8 Lessons That Shaped My Photography in 2021

8 Lessons That Shaped My Photography in 2021

No matter how much you think you know about photography, it’s inevitable that you’ll keep on learning. That’s the great thing about art; you’ll become more creative as you take on the challenge of building upon your existing skills.

Photography by Serena Dzenis
Photography is an ongoing learning curve.

While 2020 signalled the onset of the pandemic, the year that just passed was almost as difficult, as we learned to adjust to a world where many of us found ourselves largely confined to our homes. Like myself, many photographers continued to struggle with inspiration, creativity and other factors that would influence overall well-being, health, business and productivity.

However, the rollercoaster of 2021 taught me a lot about who I am and the direction in which I want to take my photography. These lessons didn’t always feel helpful at the time, though they eventually turned out to be good in the overall scheme of things.

Here are some of the highlights that I’ve learned over the last year, paired with some of my favourite work. I hope you’ll find my reflections helpful for you on your own journey!

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1. Stay Focused on What Photography Means for You

I haven’t always had much of a direction in life; perhaps that’s why certain things have taken a long time to achieve or why I’ve found myself in and out of several different career paths. However, early on in the year, I identified what type of work I wanted to produce and set about honing my skills to get to the point where I’d be happy with the outcome.

In the wee hours of New Year’s Day, I started photographing the architecture in my immediate vicinity. Thereafter, my days and months were spent seeking out new structures to photograph as I undertook the task of unravelling new storylines and ideas inside my head.

The result was the birth of Meanwhile… in Reykjavík.

Later on, these stories took on a whole new meaning in 2021 ± II: Utopia Broadcasting.

Fine art photography by lens based artist, Serena Dzenis.
The 'Meanwhile... in Reykjavík' series was a direct outcome of my experience of the pandemic.

As I worked on these two projects, I learned that I no longer identified as just a landscape photographer. My inner musings and my philosophy on the world, as well as the Universe in which we live, had changed during the pandemic.

Fine art photography by lens based artist, Serena Dzenis.
Confined to the city, I began to see buildings and industrial architecture in a different way.

To understand why, let’s take a step back to the chemical elements of life. As Carl Sagan famously said, “we are made of star stuff.”

With this in mind, I realised that humans, whether we like it or not, are part of nature. As much as we like to think of ourselves as separate from everything, we’re really just another link in the chain.

We are made from the same fundamental building blocks that have given rise to the ‘natural’ world around us. Similarly, everything that we construct uses the same elements as all that exists naturally in the Universe as we know it.

Fine art photography by lens based artist, Serena Dzenis.
The volcano eruption took me off course and I struggled to come to terms with how to classify myself as a photographer.

Given this outlook, how would I classify myself as a photographer? I didn’t feel like an architecture photographer but I certainly wasn’t a landscape photographer anymore. If anything, I was producing fine art but even that term didn’t feel like it encapsulated what photography meant for me.

Halfway through the year, I began to put the words ‘lens-based artist’ to the test – the reason being that I am a person who uses cameras and lenses to capture certain things which I then harness to create my art.

By identifying myself as a lens-based artist, I was able to stay true to what photography meant for me and to take my work in a new direction. This helped me to evolve professionally as a photographer and an artist. In turn, doors have opened up to new opportunities.

Learning to be at peace with how I identify and trusting in the significance of my art has been very difficult to do. Ultimately though, it has led to a lot of joy and fulfilment over the past year.

2. Trust in Yourself and Your Ability

This brings me to the second lesson I learned in 2021, which was to trust myself. I’ve always battled fear, anxiety and imposter syndrome in every facet of my life but last year, I decided that I would stop being my own biggest obstacle to success.

To do this, I worked a lot on learning to trust in my authenticity and believing that I am intelligent, kind, worthy and able to tackle anything that comes my way. I also learned to value myself and how to recognise when people might be using me for their own gain. This helped me to hold true to my values and to step away from things that were toxic or keeping me back from what I could achieve.

