The Photographs in My Heart by Cally Williams Neal, UEA

The following words are written by our very own Unraveled Expert Artist, Cally Williams Neal. We believe these words will resonate with not only every photographer, but also every human. We all need to stop, acknowledge and appreciate the beauty of capturing a moment in time, no matter the circumstances. We think that somewhere, someone needs to read these words Cally poured onto the page.

Ansel Adams once said, “there are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”

Take it from here Cally:

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These two images take up a huge space in my mind and my heart.  I can honestly say I have spent hours upon hours looking at and studying these two images since they were introduced me countless years ago.  Other than my own images of my children, they are probably my favorite two photos that I have ever seen. They make me feel happy, sad, and reminiscent. I feel joy and comfort. I am lonely for a time I have missed yet I am somehow transported into a loving and warm place.  They evoke emotion in me every time I see or even think of them.

The people in these images are no longer here to hug and hold and laugh with but I knew them both.  The first is my maternal grandmother, Sylvia. Some of you know my daughter is named after her. Why? Because she was the most beautiful, kind, generous and loving woman I knew.  While I see a lot of her in my own mom, there is really no one I have ever met that is exactly what she was. She was quite literally an angel on earth. AND I know I look like her and can see a little of her young beautiful self in me, too.  She’s not here anymore but when I look at this photo, she is. She comes alive in my memory once more and my heart feels joy.

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This second one is of my paternal grandfather and I. By looking at my age in this photo, I know he didn't live for long after this was taken.  He left our lives when I was about 5 or 6 and with me being the 4th born of 16 grandchildren, I am from the very small club of grandchildren who actually had the pleasure of knowing him. No one younger than me remembers him. Even though my memories are foggy, I remember loving him. He was funny. He joked around with me. He teased me. I know in my heart that he enjoyed my company and he loved me so very much.  He is not here anymore but when I look at this photo, he is. He comes alive in my memory once more and my heart feels joy.

I know you all have some of these images laying around, too.  You have that photograph of a love one who has passed, a beloved pet that is no longer with us. You have a photograph from your childhood with your sibling who lives out of the country that you rarely get to see, a photograph of you with your grade school classmates that sends a rush of nostalgia through your 40 year old brain taking you right back to the playground, a photograph of your mom when she was pregnant with you, a photo from your parents’ wedding, a photograph of a sunset from your most favorite vacation ever, a photograph that your dad or grandfather took in Vietnam with his platoon that shows how handsome he was in his youth, or a photograph of your childhood home that immediately transports you back in time and surrounds you with warmth.  You're thinking of that image right now and you are filled with emotion. These photos are so important to us. They mean something to us that they don't mean to anyone else and if you lost that photo it would be devastating.

My two photos have some very important characteristics that I want to discuss with you. I think this is so important to address in this world of social media.  We need to be grounded again.

These two photos were not taken by professional photographers.  In fact they didn’t even call themselves photographers at all. The people who took them weren't Clickpro or UEAs or any other established photographer with online credentials. There was no internet when they decided to press the shutter button. These photos were never posted on Instagram. These photos never got likes or loves.  These photos were never featured anywhere. These photos have never been published in a magazine or on the wall in an art gallery. Up until now, these photos have only been seen by a handful of people in my family yet THEY ARE MY FAVORITE PHOTOS EVER!!!

I write to you today to remind you that every single image you take has the potential to be "that photo" to someone else regardless of what equipment you use or where you are in your photography journey.  My friend, you don't have to be a professional to make great images. You don't have to be a well-known photographer to make great images. You don't have to have accolades and acknowledgments hanging on your wall to make great images.  You don't even have to be a photographer to make great images. The people who took these photos were none of those things yet they took images that I will cherish until my dying days. I think somehow the true value of the photograph has gotten lost in this electronic world. I think sometimes we forget to create timeless images that make our heart sing.....and it's all because of that nagging little inner dialogue that we succumb to way too often.

I have recently asked some of my fellow creatives what they think about their work and I hear the same echoes repeated so many times in different words.  “I am a fraud; an imposter.” “My work isn’t good enough.” “I have nothing unique to offer; it’s all been done before.” “I’m not getting any better.” “I am not as good as so and so.” “I didn’t get many likes so I must not be as good as I think I am.” “I don’t fit in anywhere.”  Wow….those voices can be deafening and horribly brutal can’t they? And let me tell you it doesn’t even matter how long you’ve been at this; these words have been uttered by my friends at all skill levels. From the person who just picked up a camera to the one with thousands of followers teaching workshops…..we all say this to ourselves at some point.  So to think you are alone in your self-doubt is to be deceived.

The good news is that none of it is true.  Not a single word.

