5 Things Punk Rock Taught Me About Photography, Hard Work, And Everything Else

Don’t Follow The Trends, Follow Your Passion

“Everybody has a story to tell” ~ Joe Strummer

The Clash was a very self-aware band. Rather than fall into the very insular, rigid, and trend-laden ideals of what many felt punk music had coalesced into during the ’70s they broke away from the pre-conceived notions of the musical genre they had been a major part of establishing. Exploring a variety of musical and political ideas that the members of the band had become passionate about and incorporating them into their music allowed the band to breath new life into a genre that they helped define – and eventually re-define radically. The Clash’s incorporation of political issues, reggae influence, and dub music spoke to their passions, not to the blind adherence of the accepted “rules” of punk.

The Clash did not chase trends but rather they created new ones, leading and not following.There is very little point in creating impersonal work that adheres to the tenets and aesthetics of a style or movement that may already be on the way out by the time it is popular; rather, shoot and create what you are passionate about and incorporate what you love into your work. Transformation, re-invention, experimentation, exploration, innovation and enthusiasm should become key words in your vocabulary.

Shut Up and Do Something About It

“Talk Minus Action Equals Zero” ~ D.O.A.

Iconic Vancouver band D.O.A. have long espoused this simple and profound philosophy that I have written about before. A band as dedicated to spreading their resolute political beliefs and working for the benefit of a variety of social causes as they are to making music; D.O.A.’s edict of talk – action = zero is one of the most important lessons anyone, creative or otherwise, can learn. This is a complex lesson boiled down to a pure and simple statement, especially when stripped of the political and social connotations the band’s music has attached to it. Talk – action = zero  stands as a reminder to everyone of the importance of the simple act of doing.

For photographers it reminds us to cut the bullshit of talking about doing something and actually put in some sweat and effort into actually doing something.  Artistic posturing and theorizing about a dream project is a fruitless exercise without the follow-through to actually make it happen.  How many talented photographers do you know who have been overlooked and fallen by the wayside because they failed to market their work well? They can talk all they want about talent and opportunity, but without actually putting some sweat into creating and properly selling their work, all their words are meaningless. The same goes for creatives who talk constantly about their wonderful ideas and big plans, but are absolutely paralyzed with either fear or apathy when it comes to acting on these notions, leaving them with nothing but a desk full of half-finished projects, half-abandoned concepts and nothing tangible to show for it.

Don’t Fear Change, Embrace it and Make it Work For You

“Don’t accept the old order. Get rid of it”. ~ John Lydon

Early punk was often used to give a voice to those who were dissatisfied with the stultifying political and social climates they lived in, and there is a long standing tradition of music as a progressive voice that embraces change and innovation and not buying into the blind acceptance of old accepted norms.

We work in a field where epochal upheaval has become the norm. The changing standards of business, dialogue, aesthetics, and technology in the professional photography community have advanced so rapidly that the chaos and confusion that often accompanies change and regularly sparks growth and evolution is also paired with a good dose of fear and resistance.

I have seen so many run headlong into the inviting but suffocating embrace of nostalgia in an effort to turn a blind eye to changes just over the horizon. The simple fact is that the world is changing whether you like it or not, and hiding in terror is the least effective strategy you can employ to deal with these changes. There are enough cowering in the dark already; what we need now are voices and actions. We need voices that are willing to speak and act passionately, voices that are willing to experiment and explore in order to make these new changes work for themselves and others. Voices that are willing to act as educators and teachers for those that come after them. And voices that are willing to wholeheartedly embrace change and in the process affect and mold these new ideas into something new and beneficial. This can happen from the smallest personal interactions between creatives and clients  – all the way up to sweeping changes initiated by professional associations  Evolution is all about adaptation – and if you don’t adapt you die.

Do It Yourself

“Basically we just created our own label, but again we just did it to document our own music and create our own thing, so the major labels were just always out of our picture, we’re not interested.” ~ Ian MacKaye

From the beginnings of the punk scene there has been an interesting take on the DIY ethic as it relates to an anti-consumerist lifestyle, but even at the most basic non-political levels a do-it-yourself mentality has always been present. Having rejected or been denied the support network of corporate music, bands resorted to producing their own merchandise, recorded their own albums, distributed their own work, organized their own concerts in private residences instead of traditional commercial venues, and created their own merchandise. This adoption of this ethic by punks is also closely tied to the genesis of the ‘zine movement and the rise of independent alternative publishing.

There is no reason that the DIY ethic should not be present in your creative life.  You are not going to be able to work under ideal situations at all times, especially early in your career. When budget is an issue; teaching yourself basic electrical, mechanical, and computer repair work can be a huge money saver when it comes to maintaining your equipment. Learning to be a decent cook can save you money on catering. Educating yourself about the principles of design can not only save you  money early and help your work in your career but can prepare you to collaborate with more seasoned specialists later when working with a professional designer becomes a financial option. There are a ton of ancillary skills you can teach yourself that will not only help you grow as a creative entity, but as a person in general.

Most importantly it reminds you that ultimately you are responsible for your creative career’s trajectory and journey. No one is going to make your work for you. It is up to you to put the time into both conceptualizing projects as well as translating them into tangible results. Effort, dedication, follow-through, hard work, and sweat equity may sound like hokey boy scout ideals in an era when most people want to know how to best find their fame and fortune on reality television and social media, but they are basic and true tenets that should never be overlooked.

The Only Thing You Should Fear is Mediocrity

“The average is the borderline that keeps mere men in their place. Those who step over the line are heroes by the very act. Go.” ~ Henry Rollins

“Don’t do anything by half. If you love someone, love them with all your soul. When you go to work, work your ass off. When you hate someone, hate them until it hurts.” ~ Henry Rollins

It may be trite, but Henry Rollins will always be the embodiment of pure work ethic to me. So many of his writings and words have served as my personal mantras for a long time. I could easily have written a whole blog post just on how his work has affected my own outlooks on creativity and hard work over the last few years, but for now I will settle with the two quotes above.

The nature of photography has changed. Clients are pushing more and more to commoditized creativity, and the widespread distribution of affordable creative technology and tools has pushed us into an era where “good enough” is no longer good enough to stand out. The advent of readily available information online and access to tools once only available to professionals has created an explosion of individuals, some quite talented, that has oversaturated the market. No longer can we get by being merely average or acceptable. To be truly successful and valuable one has to push themselves constantly to rise above the rest in terms of skill and creativity, not price and technology.

So many photographers view this as the death knell of the industry and bemoan the loss of times past. Rather, we should be seeing it as a rallying cry. This is time to dig in and push ourselves  to rise above the white noise of the crowd to create something truly exceptional that will separate them from the pack. Good enough is a death sentence. Good enough is a commodity and not an ideal. Average should be anathema – strive to be exceptional.

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