Oli Sansom’s stunning photos win awards and wow clients. And they’re inspired by a core belief: that authenticity is dead, and everything is wonderful. (Featuring: OLI SANSOM of BRIARS ATLAS)
“My time is divided between here, and everywhere else all over the world.”
This is how Australian photographer Oli Sansom describes his nomadic existence – one that makes 50% of us swoon with envy, while the rest of us can’t even consider loading our camera-children onto a plane without immediately popping a Xanax.
Wanderlust notwithstanding, one thing is undeniable: Oli Sansom’s photographs are polarizing. An impressive list of clients and creative colleagues are deeply moved by them. Many noteworthy organizations and publications have awarded them. Others find them too dark, too strange, too… something.
The truth is that there is nothing neutral about Oli Sansom’s photographs. One way or another, his images will evoke a response.
It Must Be… Authenticity?
In 1984, music historian Richard Taruskin wrote, “The authenticity movement can become a positivistic purgatory, literalistic and dehumanizing.” (Don’t overthink this. Just know that even in pre-Instagram 1984, someone had noticed that the endless pursuit of authenticity was a malicious, vicious spiral.)
But since authenticity remains the Creatives Catchword of the Decade, I asked Oli Sansom what he thinks. Is it authenticity that makes him such an impactful artist? Are we bound to be our most authentic selves – even to our stranger-clients – if we want our work to mean anything?
Oli Sansom Vs. Authenticity: The Entitled Toddler
OLI SANSOM: “There’s a popular idea out there right now that by being ‘inauthentic’ we’re doing a disservice to our clients and our craft.
“This theme is kinda the entitled toddler of the ideological sandpit, and it [overlooks] something really important: we are in a luxury industry, in a luxury time.”
authentic : \ə-ˈthen-tik
REAL; ACTUAL; true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character
OLI SANSOM: “It’s probably not popular to say this, but anyone can pick up a good 50mm prime lens now, run about shooting love candidly, and pay their rent just fine. It’s a unique and beautiful thing. The barrier to entry is low, our craft is democratized, and everyone can join.
“The problem [with a low barrier to entry] is that [we don’t have to think] very deeply about what we’re doing if we’re not forced to struggle. In our industry, that [prevents] us from finding magic – and maybe from creating a sustainable business.
“When folks were sweeping chimneys, they didn’t have time to consider whether that job was ‘true to their best self.’ They just did it to support their family.
“The loud [call] to, ‘Be yourself! Be authentic!’ appears to come from a place of care. But scratch a little deeper, and it’s really grown from the soft, casual entitlement [derived] from a movement in it’s prime: the authenticity movement, which, in itself, is some sort of well-intentioned pushback against the A-side of folks we never needed to be looking at anyway: influencers.”
A-side : /ˈāˌsīd/
the side of a pop single record regarded as the main release; the first impression
OLI SANSOM: “The moment you pick up a camera and frame a scene, you’re being inauthentic, and telling a curated story through a process of exclusion. That’s beautiful, and worth extending further.
“That’s where things get interesting.
“Don’t let anyone tell you that moments are more important than mountains, or mountains more important than moments. This isn’t rocket science. Simply get good at them both.
“Our job might be in part to find the truth in situations and amplify it. But our job is also to exercise vision and show magic. Being a passive storyteller is only one, small way of contributing to those two things.
“You can be, in equal measure, a passenger and a driver. You can show things in a lean way, or in a complex way. There simply isn’t a right or wrong.”
Read This If You’re (Kinda) Freaking Out
Maybe Oli’s message is old hat to you. But maybe you’re like me, and the idea of casually throwing off authenticity like a silly fad feels like chopping off your shutter finger.
“How will I even make art anymore?!?”
This isn’t the word of the Lord sent down from Heaven. You can take it or leave it.
Second: get back to the spirit of the message.
That’s something my grandfather used to say when he was teaching a Sunday School lesson and the literal scripture didn’t sit right with him. (Like, um, no, we aren’t stoning anyone for wearing mixed fabrics today – SORRY, Y’ALL.) Now let’s get back to the spirit of the message.
The point: seek the deeper meaning.
Oli isn’t suggesting that everyone be fake, fake, FAKE. He’s reminding us that we change everything we touch. And that throwing ourselves into a panic over the “authenticity” of our work only inhibits our freedom to create.
Authenticity Vs. Vulnerability
Here’s why this matters:
When you’re authentic, you’re certifiable. The real deal. Not a forgery.
When you’re vulnerable, however, you’re exposed. You’ve put yourself out there in that no-holds-barred way that says, “This is what I’ve made. You can love it or hate it, but you won’t be able to ignore it.”
vulnerable : /ˈvʌln(ə)rəb(ə)l/
EXPOSED; open to attack; WOUNDED
If you’ve been making photographs from the truest part of yourself – from a place of deep creativity, joy, and purpose – it’s likely that you’re working from a place of vulnerability.
Maybe it’s semantics. Or maybe it’s time to adapt your language.
It’s Definitely Time To Own It
So we’ve learned that we don’t need a note from the Authenticity Warden before making amazing photographs. We can create wonderful work out of our own weird, one-of-a-kind minds.
Are you ready to tap into your weird, one-of-a-kindness?
Because we’re ready to take you there.
