What If No One Ever Saw Your Photography?

I came across a curious YouTube video a few weeks ago where the creator went into a philosophical discussion about creating photos and having no one ever see them.

He referred to Vivian Maier, a woman that died in 2009. She had let her storage place lapse two years prior and all her contents were “won” by John Maloof, Ron Slattery, and Randy Prow. In her storage space were decades of developed and undeveloped film of her street photography work.

© Wiki Media Commons

Vivian spent all her free time photographing over decades and never showed anyone her work. It was only just before her death that her work was shown and took the world by storm.

Can you imagine a person like her in today’s world with an iPhone, Instagram, and Facebook?

I can’t.

She was a Socialist, a Feminist, a movie critic, and a tell-it-like-it-is type of person. She learned English by going to theaters, which she loved … She was constantly taking pictures, which she didn’t show anyone. via Wikipedia

She never posted her work on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. She never did it for the likes, recognition, or adulation.

If the right people didn’t find her work, after letting her payments lapse, she would’ve died in obscurity. No one, except her living relatives, would’ve known who she was and her odd quirks.

My initial reaction was “OMG, how lucky we are to know her work” but how many Vivian Maier’s are out there? And how many will we never know?

Why Shoot if You’re Not Going to Show?

In today’s FOMO world and siloed social media, we’re driven to create content and share our photographs. If our creative work is well received we might get a like or a comment. On the surface, this instant feedback is good. You can learn faster and course-correct as needed.

But the darker side to instant feedback is that you get hooked on it. You might tie up your entire self-worth or voice as a creative in little likes and hearts.

I find that incredibly upsetting. We are more than just social media likes and hearts, at least I’d like to think we are.

Plus, developing your style and your voice takes time. It takes making mistakes, falling, and getting back up again, time after time, to develop who you are as an artist and photographer.

Perhaps it might be a good thing NOT to show your work for a long time or even at all. You need time to find your voice and develop your style if you want to be an artist.

Some find themselves faster than others, and some — like yours truly — can take decades.

Here’s a mental exercise. What happens when you do show your work and it’s not well received? Do you then change your style to match what general society likes or wants? If you were to change, what is the reason why? Is it for the likes and hearts?

If you couldn’t care less about the likes and hearts then it begs the deepest and hardest question to answer, why do you shoot at all?

This, dear friends, is a question I struggle with. Why do I even shoot at all? What is my voice? What is my style? What is my message? Do I even need to have a message?

Box of Positives & Negatives

My partner and I moved our entire family to a new house 5 years ago. When we did I boxed up all my old positive slides and negatives in a box and promptly forget where I put them.

A few weeks ago I found them again and was amazed at some of the old work I did. Granted, I have to scan them in (and I’m lazy that way) but I held the positives up to the light and remembered.

© Thomas Ott

I found my old landscapes from New Mexico and my 3-week exploration of the desert Southwest. I found my scrap metalwork at Port Newark. I found my old flower work.

And I found 100’s of negatives that need to be sleeved and stored. A lot of work that I will reserve for the winter if I have time.

© Thomas Ott

That box of positives and negatives reminded me of Vivian Maier. She photographed and stored her work, never to be seen again. I photographed and stored my work and forgot it. Did Vivian forget her work too?

A Life Worth Living

If I died my family would probably throw them away, a large part of my life gone. I would hope they would at least look at them before they tossed them away, but the probability of that is very low because everyone lives digitally now.

My images, good or bad, are pieces of my life. They provide a window into my past life, a place where I’ve been.

Then there are photographs of me that other people have taken. One day when they die and their work gets thrown away, that photograph of me will be thrown away too.

Will my life have been meaningless? Watch this NY Times video, it hit me hard.

In a world where photography is cheapened, a world where we hustle, a world where we live and die by the likes and hearts, is there any true meaning to photography left?

I say yes.

Its meaning can take many forms but its first and foremost’s meaning is what it is for you.

This is you. When you snap that shutter, it’s you.

A self-portrait is you. A photo of that rock you took, is you. A photo of your loved ones, it’s you. A photo of your lover, it’s you.

