inner artist, welcome back! Artists bring beauty and meaning into the world and we need more of them.


13 Responses

  1. Not many people really understood when I was running my business. Of course I had to make a living for my family but what I made and the relationship with my customers and the business was much more important than ‘getting rich’. Now I say to people “I’m not rich, but I don’t need to be”.
    Full marks, Jim and best to the girl and her mum.

    1. Hi Albert,
      Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment. It sounds like you are indeed a rich man. My hat is off to you, my friend.

  2. Hi Jim,

    “I’m just a guy with a camera and I really have no freaking idea how I do what I do. The work comes from somewhere else. It’s a gift and I’m entrusted with it. I’m a vessel, nothing more.”

    Amen to that. I never understood how I could shoot fashion when others couldn’t. I got more honest as I got older and clients took more Valium! When asked what I was doing I was wont to say “Haven’t a clue – I’ll tell you when I see the next polaroid” Only a love of landscape photography kept me half sane in that lunatic world in which I still didn’t fit because it was all money, money, money. Then I became a cripple through an accident and now almost exclusively photograph clouds because at least I can still look up.

    Thank you for taking the time to help that little girl. More kids who ‘don’t fit’ need such encouragement and lots of it.

    1. Hi Chris,
      Thanks for your note. The world IS crazy, isn’t it? It’s so hard for us to fit in and do our work. Your reference to your accident moves my heart. Please send me some of your work. I love to see what you’re doing and maybe have a chat or two. Stay strong, my friend.

      1. Hi Jim,

        Thank you so much for your replay. There’s a bit of my work at my small website http://www.chris-coughlan.com.

        I loved what I did too much apparently and charged way too little so I ended up broke both physically and financially. I now work with a second hand Canon 5D and a 28-135 zoom (all I could afford). I really miss my Blads (called Tweedledum and Tweedledee) but had to sell them long ago to pay bills – can still feel them in my hands! Discovering clouds and managing to get the old 5D was a real Godsend and helped me out of deep depression. You don’t get many second chances at a composition with clouds – they can move too fast and at three or more different levels.

        As you say, you can’t fight what you are or you go as crazy as the rest of the world. I have to create. I’m a tough old goat so don’t worry about me. You should have my email address somewhere in your system I think so drop me a line.



  3. Mr. Welninski, I really identified with this piece. My career is in the rear view mirror, but my life is in front of me. I doubt I’ll ever live up to the title of artist, but photography has given me an entirely different appreciation for those who create the things we admire.

    I’m so glad you gave this young girl a perspective that will serve her throughout her life. Thanks for sharing the story…Bruce

    1. Hi Bruce,
      Thanks for taking the time to write. None of us will ever live up to the ideal of “artist”. We just are who we are. And all we can do is use our gift to the best of our ability. I’m so glad to hear that life is in front of you. I hope you use your art to fuel that. If you do, then you are truly a real artist because that’s what art does: it brings meaning to life.

  4. Excellent post. I used to be checking constantly this blog and I’m inspired!
    Extremely helpful info specifically the final section 🙂 I take
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  5. I wish our school system encouraged art more. It’s vital to our very existence. Art soothes me in many ways. It helps me understand the world and why u am who I am. This story is definitely not the cliche ” the youth is wasted on the young”. I hope you and others keep encouraging this young lady. Knowing you, I know you got more out of this than probably that young lady. Great job my friend.

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