The Great Discontent recently interviewed photographer Theron Humphrey. In the interview, Humphrey recounts how his passion for photography developed, the adoption of his best friend — Maddie the Coonhound, and the legacy he hopes to leave behind with his life and work.
One idea from the interview that really resonates with me is revealed as Humphrey explains the evolution of his work over time. He confesses that his early work was very impersonal. During this time, he didn’t capture anything that he personally loved. He says of this, “All of my personal work from school had been pretty emotionless, similar to the German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher: emotionally removed, scientific, and matter-of-fact.”
The direction of his work took a dramatic turn when Humphrey received news that his grandfather was about to pass away. He decided to use his photography skills to capture his grandfather’s life on his farm. Humphrey admits that this was the first time his photographs “became intimate.”
By documenting something that he truly cared about — his grandfather’s life and legacy — he inserted a piece of himself into his work. Yes, he created work that held personal meaning, but it held meaning for others as well. They could relate to the story that these photographs told — they could share in Humphrey’s connection with his grandfather, they could feel the pain associated with his grandfather’s passing, they could learn the story of a great man — a story that might otherwise go untold. Humphrey remembers, “When I uploaded the photos to a little album on Facebook, my friends and family commented and liked them. Nobody had cared about what I was shooting before.”
To create something with meaning, it’s necessary to incorporate a piece of ourselves. After all, expressing ourselves is often viewed as the very definition of the creative process. If something of ourselves doesn’t make it into our work, it will most likely be cold, impersonal, and, therefore, unrelatable.
But, if it’s so obvious that meaningful work must contain a piece of ourselves, why don’t we all put something of ourselves into our work all the time? Why didn’t Humphrey do this from the very start of his career? One answer to these questions is that it’s scary — it’s scary to make work with deeply personal meaning and send it into the world for others to see. We fear that they could hate it and criticize it and, because we’ve inserted ourselves into it, it’s like they are hating and criticizing us.
Often our reaction to these fears is to keep our personal work all to ourselves and only reveal to the world the work with which we’re more detached. Technically, this is an okay strategy — it allows us to fulfill our desires to make personally meaningful work while also keeping us safe from possible emotional harm. But, sharing this work with others is better.
In fact, sometimes the work we’re truly passionate about — the work we make to express our hopes and dreams, our most secret feelings, or our craziest ideas — can incite something magical in the hearts of others as well as our own. And, isn’t the possibility of inspiring and relating to others worth the risk of a little criticism along the way?