This is it. This is your life, the wonderful meaning that is you. Photography is just another way to bring meaning to your life if you let it be.

If you let photography be the avenue for your self-discovery and your meaning then the likes and hearts don’t matter. They become noise around you, and you are the signal.

Your work matters, if it’s only for an audience of one.

Why Do Healthy Relationships Need to Bend?

Any healthy relationship is built upon trust and communication, without it you are doomed from the start. Those two items you should never compromise on, yet it’s the little things that are just as important.

You know, the cap on the toothpaste. The money handling, the kid raising, the cooking duties, and all the rest where we get tripped up and build resentment or complacency over time.

Those little things can kill you and your relationship. So how do you overcome them? You overcome them by being flexible, by being willing to bend.


I’m going to share with you a photo of my wedding band. If you look closely you’ll see a callous where my wedding band rests against my hand. It’s been there for 17 years and counting.

I’m sure you’ll notice that it’s not a perfect circle either. It’s worn and misshapen and looks like it’s seen its share of life, and I’d say you’re 100% right. It’s seen happiness, joy, sadness, and anger. It’s a symbol of my relationship with my partner and our journey together.

Subscribe to get access

Read more of this content when you subscribe today.

A Time For Remembrance

I will remember this year for the rest of my life. The words I would use to describe it would be “shit-show” and “chaos.” Some good things happened but they pale in comparison to the life-altering storm I had to endure this year.

We all were isolated from Covid at the beginning of the year and life in the Ott house was chaotic. All four of us crammed into a room doing school zooms, meetings, and working.

While this sounds like a terrible situation, this led me on a path of self-introspection. It led me to dive into Medium and I found a wonderful group of writers that resonated with me. Their voices inspired me to evaluate my life through a different lens. They made me work hard on the unsolved questions I struggled with for years.

The eye must see all sides — Codes of Karate

I didn’t notice the gathering of storm clouds as I started working on myself. I boarded my ship and set out to sea, hoping to sail around these dark clouds.

The storm hit me hard in March this year when my parents and aunt were rushed to the hospital with full-blown Covid. I lay awake at night expecting to get a phone call that one had passed away. I felt relieved when all three came home, beaten to shit, but alive.

I thought the storm was over.

How wrong I was.

My father’s health deteriorated faster than ever and he had to be rushed back to the hospital in July. He barely made it out alive.

Then our dog started to fade fast. She was suffering from the same ailment that was killing my father, congestive heart failure.

We were away at Cape Cod when she shut down. She was dying and we weren’t there to comfort her.

I know they say it’s the last act of love you give them is when you put them to sleep but it doesn’t feel that way. There are no words to describe this and you never forget the emotion of giving the “order” to end a cherished living being’s life.

I remember crying with my daughter in a small condo overlooking the bay in Provincetown. My partner and son were out fishing. They came back home to see us a blubbering mess and instantly joined in.

A few days later we returned home and retrieved a small box. We buried her behind the fence, where she always ran to when she got loose.

Now that death had claimed a family member I thought the storm was over. My father was on the mend and we all were vaccinated. We started talking about having barbeques, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

I was expecting sunny weather but the clouds never lifted. The sea remained choppy. Little did I know that I was just in the eye of the storm.

My father called me up one day and asked If I could take him to get french fries. He was feeling better, recovering from his last hospital stay, and was getting his taste back. He was still too weak to drive himself, so I drove down and got him.

He went to sleep that night and never woke up.

I knew exactly where he wanted to go, a local hot dog joint where we would go from time to time, a real father and son place.

On the way home, he got very quiet and after a few minutes told me about his big regrets in life. It was such a heavy conversation, but it sounded like he was making peace with himself. True to himself, he shared these regrets as a warning to me. He shared his wisdom with me so that I wouldn’t make the same mistakes.

I dropped him off and felt an impending sense of doom. Did my father know his time on this mortal plane was coming to an end? I don’t know but it felt like a lightning blot struck the mast of my metaphorical ship and I had no way to sail around the storm that brought me to the darkest point of my life.


“How did your tests go?” I asked him.

“Good results, we can talk about them on Sunday.”

