It’s impossible to bring a body of work to its full potential without being able to articulate in words what our photographs say and why they are meaningful to us personally. While not all of our reasons for creating a project are relevant to include in an artist statement, having the discussion is a mandatory part of the process in order to create a cohesive and powerful body of work.
I think it’s fair to say writing an artist statement is many photographers' least favorite task. We chose visuals, after all, to express ourselves, not words, and likely for very specific reasons, perhaps even as a rejection of the limitations of language. “A picture is worth a thousand words,” so why try to reiterate those words if the image is already soaked with expression?
An artist statement is not really a reiteration of what your images say. It’s more of a clarification of what your images say, plus a whole lot more that your images couldn’t possibly say. An artist statement is a way of discussing your work as a photographer both generally (why you chose to work in the medium of photography) and specifically (why you chose to create a certain project). It verbalizes the relationship between you and your work, and it provides a way for your audience to connect with your work as well.
Every artist statement is unique to the photographer, but in general it’s a statement written from your own perspective that helps you express the meaning and purpose behind your work. It usually covers the subject of your photographs, how the photographs were made, and why the photographs were made.
Why Writing an Artist Statement Makes Our Photography More Powerful
For most photographers, making images of a subject we’re passionate about is the easy part. It’s selecting the best images and sequencing them that’s challenging. And often the reason it’s so difficult is not because we can’t recognize a successful photograph from an unsuccessful one. It’s because, whether we know it or not, we’re not completely clear on what our subject really is or what our motivations are for investigating it.
The creative process is full of mystery; that’s why we enjoy it so much. But it also inherently leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions, or—even more confounding—it leaves us asking the wrong questions. There are many reasons why this more passive part of the photographic process can get so confusing. Sometimes our photographic motivations change as we learn more about our subject. Sometimes we think we know what we’re photographing, but it’s based on our old ideas, and not, as the creative process so famously presents, on our manifesting ideas. Sometimes it’s because we’re so caught up in producing photos, we haven’t taken the time and energy to really look at our images and articulate what we see and feel.
Writing an artist statement is key to navigating this part of the process. It can help us eliminate images we like and are successful but don’t speak to the main thread that connects the images. Likewise, it can bring “B images” back into an edit because they support the main thread in a way that gives our project focus and impact.
Just as important, writing an artist statement supplies us with the words we need to communicate our project and personal vision to others who are not privy to our thoughts and creative process. This is especially important professionally, because people in the photography industry expect us to be able to talk about our work if we want them to take us seriously and publish, promote, or otherwise support our photography.
How to Write an Artist Statement
The guiding principle to keep in mind as you craft your artist statement is to write from your perspective, not from a viewer’s interpretation of your work. This is not a persuasive statement; you don’t want to tell viewers how to receive your photographs. Instead, you want to give them the details that support your images and allow viewers to react to those details in whatever way they see fit.
To begin writing your artist statement, ask yourself:
- Why did you create your photographs?
- What is the history behind the photographs?
- What are you trying to express in the photographs?
- How do your current photographs reflect those you made in the past?
- Who or what influences you to make photography?
- Who or what inspired you when you made your project?
Next, referring back to your answers to the question above, brainstorm a list of words that explain your influences, your creative process, your values as a photographer, and the themes you explore through photography.
Now use those words and phrases to create your artist statement, using the following structure:
- Write in the first person (using “I” and “my”).
- Begin with a broad statement or two that clearly and briefly describes your photographs.
- Then explain in detail how the ideas in your statement are reflected in your photographs and why you chose to work in the medium of photography.
- Cite the themes or experiences that influenced you to make your photographs.
- Finally, create a concluding statement or two that summarizes the most important points about your photographs.
Be sure to:
- be clear and to the point.
- write concisely and simply, describing your ideas with as few words as possible.
- assemble words that reflect you and your photographs in the most authentic way possible.
- proofread your statement for grammar, spelling, and typos, and for clarity and details that are relevant and interesting.
Be sure not to:
- write about how amazing and important you or your photographs are (you don’t want to come across as pompous).
- use cliché terms or phrases to describe your perspective or photographs.
- include too much jargon or too many technical terms.
- explain at length your techniques and materials.
- boast about awards or honors you have received.
- use language evocative of marketing speak; it comes across as persuasive or manipulative, and that’s the last thing you want to align yourself with.
