On passion, and why you must suffer to succeed in photography

If what one makes is not created with a sense of sacredness, a sense of wonder; if it is not a form of love making; if it is not created with the same passion as the first kiss, it has no right to be called a work of art.

Alfred Stieglitz

Passion, it turns out, comes from the Latin pati — or that which must be endured, suffered or experienced.

In modern usage, the word has rosier connotations. To discover one’s passion is the crème de la crème of life goals.

But what does it mean to be passionate about photography?

What sort of characteristics should the passionate photographer have?

Passion, as we’ll discover, is a journey of hard graft. It is unlikely we will have the good fortune to discover it lying in bed one morning. Instead, cultivating passion is an organic process that we must nurture over time.

And yes, some parts of the process will be unenjoyable at first. Other parts will become unenjoyable later. There will be trial and error. There will be introspection and exasperation. We will endure years in the wilderness before we develop our voice, bouncing from one trend to the next. 

But passion allows us to move through these obstacles while staying true to ourselves. Passion gives us the impetus to shout above the din of conformity and tell the world what we stand for.

No longer at the mercy of trends, we reach a point where our photography becomes an extension of self. We become harmonised with our environment and ourselves, producing creative and meaningful work. It is here where the true rewards of passion are found.

So how do we get to this point? 

You’ll have to read on to find out.

1. Passion differentiates your work from others

Everyone has more or less the same kit these days. A four-figure DSLR with an assortment of quality glass and a filter kit, if they’re lucky.

You can hardly begrudge photographers having the same equipment. Most of it is high quality and a known quantity.

But what happens after gear acquisition?

Photographers, armed with the same kits, start photographing the same compositions.

Passion is your point of difference. It is the passion in your craft that separates your work from the next photographer. Tattooed on your soul are the things you couldn’t live without. You care for them to such an extent that others may call you weird or irrational.

I was only reminded very recently of my childhood passion for cars. I was obsessed with Hotwheels and would spend hours building road networks out of dried mud in my backyard.

The highlight of my young life was the day my class visited a road safety traffic school.

These schools featured a network of roads that kids could ride their bikes on. There were stop signs, line markings and working traffic lights. Exactly the same as the real thing – except miniaturised. Something about this excursion stirred something deep within me.

As an adult, I have developed a love of driving, as many do.

But it is the experience of driving I am drawn to, and the world it has opened up for me.

The experience is more important to me than how fast the car goes or whether the air conditioning works. Driving as an adult rekindles the same emotions I felt as a child riding a bike. The sense of freedom, exploration, autonomy and escape.

Nowadays, road safety school has been replaced by the vast Australian continent. Traffic lights and stop signs have been replaced by vast expanses of open highway and cattle grids.

If we imagine my love of driving as a tree, there are now many sub-interests branching off in all directions. One of these branches is photography itself – which I had no interest in until my mid-20s. 

Some branches will grow into secondary trunks, acquiring passion status over time. Others branches will remain as passing interests only.

Passion is the key to differentiation. What are your passions? How can you combine them with your personality or life experience in novel ways?

When we allow ourselves to be lead by our passions, we find it much easier to produce unique images.

We remove much of the resistance that creative work entails by following our hearts. It is how we find our style, our voice and our vision – and photograph it accordingly. 

2. Passion helps you push through difficulty

In his article 7 Strange Questions That Help You Find Your Life Purpose, author Mark Manson’s first question is simple:

“What’s your favourite flavor of shit sandwich, and does it come with an olive?”

The premise of his argument is that even the most enjoyable activities are going to suck at least some of the time.

Photography is not exempt from this, even if you don’t consider making images your life purpose.

It is an artistic pursuit after all. The right conditions don’t always materialise. We will battle inner demons and question our very motives. We will seek to please others instead of pleasing ourselves.

Manson goes on:

And your favorite shit sandwich is your competitive advantage. By definition, anything that you’re willing to do (that you enjoy doing) that most people are not willing to do gives you a huge leg-up.

Now, is a competitive advantage in photography useful?

Should we have the intention to better others each time we leave home with our camera?

In photography, the only photographer we should be competing with is ourself. But the only metric we want to be tracking is how well we push through obstacles.

Did we get up early for sunrise even though we knew it was going to be cold and wet?

Have we actually watched those paid editing tutorials from start to finish? Implemented them in the field and endured the frustration of failure?

