Happy to Be Me: Amateur Artists
For the past couple weeks I have been helping my friends at #StuckInPlastic by copyediting a series of essays on the “Why?” of Lego photography. Several of the contributors are not native English speakers, and from my days at MultiCultural Review, I am quite experienced at editing the writing of people for whom English is not a first language. These have been intriguing essays, from the perspectives of accomplished photographers from all over the world, who have offered some of their best photography to illustrate their points.
#StuckInPlastic co-blogger @xxsjc has some thoughtful pieces on motivation, a concern not only of photographers but of artists in all media. Writers, especially, struggle with motivation because the long odds of getting traditionally published and the disheartening road that one has to take to get there. Most of the time, queries and submissions to agents — the first step in the publishing journey once the manuscript is deemed ready — receive only form rejections or, as is increasingly the case, no response at all. An agent offers no guarantee that a manuscript will sell, or will even get a reading from an editor. Under these circumstances, it’s easy to give up and find solace in the day job or other pursuits that at least offer something to show for the effort.
Shelly (yes, @xxsjc has a name) has also written about validation, how artists look to the judgements of others to measure their success. As one of the moderators of Instagram’s #brickcentral, she has judged the very popular monthly contests and knows that many of those entering are looking for that validation. As she points out in her essay, the #brickcentral folks definitely have their taste, and those who win the contests certainly know what they’re doing as photographers. I think I’ve entered the monthly contests once or twice in the year and a half I’ve been on Instagram. I was tempted to enter the most recent one, which asked for photos of “My Ride” — Lego minifigures on vehicles constructed by the photographer. What scared me away was the byline in the rules and announcements, “…we remind you, we are looking for QUALITY pics.” I’ve learned enough over the past year from #stuckinplastic and elsewhere that the picture I wanted to enter had too many flaws, and I didn’t have the equipment, the time, or the expertise to fix them.
Instead, I created my own picture commentary on the contests and the larger issues of validation and motivation. It’s a takeoff on the Top Chef-style competitions. Like the professional photographers on Instagram — or me with my writing — one contestant has pursued her craft for many years. She wants to win — perhaps, she expects to win — and she is sorely disappointed at coming in second place. The other contestant cooks for the fun of it. Maybe one day she will be at the top of her field, but right now, she’s just happy to be part of the event and not ridiculed or asked to leave because of her lack of skill. She’s “happy to be me-diocre.”
That’s the way I feel about my Lego photography. I want to create something that will make others laugh the way it makes me laugh, that will make their day a little more fun, and that perhaps sheds light on current events or human foibles. I have no plans to enter contests, especially after learning my lesson by coming in last place in one of them, and don’t need contest wins for validation as a Lego photographer. I am an amateur and will probably remain that way. And I’m not ashamed of it, either.
For me, photographing with Lego is a form of fan fiction. In the past ten years or so, fan fiction has become quite popular among teen and adult writers, who create stories using the worlds and characters of their favorite books and share those stories with other fans. People have a good time doing it, and they build community among themselves and around books and reading. Some writers of fan fiction will go on to develop their craft and create their own worlds and characters. Many published authors, especially the younger ones, started out by writing fan fiction. But those who remain within the boundaries of fan fiction aren’t necessarily inferior writers. Maybe they stay where they are because they want to have fun, and they want to avoid having their writing become a competition with others for scarce rewards or a chore that infringes too much on other areas of their lives.
So let’s celebrate those artists who are happy to be here, who both have fun doing what they do and support and appreciate the work of others.
Well said, Lyn. Brava! And I love the analogy between your Lego photography and fan fiction. Fabulous.
Thank you, Sandra! It occurred to me last year when I was mentoring a teen writer who got started through fan fiction. She was in the process of beginning to write her own stories but still felt much more comfortable working within the boundaries of a TV show that she and her friends watched. As I became more involved in the Lego photography world, I also came to appreciate the kind of community that writers of fan fiction also enjoy.
Most people, at least until recently, became artists for self-expression not money. Those who can afford to do it that way, because they have another job or a sponsor,can avoid the harshness and distortions of the market. That should be recognized and appreciated, not considered second best.
There’s also something to be said for the kind of noncompetitive community that has grown up around fan fiction. It’s not just artists seeking self-expression but people who are using their interests and skills as a way of meeting people with whom they have things in common. The internet has made those kinds of communities possible whereas in previous centuries people’s social networks tended to be pretty narrow.
Great post, Lyn. I can truly relate the the desire for validation and the difficulty of hanging on to motivation. The road to publication is a hard road. It’s hard to stay motivated. We take whatever avenues we can.
Shelly had some interesting things to say on her blog as well. I think people from other areas of the art world bring new perspectives and ways of shedding light on these issues. Although she isn’t a professional writer, she has a lot to say, and she inspired me to use photography (such as the above photo) to comment on the same dilemmas.
Lyn, This a wonderful post as usual. So thoughtful and so many topics have been brought up. I feel I should put in my 2 cents. I appreciate you bringing up the rules on the brick central contest. I remember when I read that I was a bit taken aback but I had no idea how it would impact the entries. I did not write the “rules” but I do know where the writer was coming from. I will make sure that we are more inclusive in the future because it is all about the fun. The contests are a way to inspire photographers to try something new or to break through the photographic equivalent of “writers block”. They are not about winning but showcasing interesting view points. Your photography is definitely “quality”! It has been inspiring to see your photographs improve so much in the last year! My hat is off to you!
I think no matter who you are or what your medium, in a world that seems to devalue the artist, staying motivated is a tall order and we all need to help each other. Other wise the world is going to be a truly dreary place.
Cheers my friend!
Thank you, Shelly! I don’t know if your tagline on the contest has scared away anyone besides me. If your numbers truly are down and the same people are always entering, maybe you should have a “new entrant” category for someone who hasn’t entered in the past 6 months or so. Anyway, I look forward to Avanaut’s upcoming piece on #stuckinplastic and hope it, too, generates debate on this issue. I get what he’s talking about, with the photo he loved getting no support and the one he thought was only OK getting tons of likes.