How to Find Your Visual Voice: Advice from Visual Storyteller Chris Parkes
It’s important to create and maintain your own personal style and voice. It helps define your work and gives your portfolio the consistency that photo editors look for. Although it might sound daunting, the development of your own style and visual voice can come naturally as you learn about yourself and the stories you want to tell.
Recently we had the pleasure of hearing from a photographer with a truly special visual voice, PhotoShelter member and renowned storyteller Chris Parkes. Chris has an incredible body of work that has been featured and awarded by organizations like Nikon Pro Magazine, National Geographic, Practical Photography and more, and his visual voice clearly shines through in his work. But it wasn’t always so clear. For him, finding his visual identity and voice was a process.
“I did it by a system of failure and practice, and gaining confidence in what I had to say.”Chris Parkes
As Chris shared his own journey, he remarked on the power of photographs to “take you into a different world, a different place, help you hear someone else’s voice and understand what it feels like to be in another place.” This touches the core of our mission as storytellers, and it’s why developing your voice and perspective is a crucial part of respectfully wielding the power of photography.
Chris’ love for moving photography began at a young age. His interest in visual storytelling was sparked by his love of National Geographic Magazine during his formative teenage years. He was struck by the power of an image to tell a story, and throughout his career has worked tirelessly to accurately tell the stories of the diverse people and places he photographs. In those early years, Chris saw the potential for photography to bring about real change, and he’s constantly using his photography to engage the wider public about important issues facing our world.
As we follow Chris’s journey, let’s take a look at his top tips for finding your own voice and style as a photographer. It begins by focusing on the things you care about.
Cover image by Chris Parkes
1. Focus on projects that interest you
Early in his career as a freelancer, Chris remembered how hard it was to maintain his own voice as he simply worked to pay the bills. He explained that it happens to many of us – “I think most people have this part in the journey where you start doing the things that will pay you money.” During that step in a career, it’s easy to get lost while you simply work to survive. However, over time things began to come together until one day he found himself face to face with his dream. Chris had a lightbulb moment while working on a passion project for a charity in Sierra Leone when it all clicked. Chris remembers, “I was on the back of a bike, I was facing backward, the sun was coming up over the jungle and I thought ‘this is what you wanted to do when you became a photographer.’”
While we might never know exactly what it’s like to watch the sunrise on the back of a motorcycle in Sierra Leone, we can still take the advice to heart. Chris recommends focusing on “what stories interest you, and what makes you passionate” to keep from losing yourself or your voice. Think about the stories you already want to tell. Although not every project can be a dream come true, it’s important to stay focused on what drives you as a photographer and a storyteller so you can develop your voice while growing in your career.
2. Think critically about the work you respond to
All this talk about finding a voice sounds nice, but how do you know where to start?
Chris recommended an exercise we can use to get moving in the right direction. If you don’t exactly have the strongest sense of your own visual voice, take time to think critically about the work that you find moving. Chris says we should ask ourselves “whose work do I respond to? And, what is it in the work that I’m responding to? Is it the aesthetic, is it the content, or some combination of both?”
For Chris, it’s “very much a feeling thing. I’ve got to feel it somewhere in my heart,” he says. But the process can be different for everyone. He challenges us to think about what stories excite us and what photos we respond to. The true magic? Bringing those two elements together.
If you’re struggling to find a clear direction, take some time to try this out for yourself. Whether it’s a deep dive into the aesthetic of the photo and its concrete features, or something personal about the story or issue it addresses, you can learn to hone in on what you want to create in your own work and come away with a more clearly defined goal for your own visual voice.
3. Trust the process
Finding your visual voice isn’t something that happens overnight. It’s a journey with many twists and turns, few of which we can see coming. As Chris noted, his own journey was full of “failure and practice” that helped shape his career to where he is today.
“Go with the journey. It’s taking you somewhere, trust that it’s taking you to the right place.”Chris Parkes
Approaching storytelling with your own predetermined narrative can hinder your development. Chris recommends letting the subjects guide the story. He challenges us to, “quiet your own ego and say ‘tell me your story, tell me about you.’” It’s not always easy, but letting your guard down and letting the journey develop will help you sort out the ambiguity and ultimately find your visual voice.
To see more of his moving work and stay up to date on the stories Chris is working to tell, check out his website and follow him on Instagram.