Out of college, I worked as a naturalist and began selling some of my nature photography. But it was difficult to make enough money. So I went to work for the Minnesota DOT as an information officer/photojournalist. My photography became about people, highways, trains, planes, and bridges, and I got to do photography around the state for the state map. This was definitely a time I was developing my craft as a photographer while exploring ideas of style and voice. I enjoyed finding unique ways of portraying DOT work.
I realized that long-term government work was not for me, and that I needed broader experience in order to pursue more types of photographic work. So I worked for a publications house in Minneapolis, then a video and photography production group also in Minneapolis (all corporate work). There is no question that this work stretched my use of craft, but both style and voice began to take a back seat. Any style or voice I might have had would always be secondary to the client's needs and wants.
(An aside: I don't think this is necessarily a requirement for client work, but it usually is when you are working for a company that does client work. If you are working as an individual, you can more easily show off a style, and even voice, if you are willing to work hard at finding the right clients. That is not so easy to do working for a company.)
I did some work that was important to me related to nature, but a lot of that had to take a back seat to the “day job” and family. Some people have been “successful” in our field because they either had no family or didn’t spend much time with family. I have recognized that there is a lot I “could have done” if I had spent less time with my wife and kids as they grew up, but I loved that time (and I still love the time I spend with my wife now that the kids are on their own). If I could do it again, I would not change that, though I know some things today that I didn't know then that might have affected some of my decisions (but then, isn't that life).
During my time in Minnesota, I worked very hard becoming the best photographer I could be for the DOT and I enjoyed traveling the state and even spending time with the governor and other officials. But that was largely not my voice — I was doing someone else’s message in a way that was effective for them. At the production house, I became very good at producing videos for corporations and I had executives asking specifically for me because I was very good at creating their messages in their voice. My voice was nowhere to be seen, and I was not supporting it much outside of that work.
Then we moved to California looking for more variety in my work. I was fortunate to find a job at Outdoor Photographer. I was privileged to meet a lot of terrific photographers and see a whole range of work beyond what most people see, but once again, it was not my voice. I started doing my own articles (and books), but they were mostly how-to in an “objective” way with not so much of my voice in them either.
So when I started working on my own, I struggled a bit because for so very long, I had been mostly working with someone else’s voice or in a “non-voice” manner. I am proud of and pleased with the work I did, but I did miss this important part of a creative person’s life.
It has taken me many years to find my voice again, and still, I sometimes stumble and miss it. This is not simply about the work I did. It also has to do with the “science” education I had in college (BS and MS in plant and soil science with minor in ecology). As a scientist, you weren’t supposed to have a “voice”, but only to “present the facts” (Randy Olson deals with this pretty well in his excellent book, Don’t Be Such a Scientist – which could have been written for me, and his blog, thebenshi.com). I have really had to fight my education, my upbringing in Minnesota (if you have ever heard Garrison Keillor, you will understand that. Minnesotans don’t promote themselves and think poorly of those who do), and my work over the years to get to where I am today.
I feel my last few books finally do reflect me and my voice, especially my Macro Photography from Snapshot to Great Shot book, which is very personal. But it has taken a long time to get there.
I think everyone who wants to be a strong photographer and communicator needs to find their voice. I believe we are all individuals with distinct voices and with the potential to show something in our photography worth spreading. I encourage you to keep honing your voice and keep it out there. Being able to do that effectively, and to be able to use any style you like, means learning the craft of photography. You can always express yourself and explore what it means to bring your voice to your images, but the more you know about the craft of photography, the more you control and ability you have to do that.