How To Infuse Your Unique Voice Into: Your Website
Like each and every photographer who has ever photographed, Oli Sansom wanted his website to be exclusively Oli. He engaged in a creative exercise that every one of us can (and should) dig into. Oli examined his opposites.
OLI SANSOM: [“When creating my website,] I asked myself a simple question: what’s the opposite of what I’m tempted to do right now?
“My throat was tickled with the delicate wisps of disappointment-vomit at the idea that I had to present a “hero” image, or treat the site as purely a sales tool. (Make no mistake, that’s exactly what a website is: a sales tool.) But, in that moment, my Opposite was to NOT display any images.”
And so Oli set about making a website that looked nothing like any other photography website in existence. Instead of photos: illustrations. In place of flowery descriptions: wit and sarcasm. It was excruciatingly, deliciously “Oli.” People would love it or they would hate it; but they certainly would not ignore it.
Can You Even Sell Photography Without Showing Any Photographs?
Oli was faced with some BIG challenges. But he knew what he wanted to accomplish. Once he’d defined his desired opposites, he could begin problem-solving, considering strategies he’d never previously considered as options.
“I challenged the idea that my unique voice has to be ‘me.’ ”
Oli openly tells others that he isn’t particularly attracted to his own photographic aesthetic – but he loves making the work for his clients. The notion that the art one creates could be vastly different from the art one consumes feels ironic; revolutionary, even. Yet it aligns with how so many of us move through our creative worlds.
The baker who creates incredible pastries, yet prefers savory foods for herself… The filmmaker whose focus is horror movies, but whose library is full of classic romance films… The artisan who weaves elaborate, bohemian designs, while maintaining a simple, minimalist home…
OLI SANSOM: “Look [at] the folks who make a career out of being someone they’re not: actors. There’s something magical in that.
“A lot of uncharted territory opens up from a marketing and creative point of view when we embrace this simple position: What if I try on a new hat?
“There’s a fallacy out there running rampant that we need to ‘be ourselves’ and have our work truthfully represent who we are. This is, of course, total and profound bollocks.”
How To Infuse Your Unique Voice Into: Your Brand
Your brand is everything, from your style of shooting to your style of dress; from the words you use in your emails, to the words you use on your website; from your color palate to your logo to – yes – even the memes you share.
You can build a brand that is 100% the truest, most vulnerable you. But you can also build a brand that is a character; an actor; an entity.
The only thing that matters is consistency. That’s what makes a brand stick.
Pick and Perfect Your Voice
Oli’s brand voice for his wedding website is one that comes naturally to him. (Yours should be, too!) He has fine-tuned and honed that particular brand voice to be expected by potential wedding clients and familiar to his repeat clients.
Is Oli more than the quippy, tongue-in-cheek wedding photographer you meet on his website? Of course. But that voice is the brand. And its consistency is what earns him his work and sustains his reputation as one of Australia’s top wedding photographers.
OLI SANSOM: “The tone of voice I use throughout [my website] it is one I thoroughly enjoy writing. Folks constantly reference my writing and storytelling. There’s a [communication] climate we’ve become used to, and I like to think I’ve been unafraid in breaking that.”
The Opposites Exercise (For Folks Who Need Directions)
You don’t have to be a writer to infuse your unique voice into your branding, nor do you have to create a photo-free homepage to design a one-of-a-kind website. Use Oli’s Opposites Exercise to explore and exploit the risks available to you. All you need is a blank sheet of paper:
Create two columns titled OBVIOUS and OPPOSITE. Then make three rows named after brand tasks you want to work on. Here, we’ll use Website, Message, and Goal(s). Next, you’ll outline your obvious solutions for each brand task, as well as explore opposite solutions for each brand task. Here are some examples from Oli’s own website:
- Obvious: Bold colors with a swirly font and big photographs … Opposite: Neutral colors with a bold font and vintage illustrations.
- Obvious: Separate links for the blog and portfolio… Opposite: Put it all on the homepage in easy reach!
- Obvious: “I’d love to photograph your wedding!” … Opposite: “Wedding Photography That Won’t Make You Throw Up” (Yes, that is literally written on his homepage.)
- Obvious: “I’m passionate about photography.” … Opposite: “Uses deodorant, turns up on time.” (Again: direct quote.)
Define one obvious goal. Let’s say – for example – that you aim to photograph 25 weddings this year. Now flip that around. The opposite here would be to define your goal by its outcome.
You don’t just want 25 weddings; you want financial stability, more opportunities to be creative, the chance to travel to new places…
What if you reframed your goals based on the outcomes you desire? How would that impact the way you build your brand?
Embrace the Mindset Switch
OLI SANSOM: “If you think about things from a couple’s perspective, how are you gonna stand out if you’re just another ‘storyteller capturing candid moments’?
“I’d like to see photographers take more risks. Risk-taking sounds so gratuitous and almost selfish, though. You’re not taking a risk; you’re exploiting it! So don’t be a risk-taker, be a risk-exploiter. It’s about a mindset switch.“
Nothing Is Authentic, But Everything Is Wonderful
When it comes to photography,Oli is convinced: “There is no ‘truth’ or ‘authenticity.’ There is just a festival of wonderful things happening in front of you.”
And if you can sort through the practical bits – details like what you want out of life, how you want to grow your business, and how you hope to impact others – you’ll be able to finally, freely create.