inspiration | cheryl jacobs

i'm excited to share a few special blog posts while i'm away in africa -- blog posts that will be featuring photographers, who have greatly inspired me over the years. first up is cheryl jacobs (CJ). i met CJ eight months after picking up my camera, when i attended one of her workshops. she encouraged me. she inspired me. she taught me that it was okay to be was okay to be me. and i could never thank her enough for this gift she gave me so early on in my photography journey.

when i asked CJ if she would like to participate in my blog series, she said sure.  so i gave her some questions that she could answer, but also told her to feel free to write about whatever she wanted, if she would rather do that.  and so she did.

i'm thrilled to share these inspirational thoughts and photos from cheryl jacobs...

I got a great compliment from Freddy the sax player last night. I was hanging out at a great old jazz club here in Denver called El Chapultepec. The guys who play there are the real deal, most of them earning their living with their instruments for longer than I’ve been alive. I’ve gradually gotten to know some of them, and they’re the kind of characters who send you running for your camera. In recent months when I’ve dropped by, they’ve asked me to sit in for a song or two. Scary as hell, but not an opportunity you turn down.

Last night, Freddy invited me up to sing a great old jazz standard called Body and Soul. I love that song. I love to close my eyes and get lost in it. When it’s right, it’s magic. You can’t sing that song and not mean it. “My life’s a hell you’re making / you know I’m yours for the taking” – seriously, they don’t write them like that anymore.

And then came the compliment. He looked at me funny and said, “You just don’t sound like anyone else, do you? You got a real unusual voice.”

And now a little background information. When you grow up as I did in the world of church music, with virtually no exposure to any other genre, and with no one to teach you technique, or to give you any real feedback, you end up developing your sound according to what works to your ear. You can’t mimic anyone if there’s no one there to mimic. You can’t copy someone’s phrasing, or their delivery, or their intonation if you’ve never heard it. You learn to sing a song the way you feel it, with no idea whether it’s “right”. Regardless of whether people enjoy listening to it or not, it is honest. (Notice that Freddy didn’t say my voice was “good” or “nice”; he said it was “unusual.”)

(This has something to do with photography, right?)

The scariest thing you will ever do as an artist is to be your honest, flawed self. The one you don’t think people will understand, the one you lock away because judgment would be too painful.

It is so easy to look around us and see what others are doing. Pictures are everywhere we look, bombarding us, even in our own homes. We have the Internet, TV, billboards, packaging, magazines, advertisements, all flashing the latest cool imagery at us. And when they aren’t assaulting our eyes in the course of daily life, we photographers are seeking them out online. (We call it “inspiration.”) We involuntarily compare ourselves with other photographers, and we can’t help but notice which images are getting big public responses, what the “rockstars” are doing, what the trends are. We soak all that information up – and then we’re frustrated that our work looks like everyone else’s. And then we stop loving the process, because it feels meaningless. Because it is meaningless.

The truth is, the only thing you have that no one else has is yourself. Your collection of experiences and values, and your sense of beauty are the only things that can set you apart as an artist. Everything else can be bought, borrowed, downloaded, or stolen.

The magic, the true you or at least hints of it, can be found in the images you love that you don’t share. You know they’re special, and that’s why you guard them. If your work is truly an honest reflection of you, then criticism of your work is actually a criticism of you as a person, right? But if you’re modeling your work after what other photographers are doing, then the criticism isn’t so personal. (If I mold my voice to sound like Ella Fitzgerald’s, I don’t have to take it personally if someone doesn’t like “Ella’s” sound.) Unfortunately, insulating yourself from possible rejection also prevents you from being fulfilled as an artist. I see this all the time during critiques with other photographers; I can always tell when an artist is holding back their best and most personal work. Always.

Here is my challenge to you:

Stop looking at what others are doing. Start looking at the world around you, and the world inside you. Stop shooting with an eye on what you believe others will like, and stop judging the strength of an image by the number of comments and Facebook thumbs you receive. Start creating photographs that are vulnerable enough that they scare you, and learn to be brave enough to share them. And to stand proudly behind them. Start the long and painful process of learning to answer your own questions, and embrace the trials, errors, and frustrations you’ll experience along the way.

And learn that when someone tells you that you don’t sound like anyone else, it is a high compliment.