My particular passions of driving and desert exploration serve up many shit sandwiches. 

But I make peace with them because there’s no other way I could live my life. I make peace with driving on rough roads because it heightens the sense of remoteness. I make peace with hot days and copious flies because it means serene desert nights and fewer crowds.

In competing with yourself and striving for incremental improvement, you will inevitably develop an advantage over others.

Unique compositions are one such advantage. Rising at dawn to catch the morning light, you are witness to a misty lake with ducks flying overhead. Since you were the only photographer that bothered to drag themselves out of bed, your images can’t help but be unique.

Sometimes your fingers might freeze to your tripod. You might be craving a bacon and egg sandwich. Maybe you rise early and there won’t be any dawn light. Or there won’t be any mist. Or ducks. You might leave your favourite lens at home and have to improvise.

But if you have a true passion for dawn photography, these setbacks mean nothing to you. The flame of your burning passion is not extinguished that easily.

Enduring setback after setback is how you become a great photographer. It’s how you develop the ability to articulate your work to others. And to tell a story, you must have a story to tell.

Behind every great photograph is a photographer with a passion that sustained them through setback and failure.

The exquisite ‘cutouts’ of Matisse and elegant line drawings of Picasso came late in long careers of painstaking work and wild experimentation. In writing as in painting, simplicity often follows considerable torment.

Constance Hale

Passion helps us perform the painstaking work which is unavoidable in any craft. Passion is sustaining and helps us clarify what we want to express and how to express it.

Most importantly, it gives meaning and purpose to the torments we will inevitably suffer.

3. Passion encourages creativity through mindfulness

We cannot by definition show disinterest in things we are passionate about. Disinterest would turn to boredom and then to inattention. Neither of which are conducive to mindfulness or creativity.

So why not make the choice to only photograph things you are passionate about?

When we combine mindfulness with passion, we give our creative impulses a chance to shine.

On how this might be achieved, Henri Cartier-Bresson suggested the following:

I believe that, through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us which can mold us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance must be established between these two worlds – the one inside and the one outside us. As the result of a constant reciprocal process, both these worlds come from a single one. And it is this world that we must communicate.

In other words, creativity – photographic seeing – is a balancing act. Photographic seeing is not seeing in the literal sense, although our eyes are open. Rather, it is the ability to observe the world and our reactions to the world at the same time. This is the balance we must strive to maintain.

Seeing the external world is easy, but mindfulness allows to observe our inner world at the same time. In other words, our reactions to what we see. And when we have a clear understanding of what moves us and what doesn’t, our self-awareness expands.

We respond to our environment and then as if by magic, the environment responds to us. In this way, the internal and external worlds reinforce each other and allow a greater depth of seeing.

Mindfulness helps us filter the endless information that passes through our eyes. It helps us discover new passions or strengthen existing ones.

Instead of devoting our mental energy to trivialities, we devote it to becoming self-aware photographers. We know what turns us on, and we instinctively know where to find it.

Regular wins, no matter how small or insignificant to others, build confidence. Confidence gives us the courage to strike out on our own. To break free of the popular photography aesthetic and respond fully to the artist within.

If you’re struggling to find passion in your life, sit in a quiet place and practice mindfulness meditation. Observe the rich tapestry of life, unfurling before your eyes with startling beauty and regularity.

Have the courage to try new things. Give yourself the mental space to observe your reactions. And then trust your gut with everything you can muster.

This can seem somewhat of a hollow suggestion to some. But no-one knows what they’ll respond to until they give themselves the chance to respond.


If you had the choice to endure any kind of suffering, then passionate suffering would be a good candidate.

While you may share the same passions as others, no one experiences them in quite the same way you do. You must have the courage to trust your intuition. You must resist the temptation of conformity – inviting as it may be – and walk your own path at all costs. 

Passion also helps us through difficult times. Passion and suffering go hand in hand, but the wise photographer can use suffering as a tool for self-improvement. It is only through setbacks that we learn. It is only through suffering that victories taste so sweet.

Finally, passion encourages mindfulness and thus creativity. When we mindfully engage in the world, we can discover new passions or deepen our understanding of existing passions. By observing how we react to certain subjects, we become ultra-specific on what we love and why. The strength of our photographic seeing increases and we become better at expressing our authentic selves as a result.

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