Fine art photography by lens based artist, Serena Dzenis.
I dedicated a large part of 2021 to honing my post-processing skills to achieve my creative vision.

Additionally, in order to evolve as a photographer, I had to trust in my ability to develop new skills that would help me to reach my creative vision.

Perhaps one of the steepest learning curves was trusting that what I wanted to create was a unique and significant body of work that would be worthy of being seen. I constantly had to remind myself that if my work wasn’t appealing to one person, then it would appeal to someone else.

This mindset meant that I had to trust in the strength of my work. Once I did, I was able to use my voice to communicate the story in an interesting and meaningful way.

3. No One Has the Same Vision as You

Throughout my career, I’ve always been worried that I’m just a flash in the pan… that someone else will come along and copy my work and ideas or that they’ll do exactly what I’m doing but to an infinitely better degree. Every time that I release new pieces of work into the world, I worry about this same thing.

Fine art photography by lens based artist, Serena Dzenis.
Even if someone tries their best to copy your style of work, they'll never be able to create like you.

In fact, this is something that I continue to worry about now.

The truth of the matter though is that even when presented with the same subjects, we all see and experience them differently. This in itself is a wonderful thing. Even if someone is inspired to try to copy your aesthetic, they’ll never be able to detract from what you (and only you) can achieve.

It’s taken me a long time to realise that no one has the same vision as me and that I have the unique ability to create based upon the multitudes of experiences, opinions and beliefs that make up who I am as a person.

We are all different; that’s the beauty of life. As such, it’s important as an artist to learn how to manifest your own creative vision while respecting the ideas and visions of others.

4. Planning is Key

Being successful in business and life isn’t just about being lucky. A lot of it involves planning… sometimes quite methodically.

Last year, I began planning my shoots well ahead of time. I also planned some of the steps that I needed to take to move closer to my goals. I wanted to take my photography to another level, so I began focusing on what I could do to put my work in front of people’s eyes.

Serena Dzenis BBA Photography Prize 2021
BBA Photography Prize 2021 Exhibition at Kühlhaus Berlin. Photo courtesy of Rick Schubert.

Initially, I did a lot of research which set me on the right path. One thing led to another and before I knew it, a series of work from 2021 ± II: Utopia Broadcasting had been shortlisted for the BBA Photography Prize 2021.

In November, I ended up travelling to Germany for my first international group exhibition at Kühlhaus Berlin, where I had the opportunity to see my work displayed proudly alongside some of the most inspirational and talented contemporary photographers of today. It was an honour and a major step up in my career.

All of this validated my belief that planning ahead would be fruitful in the long run and strengthened my trust in myself, my work and the path that I had chosen to take.

If you haven’t already done so, then you should start planning the goals that you’d like to work towards in 2022. Planning never stops but always be ready to change your plans if needed. It’s still a good idea to leave some room for the unexpected things that might pop up from time to time!

5. You Have to Invest in Yourself to See Returns

Every investment is a gamble but if you don’t invest in yourself, then how can you expect to succeed?

When the pandemic began, freelance work started to dry up and I got into the habit of saving as much of my finances as I could. I would hesitate and deliberate for hours, even days, before committing to any purchases that were not household necessities required for immediate survival.

At the beginning of 2021, it became very evident that I needed a new tripod but still, I didn’t factor it into my budget. Rather, I continued to keep my pennies tucked away in my purse for fear of starving or becoming homeless.

Photography by Serena Dzenis
Shooting handheld became the norm as I languished upon diverting finances to a new tripod.

While these were genuine concerns, I realised that I still had to make an income. In order to do so, I’d have to seek success, which would involve investing some amount of time and money in myself.

A long time ago, I learned that you have to prioritise the important things in life and if you never get around to doing something, it’s because it’s not a priority. There’s nothing more to say when it’s put as simply as that.

I was unhappy with how unfit I’d gotten, so I organised and committed to an exercise routine. My physical condition improved and alongside it, I noticed positive changes in my mental health and general wellbeing. That was when I developed the motivation to focus on furthering my art in different ways that I hadn’t previously tried.

