Do you have the feeling that, nowadays, almost everyone is taking photos? Not even that long ago, photography was much more exclusive.
Despite the wide-spread use of point-and-shoot cameras, very few people were able to properly take photographs. That’s why photography was and still is a profession in demand; however, if you are interested in selling your photographs, how can you convince someone to buy yours or simply “follow” you as a photographer?
It almost seems impossible, given that 2.6 billion people worldwide use a smartphone now. Almost all of them take snapshots of their life, food, hobbies and basically anything that touches their hearts. Some take it for themselves and their family and friends, others share it with the world.
Facebook has 1.86 billion active users, Instagram 600 million, and Flickr 122 million. Just imagine standing among all these people with your photos on a stage. How the hell are you supposed to stand out of that crowd? No matter how motivated you are, it seems almost impossible.
That’s why everyone says only 0.001% of artists can live off their art—and even if you don’t have career ambitions as a photographer, you still want to be unique for yourself, right?
I started taking photos in 2011. Until the end of 2012 it was my favorite hobby ever, but in the end it just frustrated me. I ended up in a rut. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this in your photography journey, but it really sucks. You give it your all, but your photos don’t really improve. Frustration quickly turned into anger and I was about to quit photography.
What’s the point if my own photos don’t at least blow me away?
You can know every “photography rule” in the book, own the best equipment on the planet, but never capture unique photos. Even if you dutifully studied all of the most successful photographers in history, it wouldn’t make you stand out in my opinion.
I tried that approach back then, and it only made things worse. I constantly compared myself to all these glorious masters—boy did that intimidate me. How could I ever become as great and unique as them?
So I tried ignoring the masters and looked to contemporary photographers for inspiration. Maybe I could learn from them how to take my photos to the next level… but guess what? That made it even worse! I already knew that I could never be as unique as the late legends, but the modern ones are just as good.
I was more confused and intimidated than ever.
Fortunately I still loved the idea behind photography, so I thought I’d go out with a bang and tried one last thing. I read somewhere that quality comes from quantity, and so on January 1st 2013, I started a “365 days, 365 photos” project. This was the first photo I ever displayed to the public.
Did the 365 quantity of my photos create the unique quality I was looking for? No. The more photos you take, the more you learn, the better you get at capturing the world around you; but that doesn’t make your photos unique per se. That’s why the most popular photos on Flickr and 500px often look alike. They are all well-produced, don’t get me wrong, but I rarely see a unique signature that pops out.
What truly made a difference for me was realizing that I can’t look left and right anymore for inspiration—I had to look within me.
In almost every interview I get asked “Who’s your biggest inspiration in photography?” and I always say, slightly embarrassed, “This may come over as arrogant, but to be completely honest with you, it’s me.”
They usually reply by asking me, “But don’t you have any idols? At least tell me who’s your favorite photography master.”
With cold sweat on my forehead, I always reply “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but the only master I look up to is my future self that has accomplished all of my photography dreams.”
It sounds so egocentric and wrong to me, but that is honestly what has made all the difference for me, and I believe it will for you, too.
The difference between photos that stand out and those that don’t revolves around one tiny letter: Do you still [t]ake photos or do you already [m]ake them? Do you capture the world around you or the connection between that world and the world within you? That’s what generates unique photos.
Your DNA is the one thing that separates you from all other 7.5 billion people on the planet. No one in the world sees life through your eyes, feels it with your heartbeat, and has access to your conscious and subconscious mind. All of this comes together to form a one-in-7.5 billion creative spirit.
That’s why I always say that your most important gear is your eye, heart & soul.
As soon as I shifted my focus from the world around me to the world within me in 2013, my photography and life changed forever. I went from generic photos at best to winning 21 awards in the following 2 years.
When I made it to the Top 10 in the open competition of the Sony World Photography Awards 2015, I cried my eyes out. I couldn’t believe that “egocentric” approach got me what I always dreamed about. One year later I ended up again in the Top 10 of the 2016 World Photography Awards. They told me that they went through more than 100,000 photo submissions, but they always find my photos like a needle in a haystack.
If I can do this, you can do it, too. I never studied photography, I had no financial means, and I’ve been diagnosed with ADHD. It’s not talent that got me here, just creative ambition.
The only way to become 100% unique is actually very simple, it just takes time and effort. However, as soon as you understand the concept behind it, you will make progress every time you shoot.
Don’t take photos, make them. Don’t shoot the world around you, shoot the one within you. Don’t take photos of strangers, make self-portraits of yourself in strangers. You need to ask yourself what really attracts your eyes, what really makes your heart beat faster, and what really stirs your soul.
In order to do this, you have to be insanely honest to yourself. It hurts at first, because most people aren’t used to being 100% honest with themselves. It took me a few years to get there, but the feeling of being aligned with your true self is insanely rewarding. Only if you are 100% honest with yourself as a human being can you create photos that are 100% representative of yourself. Only that way you can love yourself for what and who you are, pour that in your photos, and offer the result to the people around you.
Maybe you’ve been shooting landscapes for many years, but deep down you have a weird fascination with Japanese dolls. As soon as you love something, for whatever reason, your heart is in it. You love it so much that you want to capture all these different aspects that make you love it. Someone that is merely interested in Japanese toys, takes ordinary photos of them. Their heart isn’t in it.