“Sure thing Dad, let me talk to Mom real quick.”

“Ok.”

Those were the last words I spoke to my father. He went to sleep that night and never woke up.

I was in New York City for work when my mother called me in a panic, telling me my father wasn’t waking up. I told her to call 911 right away. She hung up the phone and called 911. I started a phone chain and called my sister. She immediately dropped everything and headed to my mother’s house. I dropped everything and called an Uber to my mother’s house.

“good people sing, bad people have no songs.”

It felt like a giant rogue wave collapsed over me and my tiny ship. I felt like I was drowning. The storm raged around me like never before.

They say people grieve in my different waves and they’re right. I was in a state of shock for weeks and it wasn’t until his memorial in December that I started to feel the waves of grief wash over me.

Silly things set me off, like this sweet little video.

and this one,

Music and singing remind me so much of my father. He loved to sing. When he got together with his brothers and sisters there would be so much singing and laughter.

I remember this one time when I was around 10, we went to Red Lobster for dinner. My father’s best friend and his wife were visiting us from Germany and we all wanted to celebrate.

Next to us sat three women at a small table. Suddenly a group of waiters and waitresses came clapping and singing happy birthday. They marched over the table of women and placed a small cake with a candle in front of them. They all clapped and the women were laughing.

I look up to the heavens and think of her…

Then my father and our visiting guests started singing a birthday song in German. The women listened in a near trance with tears in their eyes by what they heard, a song that was sung by strangers, filling their corner of the restaurant. Everyone applauded and laughed.

This wasn’t the first time nor the last my father would do something like this. He would tell me (loosely translated from German) that “good people sing, bad people have no songs.”

My father was the kind of guy that everyone liked when they met him. He was a brave adventurer that came to the USA with a small suitcase to strike out on his own. He worked in a Deli for a while and then met my mother, who is also a brave adventurer in her own right.

My father wasn’t a perfect man but he had heart. He wore his heart on his sleeve and loved his family very much. I see a lot of his good qualities in me.

As I prepared for my father’s memorial I found a family photo I took on Christmas 2019. It was the last time we were all together before Covid ripped us apart.

I look back now and remember. I think about how in an instant your life can change for better or for worse. I think about my father’s life and the wisdom he shared with me.

I take stock of my life, and I can’t help but feel blessed.

Despite this being one of the worst years that I can remember, many lighthouses in my life helped me navigate safely through this treacherous storm. Those lighthouses, my fellow writers, are you. No matter how bright or dim, you helped shine the way toward safety in this storm and for that I’m grateful.

Thank you to Elle Beau, Demeter Delune, Zara Everly, Joe Duncan, Edward Riley, Mysterious Witt, and Yael Wolfe. Your words, comments, Twitter banter, and inner lights have sustained me through this storm. You are truly Queens and Kings.

Now that the storm clouds are clearing, I catch a glimpse of the North Star. I see her shining brightly in the night sky. I see Ursa Major and Ursa Minor in the heavens around her and I feel the cold winter air sting my face.

I exhale as the sea calms around me. I look up to the heavens again and think of her, my partner. I think of the bears, my children.

They were there for me in my time of need and I feel their love around me. My partner was there for me the entire time, through the darkest nights when the waves raged around me and when I thought all was lost. Her light pierced through the thickest clouds and helped me give my last measure of strength to make it through the storm. I would be so lost without her.

She is the Queen that rules my celestial heavens and I’m honored to be her King.

She guides me to a new dawn.

In Praise of an Older Woman

November Writing Challenge

 If you ever watched the movie “American Pie” you’ll remember the scene where the character Finchy seduces (or is seduced by) Stifler’s mom. She was hiding out in the basement bar by herself when Finchy stumbles across her and walks in.

Small talk, lots of Scotch later, and the realization that they both are adults of legal age led to a vigorous coupling between a younger man and an older woman.

I blame that ritual for my gaps in memory

I thought that scene was funny and didn’t understand why a young man, just barely 18, would be so enamored by a woman possibly twice his age until it happened to me.

Subscribe to get access

Read more of this content when you subscribe today.