It was only when I began prioritising the important things in my life that my success returned. So even though it may be difficult, you have to invest time, money and effort in improving yourself if you want to improve your future.

6. Support and Celebrate Other Artists

When this whole situation with the pandemic began, I suddenly found myself cut off from my family, friends, social and professional network. During this time, it became even more important for me to remain connected.

Just like everyone else, I started spending more time on social media. It was a great way to see what everyone else was doing, how they were creating and to gain inspiration for my own work.

Many of the artists that I encountered were all dealing with common themes. As alone and lonely as I felt, it became apparent that we were all in this together.

BBA Photography Prize Exhibition 2021. Documentary photography by Rick Schubert.
Clockwise (L to R): Works by Renata Dutrée, Diana Cheren Nygren and Mieke Douglas at the BBA Photography Prize 2021 Exhibition. Photos courtesy of Rick Schubert.

For International Women’s Day, I was invited to participate in a panel on Clubhouse with other female-identifying landscape photographers. Hearing everyone’s voices, concerns and opinions was quite uplifting. I discovered that there was a community of likeminded people out there and above it all, we just really wanted the best for one another and to help each other succeed.

It’s difficult enough to break into the professional realm of art and photography as it is, so it’s important that we support one another wherever possible. Last year, I resolved that any time I had access to an audience, I would not hesitate to draw attention to the work of my peers.

Photography by Serena Dzenis
We all have unique creative vision and stories to be told.

Although it may feel like we’re all competing in the same arena, we all still have unique creative vision and stories to be told.

So celebrate your fellow artists and appreciate their ability to inspire others. I firmly believe that the more positive energy that you put out there into the world, the more motivated and inspired you’ll be in every facet of your life.

7. It's Important to Take a Break

Throughout 2020, I was posting on Instagram almost every other day. In 2021, I took a step back to posting once a week. By November, I found myself taking a step back completely.

Fine art photography by lens based artist, Serena Dzenis.
By the end of 2021, I was making more considered posts with more time inbetween.

On the one hand, I had spent a lot of energy crafting the story behind each and every one of my images. On the other hand, I felt like I had reached saturation point with everything that I was seeing online and I just needed some time to breathe.

While I continued on with the business side of things, I ended up taking a break from creating any new work. It was a relief when I allowed myself to stop paying so much attention to social media. The state of the world and the onset of the darkness of winter had caused me to lose a lot of my motivation and inspiration. I really needed space to reframe my thoughts and to figure out the next direction in which I’d be heading.

As 2021 ticked over into 2022, I  rediscovered some of my vigour and felt refreshed enough to pick up the reins … not quite where I’d left off but in a much better mindset, hopefully to make the most of the opportunities to come.

8. Last but Not Least... Be Grateful for What You Have

Not many people have managed to enter 2022 unscathed. In some way or another, we’ve all been affected by the events of the last couple of years. While I am hopeful that the situation around the world will improve this year, I’m also prepared for things to carry on as they are into the next.

Fine art photography by lens based artist, Serena Dzenis.
Photography isn't everything. Sometimes, you need to allow other important things to take precedence.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen my family and friends back home in Australia. I miss them more and more with every single day. Although I have my camera and my art, I miss all of the small things that I didn’t previously pay much attention to, such as the familiarity of being around old friends or the ease with which we used to be able to travel to see one another.

In 2021, I learned to be grateful for everything and everyone who exists in my life. I am forever thankful to all of the people who have shown me support and who have given me so much inspiration to draw upon. You all keep the fire inside my heart alive.

Thank you for being there ❤️

As corny as it sounds, one of the biggest lessons that you can learn is to be grateful for what you have. Let your loved ones know that you think of them. Prioritise what’s important to you. You’ve worked hard for what you’ve got, so treat it like it’s special.

Now… let’s blast off together. Onwards and upwards into 2022! 🚀

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