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“Specialization is For Insects”

Selling 20 million albums worldwide doesn’t mean you’ve found your creative niche.

I started shooting photography around the age of 10, when my uncle, Joseph Kugielsky, a photographer for the New York Times, gave me my first camera—a Nikon F. I spent a lot of time in the darkroom while in college, but by then music had taken over my life, and I’ve been very lucky to have had longtime success with it.

During a long album tour around four years ago, I started shooting again, following my uncle’s guiding ethos to document the things you see that others don’t. For me, on tour, living the weird juxtaposition of being in front of a huge crowd one moment and then isolated in an airport terminal or anonymous hotel room at 4 a.m. the next—those are unusual experiences that I really enjoyed capturing with my camera. When I work on music I tend to work on it by myself, but in order to create visual work I had to involve friends, and I really liked this communal aspect. When I take photos I’m also forced to interact with the physical and material world in a way I don’t ever have to do in music. With music you’re just pushing air molecules around.

Even after four years of collecting a significant body of work, I had doubts about showing my images to anyone. With digital photography being so prolific, everyone I knew was a photographer. I felt like a dilettante. So, I showed my work to some artist friends (Will Cotton, Damian Loeb, and Tom Sachs) and got a lot of good feedback, but I was still nervous about showing it.

moby, innocents, 2013

I remembered a quote by the great American science fiction writer, Robert A. Heinlein:

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

What I take from that quote is that to truly live a creative life means that you will need to experiment in as many different fields as possible. With that challenge, there’s always that risk that as you do, you will leave yourself open to being seen as a dilettante. But I decided that I’d rather try even though it runs the risk of failure.

My initial reluctance to show my photography, I think, was fueled by the fear of public criticism. But in the world we live, anyone who does anything in a public capacity is going to be criticized for it. Honestly, you can’t take it too personally because scathing things get written about a lot of people. It’s sad when people self-edit or inhibit their creativity just out of fear that some mean spirited person might write something nasty about them. We need to learn to base our sense of self worth on the things that really matter—creativity, and family, and friends, and your health, rather than the opinions of strangers you’ll never meet.

There’s something humbling about creating something new and running the risk of public ridicule, but I guess I have pretty low standards when it comes to shame and humility. Really, you have to ask yourself: What’s the worst-case scenario? The worst case is that someone doesn’t like what you do. You still have your friends, family, health, and freedom. So why not try something new? The worst-case scenario really isn’t all that bad.

Photos courtesy of moby, innocents, 2013

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