How to Troubleshoot Your Artist Statement
After you've written a draft of your artist statement, compare it to your practice as a photographer and the body of work it discusses and ask yourself the following questions:
- Are all of the ideas and details in your artist statement an authentic reflection of you and your photography?
- Are there images in your body of work that say something other than the main points expressed in your artist statement?
- Are there images that you didn’t place in your selection that more strongly support the ideas in your artist statement?
- Is the information in your artist statement an expression of a future goal you have, or is it where you’re truly at presently?
- Likewise, does your artist statement comprise past ideas about you and your work that have since changed, but you are still hanging on to?
Seek the Assessment of Others
Attempting to write an artist statement can help us determine what our work really means to us. As previously noted, since our relationship to our work can change greatly as it’s being created, writing one can serve as a benchmark of sorts. It can help us understand where we are at with our project, potentially uncovering holes in our body of work—images we need but don’t yet have that are necessary to make our point. It can also point out redundancies in our project—pictures that don’t add new information, and therefore might make our project more impactful if they were edited out.
But making these evaluations can be really difficult sometimes, because we are too close to our photographs to see them objectively. Getting an outsider’s perspective at this stage is really beneficial—if not essential—when writing an artist statement. I recommend asking three people for help: (1) someone who knows your work well, (2) someone who doesn’t know your work at all, and (3) someone who is good with words who may or may not know your work well.
- First show them your body of work. Give them the title of your body of work and the image captions. Do not give them any other information.
- Then have them read your artist statement.
- Next, ask them if what they see in the images corresponds to
what you say in your artist statement. Encourage them to be as specific as
possible in giving their feedback by asking them the following:
- What words, phrases, or ideas in my artist statement are an accurate reflection of what you see in my images?
- Are there any ideas expressed in my artist statement that are not portrayed in my images?
- Are there any images in my body of work that do not support the main thrust of my artist statement?
- Do I use any words that confuse you or seem to get off topic?
First Just Listen and Let Them Do the Talking
In order to get the most objective response from these people, do not ask them leading questions that could persuade them to respond in a certain way (i.e.: giving them details or back story that is not included in your artist statement or saying “Don’t you think that this picture is…”). Let the conversation proceed solely based on your writing and your photographs and see how they respond.
Then Talk to Them About Your Specific Concerns
After they have answered the questions above and given their full opinion, you can ask them questions that address specific concerns you have. Perhaps you tell them your goals in photography and/or some of the back story behind the images. Let the conversation unfold freely between you now, without holding back any questions.
Assimilate Their Feedback
As you collect thoughts from these three individuals, understand that everyone has their proclivities and perspectives that are particular to their life experience. As a result, the feedback one person gives you might contradict the feedback another person gives you. Take their background and interests into account as you absorb the changes they may propose in your artist statement or selection of images.
If people give wildly contradictory feedback, it might be a sign that your body of work is not cohesive enough in its current state or sequence to give the effect you desire. Or, it might be that your artist statement expresses out-of-date ideas or goals you have with the work that you haven’t yet achieved. Likewise, if everyone shares a similar opinion about a detail or an image, don’t be quick to dismiss it. It’s likely they are on to something.
Sleep on what they say so that in the coming days you can be more open to evaluating opinions that may contradict your own. Try not to take any feedback personally and don’t get discouraged if you don’t hear what you were hoping to hear. Their feedback is just a guide, a way of checking in with your viewers and understanding things from their point of view.
With a cool head, reevaluate your writing and your images with their feedback in mind. Play around with your words and images and see if any of their proposed changes work. You might be surprised. Then again, you might not. Just try to stay out of your own way so that you are able to create the most authentic artist statement and the most powerful body of work possible.
An artist statement describes, from your perspective, what you do and why. It’s a way for viewers to connect with your work using the most prevalent medium of all: language. It provides you with the words you need to talk about your photography, whether for a professional meeting like a portfolio review or for a casual discussion among peers. An artist statement is extremely helpful to write, because the process forces you articulate the main ideas behind your images. Those main ideas then serve as a guide in helping you asses, edit, and sequence your images with a more focused objective. Writing an artist statement can also reveal that the ideas you have of your images are not what the images actually portray, presenting you the opportunity to revise your thoughts and better articulate what your images actually reflect.
Editor's Note: To receive personal guidance writing an artist statement, reserve a place in Amy Touchette's upcoming workshop, “Writing an Artist Statement: Understanding and Verbalizing Your Personal Vision,” offered February 19-24, 2017, at SEEK Workshops, located in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.