What Is the Meaning of Life, Photographically Speaking?

What Is the Meaning of Life, Photographically Speaking?

Today, I will definitively answer an age-old question. Or perhaps, more likely, pontificate on something that all people and all artists have been asking since the beginning of time.

I might as well just bury the lede here. I, along with every other scholar and theologian who’s ever asked the question, have no idea what the meaning of life is. It’s one of those unanswerable questions that everyone asks at some point during their existence. Most often, it is quickly followed by a deep dive into a gallon of ice cream watered down by dropping tears of despair as we realize just how daunting the complexities of life can be.  

Perhaps I’m biased, but I feel as though this question can get even more complicated when you are an artist. For the true artist, the passion to create is an addiction more powerful than any narcotic. The act of creation itself can give your life meaning, even if it’s hard to explain to your less creatively inclined cohorts why what you do matters in the larger scheme of things. Things get even more complicated if you make your living from your artistic pursuits. Now, mixed in with your drive to create meaningful work is the basic primal need to feed yourself and your family. Art and commerce make for strange bedfellows. And it’s easy to be confused when the ratio of hard work and talent to acclaim and financial success can seem unbalanced. As you are more than likely living in a world where at least half of the people you meet, upon hearing what you do for a living, either outwardly or inwardly seem to suggest to you that a more appropriate course of action would be to get a “real job,” and where a large amount of your time will be spent trying to convince actual clients with budgets that your work is of legitimate value as opposed to just a hobby you’d be happy to donate to them for free, the struggle to maintain confidence in your course is a real one.

Under such conditions, it’s natural for one to occasionally wonder what is the point of it all when every day is a fight. When you dedicate so much to your art that it becomes part of you. So much a part of you that the “value” of your work can sometimes become unconsciously entangled in your self value as a person. An endless grind to improve. An endless grind to be better today than you were yesterday, with absolutely no guarantee that the world at large will be able to tell the difference. So, what’s the point?

A couple weeks ago, I was watching a recording of an old Q&A session with a trio of female screenwriters. They were lamenting the rather arbitrary nature of Hollywood success. They discussed everything from the contradiction between commercialism and creativity to the battle to one-up yourself once you’ve had your initial success. They talked about how hard it was just to keep pursuing the craft knowing how many obstacles were stacked against their success. Then, one of the women offered a phrase that has stuck with me for weeks. She was a screenwriter, but this simple sentence applies to literally any artistic pursuit from filmmaking, to photography, to music, to painting, and beyond.

Simply put, she said that the only thing an artist can do is “create their body of work.” It sounds painfully simple at first. But, then again, most of the best advice is. Essentially, what she was saying is that it is ultimately pointless going through life trying to please other people, whether they be studio executives, art buyers, or just your Uncle Johnny in Detroit. No matter how hard you work, there will always be someone who will be unimpressed. There will always be a client who just doesn’t fancy your style. There will always be another artist winning more awards than you. There will always be dream projects that, no matter the merit, just don’t ever seem to come together. The odds are inevitably stacked against you as an artist. And taking every win or loss as either validation of your value or confirmation of your lack of it is a one-way ticket to depression.

How people react to your work is beyond your control. What is in your control is the power to focus on “creating your body of work.” What is in your control is putting in the hard work to make sure your work improves project-by-project, even if you’re the only one who notices the change. You might not have the power to make people love you. But you do have the power to constantly pursue your craft to make work that you are personally proud of. You’re not competing against every other artist in the world. Your only competition is yourself. How far can you stretch your talents? What can you do with the ability you were blessed with at birth? Have you taken your gifts and built upon them? Or, have you lost sight of the unique voice you were given and let those gifts go to waste?

All of which is to say that I think the meaning of life, artistically speaking, is simply to do the best we can with the dreams we’ve been given. The goal can’t be about financial gain or critical acclaim. Those things are nice, but far less in our control than we might like to think. But we can be determined to continue to create our body of work. We can commit to putting in the effort every day, regardless of the outcome, so that one day, when our days on Earth elapse, those we leave behind can look at the body of work and truly get a glimpse of the bigger picture.

Only you can make your dreams come true. Pursuing those dreams is what gives life the most meaning of all. Well, to me at least.  

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

Log in or register to post comments
Bob Bell's picture

Probably the best article I’ve ever read on here, nice one! :)

Patrick Hall's picture

Great insight. I think so many people find value and meaning in the actual photographs they take and that is definitely an important part of the art. But sometimes, when most of your work is commissioned and you are in the trenches just trying to make your client happy, you aren't always in love with the resulting work at the end of the day.

For me, one of the things that give me meaning and purpose as a photographer/director/artist/etc is solving the problems that present themselves on each particular shoot. It's it's a fast paced session then there are probably dozens of challenges as we walk around and just try to make something work. If it's a much slower session and you are locked into one location or the studio for an extended period of time, then you start solving very specific problems to produce the absolute best image possible. In many ways, this problem solving is what brings me back to photography over and over again.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

I think many artists, by nature, are problem solvers. Coming up with a new way, or a better way, to communicate and accomplish our goals.