I’m a sucker for reality music contests. Idol, X-Factor, The Voice, Romania’s Got Talent. Watching these shows makes me happy in the same way opening a fresh jar of Nutella, or spotting a Fiat 500 driving up a laneway in Sicily make me happy.
The other night as I was binge watching American Idol’s final season, I realised that this is so much more than a talent show. American Idol has become my Mr Miyagi, Yoda and Oprah rolled into one. Yep, I think it’s that good.
Here are a five lessons American Idol taught me about photography.
1. Passion vs Perfect
“Work hard! In the end, passion and hard work beats out natural talent.”
– Pete Docter
If Passion and Perfect had a race, Passion would win. I have watched so many American Idol contestants step onto the audition stage and belt out pitch perfect renditions of Whitney Houston’s “I have nothing”. They hit every note, remember every line – but I’m not feeling it.
Then some kid from a country town called Nowhere gets up and does the same song, misses a few notes and even mumbles a couple of the words and gets a standing ovation. Why? He made people feel it.
I’ve seen this time after time in photographs. We are all taught about the correct exposures, sharpness, pixel size, detail in the whites, rule of thirds, yadda, yadda, yadda. A technically perfect image is always great to aim for but if the image doesn’t capture the emotion or make the viewer feel something, it will be lost in the crowd.
Great photographs capture what something looks and feels like.
“Fall seven times, stand up eight.”
– Japanese Proverb
The thing that I find most inspiring about American Idol is the stories about the contestants that fail on their first, second or third attempt and manage to come back, dust themselves off and try again.
Some don’t even make it through the first round but go on to find success despite being rejected by the American Idol judges.
To become a great photographer requires resilience. There have been many, many occasions throughout my career where I’ve applied to work for different publications, advertising agencies and companies and have been rejected on the first, second and, in one case, eighth visit.
In most of these cases I learnt that rejection is never personal, it’s a numbers game. I just needed to keep working on my craft and going back to have another crack. Sometimes, it was just a matter of showing up at the right time.
The client I saw eight times finally booked me and is now one of my most lucrative clients.
Many of the lighting, posing and postproduction techniques I use today are the result of trying new styles, botching them, going back to the drawing board and trying again. If you’re not failing and making mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough.
3. What’s your story?
“It’s beauty that captures your attention, personality which captures your heart…”
– Roy R. Gilson
I realised that the more I knew about the person auditioning, the more I liked them. The more I liked them, the more I wanted them to succeed.
It’s the contestants that shared the back story about how they came to be standing in the American Idol audition rooms and told me more about why they sing rather than what they are going to sing that really got me hooked.
Photographs can be beautiful to look at but it’s the story behind them that give them meaning.
In 2010 photographer Brandon Stanton set out to photograph the faces of 10,000 people living in New York and share them on his blog. At first he just included the name and location of each of his portraits but then three months in he began to include quotes from his models and his blog, Humans of New York went viral. The images are great, but it’s the images combined with their story that make this blog so awesome.
4. Be humble
“Don’t confuse confidence with arrogance. Arrogance is being full of yourself, feeling you’re always right, and believing your accomplishments or abilities make you better than other people. People often believe arrogance is excessive confidence, but it’s really a lack of confidence. Arrogant people are insecure, and often repel others. Truly confident people feel good about themselves and attract others to them.”
– Christie Hartman
American Idol is fantastic as a people watching exercise and to study the way different personality types perform under pressure.
My favourite game to play while I’m watching is to try and guess how well someone will perform based on how they present themselves in the pre-audition interview.
I used to put my money on the ones with the most swagger and attitude and the best hair but it turns out that the higher the hair and the bigger the swagger, the lesser the talent.
The biggest (OMG I’m blubbering like a baby) moments came from the contestants who quietly walked on stage and confidently sang in the way they knew best.
Arrogant photographers tend to swagger around telling anyone who will listen how fabulous they are and how fabulous their work is. The biggest problem with this is that arrogant photographers make everything they do about them. It’s virtually impossible to take a great portrait of someone if you never really see them.
5. Learn from constructive criticism
“A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself.”
– Oprah Winfrey
My favourite part of Idol has been watching contestants’ talent evolve with the help of the judges mentoring.
The contestants that went on to achieve the greatest success in the shortest time were the ones who were able to take constructive criticism, make mistakes, and not be afraid to look silly every now and then.
Mentoring and the ability to accept and grow from creative criticism is the fastest way to develop as a photographer.