They say if you love someone, you see them with different eyes. That’s why a famous fashion photographer once said: “You have to fall in love with the model in order to shoot it.” When you fall in love with your subject, you see it through new eyes; the other person will look at them like everyone else.
Your camera only captures what you see. What you see (Eye) is determined by how you feel (Heart) about it. How you feel is determined by your your true self, your Soul.
What would you do all day if no one judged you for it? What would you do in a perfect world? What would you do if you could just do it? The answer taps into your soul, your creative gold mine. If you look in the mirror in the morning and tell yourself: “Yes, I love Japanese dolls from the bottom of my heart and it’s fine that the world knows about it!”, then you will capture that love with your camera as a photographer.
If you are dishonest and tell yourself that, as a tough guy, you would rather take pictures of cars, sports, and landscapes so no one can judge you for it, your photos will lack soul.
Allow me to offer a few examples of how I expressed my own Eye, Heart & Soul in a unique way.
Back in 2013 at my old office job, everyone complained about the horrible, ugly winter. As a photographer, I wanted to look for the light in the cold darkness. My heart pushed me to go out and show everyone how gorgeous a dark winter can be. My eyes attracted me to a night full of city lights where I stood for 1.5 hours in a snow storm.
When I asked my soul what I truly wanted to see in my photos, I decided not to capture faces to show emotions. I wanted to capture a moment that was highly emotional for me despite the advise of going closer and showing classic human emotions through facial expressions and gestures.
That’s how I captured “Urban Lights” 2013:
After suffering from my second deep depressive episode due to severe ADHD, I listened to my heart and moved to Amsterdam for a job to get back on my feet. I still felt dead inside, but my heart started beating again when I realized how much I love this city.
Since I consider depression “soul cancer,” I didn’t have access to my inner colors and true self yet. I felt grey inside. Everyone with depression knows what I mean. One night I saw this lonesome guy walking down the streets looking like an outlaw among all the others. I saw myself in him—as the window to my soul, my eyes felt this moment in black and white.
That’s how I created “Midnight Cowboy” 2015:
Half a year later, my heart was on fire again. I finally could think positively again. BOOM! Life wanted to test my values and hit me hard. My brand new $1,600 L-Lens fell out of my backpack. The glass was fine, but the focus was broken. My heart told me to make the most of it, my eyes fell in love with the blurry look of the lens and the lights in the Red Light District in Amsterdam.
My soul allowed me to capture the crazy, destructive part of my personality, which I found in the infamous centre of Amsterdam. “Broken: Amsterdam” was born, a set about a broken personality (ADHD) in a broken City (as crazy as it gets) with a broken lens. I called this photo “The Scarlett Jetsetters” (2015):
Although I rarely ever show faces in my photos, I reached a point in 2015 where I had to. I lived in Bangkok for a while, but as a Northern European I experienced the downside of standing out. My eyes saw a million people around me, but I couldn’t really live out my real soul there. I could feel how my inner child and heart longed more and more for a true connection.
One night, I walked down the streets and I felt completely alienated by the grey mess of people. In front of me was this family of three wandering in the rain.
While the parents didn’t really notice me in the crowd, all of a sudden their kid woke up and stared at me with the curious eyes of a child. It was such a beautiful moment to me, because it reminded me what brought me into this uncomfort zone called Bangkok: my curious, creative inner child.
2017 I went all in and allowed myself to express 100% of my Eye, Heart & Soul. Although, to be honest, I was still scared at first to trade in my name, Marius Vieth, for my childhood nickname and now artist alias “VICE”. Still, I felt that, as Marius Vieth, I couldn’t express myself 100% freely as an artist.
My close friends and family call me Marius as well. However, as an artist I want to liberate myself of all possible judgements that might interfere with my artistic expressions. VICE is a nickname that my neighbor used to call me when I was a young boy. Since I don’t talk to him anymore, it feels 100% free to me.
Ever since I changed it, I have the feeling I finally got rid of anything that keeps my photography limited. That’s why some of my newer photos are very different than what I used to shoot. I can even tell by the number of likes that people like them less than my old photos. But it doesn’t matter somehow, because art is not a catering service to others, it’s an expression of yourself.
That’s why it doesn’t bother me anymore if people love or hate my art, because why would I care about someone that doesn’t take me for who I am? My eye was always attracted to colors, my heart beats for humans around me, and my soul is an explosion of a million colors. That’s why I make photos like these as well, because to me they feel 100% like my photos, my eye, heart and soul:
Art means so much to me that I have a really hard time explaining it in a traditional sense. It’s something I feel so deeply that words constrain it to boxes that my creativity tries to break out of. Apologies if the article sounded a bit abstract instead of giving you a 30-steps plan on how to do it. Please reach out to me via mail or Twitter and I’m more than happy to help you!
I know that a step-by-step article gets more clicks, but I rather be uncomfortably honest and abstract to offer you room for your own interpretation than teach you a comfortably dishonest get-unique-quick scheme that limits your creativity forever.
It’s a long journey to become truly unique and happy. I know that I will unleash more and more of my creative spirit the older I get; however, in order to be happy on that journey as well, I would love to unite our eyes, hearts & souls and unleash our creative spirit together!
About the author: Marius “VICE” Vieth is an award-winning fine-art photographer, entrepreneur, and coach based in Amsterdam. His brand new label Eye, Heart & Soul empowers rising and established photographers worldwide. Connect with EHS on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to level up your photography game! This post was also published here.