You are not a fraud. Do you take photographs….with a camera? Then you are a photographer. Give yourself permission to say it. “I am a photographer.” Be proud of it and own it.

So you think your work isn’t good enough? Well, what is good enough? Can you define “good enough”? No you can’t and you never will because even after you think you’ve arrived, you will find a reason why you haven’t. The fact is that you will always be striving to be better and that is the best thing you can do for yourself.  Enjoy your journey of growth. My oldest son is 10 and my daughter is 5. Looking back at my photo s of him compared to what I take of her now, I have definitely improved since he was little. But I was still good enough to be his photographer mom all those years ago. Even with that over the top awesome skin softening and eye whites that required you to wear sunglasses.  Ok so maybe all that's improved is my editing. Sorry son.

Your work is unique. No one is you. As Elizabeth Gilbert says in her book Big Magic, “Most things have already been done, but they have not been done by you. So what if we repeat the same things?  If it’s authentic enough, believe me, it will feel original.” Yeah I think I pretty much cried the whole way through that chapter. Create from your soul. Create from the desire to make yourself happy not from your desire to be liked or a need to compete. You will never be as fulfilled with likes from random strangers as you will when you know a person can feel your images in their bones.

You ARE getting better, please believe me. Every time you bravely pick up that camera, snap a photo and give a go at editing, you are getting better.  You are better than you were yesterday, last week and last year. You cannot possibly go backwards….you can’t unlearn what you have learned. Keep building.

I don’t know who the “so and so” is that you are not as good as, but if you truly believe they are better....find out how they got there.  If you see an artist you admire, whether it be their editing or their knack for documenting every day with style, ask them how they do it. I know so many artists who love to share what they know.  I don’t like to use the word compare because it has a negative connotation but I see absolutely nothing wrong with seeing another artist’s work, admiring it, figuring out WHY you admire it and striving to make that kind of art. I’m not saying buy your daughter that same dress and fly to that location and snap THAT photo.  If that was the case Sylvia and I would have been in the PNW a year ago with the entire Joyfolie line! I mean dig deeper and find out exactly why you like the work of another photographer. Lighting? Composition? Mood? Movement? Explore it all and rather than trying to be “as good as” them, strive to bring those qualities into your own work.

This next one is really hard to wrap our heads around but it is the most important thing I am going to address.  “LIKES DO NOT DEFINE YOUR WORTH”. Man, I know that shit is so much easier to say than to believe when everyone is pulling out on the ChooChoo train and you’re sitting at the station waving goodbye wondering why you hadn’t been invited to go.  But I promise you…. your husband, wife, best friends, mom, dad and kids do not give a flying fuck about your features, likes and hearts. Sorry to be blunt but at the end of the day, it’s insignificant and your eulogy at your funeral isn’t going to say anything about your online achievements. Now before you become complacent, I promise I am not trying to discourage you from your personal goals.  Two of my big goals were to be UAE and be published. I have achieved one of the two but I am not going to let that other half beat me down and force me to put the camera away. I beg of you to keep pushing yourself for the right reasons. You want to be published? Study. I believe that takes knowledge more than talent. You want a Pro recognition? Set your sights on getting the perfect gallery together.  You want to make $100K in sales next year? Then you better hustle. Don’t stop pursuing your goals and dreams, just keep it all in perspective when you do. It’s ok to get rejected some times. Get back up, brush yourself off and DO IT AGAIN. I should throw in the old “baby learning to walk” analogy but it’s over used and you get the point.

You don’t fit in anywhere? Well neither do I so let’s sit together. Guys, I promise you there is an enormous group of people who feel they don’t belong and right across the cafeteria is a table just begging for you to sit with them.  If you feel you don’t belong it’s because you are convincing yourself that all these negative thoughts I just spoke about are true. Well they are not, so come on over and sit down with us. Squeeze yourself into whatever “group” you want just like you squeeze your ass into your jeans after the dryer was accidentally set to high instead of extra super-duper low.   

Ok I know I’ve talked a lot and I love you for sticking with me but in closing I want to go back to these two photos.  I would bet cash money that the people who took my two most cherished photos, never once thought about any of this stuff when they made the images.  They were simply enjoying their time with a loved one, trying to capture a memory and probably never thinking in a million years that their granddaughter and daughter would be holding on to them with such love and thankfulness…..but here I am, appreciating the hell out of these two photos, the people who took them and the people in them.

Keep shooting friends. Do not quit.  Years from now someone might write a blog about how that one click of your shutter has impacted their life and their journey.  Your every day is important. Your details matter. Your vision is perfect. Every one of your photographs was meant to be taken by you and no one else.

Sarah DriscollComment