No Holds Barred: Pushing Boundaries With Photography

Eddie Izzard. Gloria Steinem. Steve Jobs. Frida Kahlo. David Lynch. Eleanor Roosevelt. Tim MinchinBeth Ditto.

What do these people have in common? They’re individuals who have challenged the status quo by letting their inner voice guide their path in life. This is my general definition, albeit a loose one, of what makes someone a boundary pusher. Leading by example, iconic boundary pushers can motivate us to stretch ourselves further than we usually would. When I’m about to make a big life decision, I often look to these role models and wonder how they might approach the same choice.

We can create any reality that we choose for ourselves, but we need to be willing to listen to our inner voices to be able to push these boundaries.

Boundary pushers do not make choices driven by prestige; they base their decisions on what their gut says. We all have an inner voice, and yours and mine are just as valuable, sacred, and potentially change-making as Oprah’s or Obama’s.

I’m really excited to begin this No Holds Barred series with a focus on one of my own personal passions, photography.

Susan Sontag: shaping our interpretation of visual culture

Susan Sontag is a boundary pusher because of her efforts to shape how we interpret the visual culture in which we live. An intellectual through and through, Sontag passionately pursued a wide range of creative endeavors including writing, film-making, directing, and human rights activism; and performed each in her own unique — and incredibly well-researched — way. However, she is perhaps best known for her seminal collection of essays compiled in On Photography.

Through her well-researched arguments and innate passion for the arts, Susan Sontag’s work encourages us to question our image-saturated world and push beyond its status quo. Photo courtesy of Peter Hujar/

“As photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure.”

– Susan Sontag, On Photography

On Photography dissects the influence and effects that photography and its image-based culture have on us. As the amount of images with which we are bombarded daily rapidly rises, this work becomes even more pertinent. Written presciently in ’77, Sontag anticipates the impending increase in imagery influx and wisely gives us critical food for thought about what it means for us both as a society, as well as individually, through our day to day lives.

I think of the ideas formulated in On Photography often; they are integral to practicing mindful image consumption. Image-based social media sites like Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Flickr, Vine, and dozens more are intended for consuming images at a rate so fast that our attention spans must necessarily be whittled away to split seconds if we are to attempt to engage with them.

Though this image overdose doesn’t necessarily have inherently negative effects, the effects it does have are significant — regardless of our subjective interpretations. Sontag’s writings investigate the reasons behind our instinctual need to take, and share, so many photos, as well as the impact of our relentless viewing of this visual abundance.


“It is impossible to think and hit someone at the same time.”

–Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others


Lesser known, though equally invaluable, is her work in Regarding the Pain of OthersDealing with the influence of photojournalism, she explores who benefits – and, likewise, who suffers – from war images published in magazines and newspapers. By questioning the effect of war photography on those who are actually enduring the horrors of war, she brings up important questions of ethics and values. Written in 2003, this work also gained relevance when photojournalism collided with the internet’s penchant for fast, rampant distribution. In light of current crises as in Syria and Egypt, probing the reasons behind our desensitized culture is necessary if we are to move toward a more mindful consumption of war imagery.

As we flip through our favorite bookmarked sites, scanning Facebook for the latest news, and uploading our daily photos to Instagram, we would do well to pause for a moment and consider what we are even looking at, and why. By delving into the how’s and why’s of our visually-saturated society, valuable insight can be gained about ourselves, both personally and in relation to our global community.

Mindful image consumption begins here.


So successful has been the camera’s role in beautifying the world that photographs, rather than the world, have become the standard of the beautiful.

– Susan Sontag, On Photography


Eleanor Leonne Bennett: making waves through personal vision

Complementary to boundary pusher Sontag is 17 year old photographer Eleanor Leonne Bennett. This UK born talent hasn’t yet had the pleasure of reading Sontag’s work: she’s too busy making waves of her own with her distinctive photographic style. With over 60, 000 images under her young belt, Bennett is pushing boundaries in the older, male-dominated industry status quo through her personal vision and strong sense of self.

Eleanor Leonne Bennett draws from her personal sensibilities to create her unique imagery. By embracing making mistakes and letting rejection slide off her back, she’s coming into her own as a true talent in the industry. Photo by Eleanor Leonne Bennett.

Her photography “has been published in British Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, the Guardian, the Telegraph” and more. Even though our ageist society tends to discriminate in the opposite direction — excluding older women from professional opportunities — it is nevertheless quite difficult to break into the industry at all, let alone during high school. So, what can we learn from Bennett’s breakout success? Proving the possibilities that arise when we stay true to our own instincts, she shares:

“I may as well make the mistakes I am going to make now as an artist instead of waiting until my thirties. I do sometimes get upset at rejections, but I just have to move on. No one cares. I may as well be fearless, develop my aesthetic and do my very best.”

When I was a teenager I was far too susceptible to other people’s opinions to genuinely explore my own talents. While I believe that embarking on a journey towards our authentic selves can begin at any age, I’m inspired by teenagers who are able to gracefully exemplify the values I now hold so dear. Accepting that mistakes and rejection are necessary parts of life, Bennett is reaping the rewards of rolling with the punches as she moves forward with her singular vision.

Openness and vulnerability

Her advice to other up-and-comers is sound: “be strong and be stubborn tempered with an openness to learning and a genuine vulnerability.” When we stay open to our emotions, we can receive inspiration more easily. She cites her affection for weirdness as integral to her creative process, as opposed to work by her peers: “I’m often more inspired by general strangeness than other photographers as a rule.” Our work can only be inimitable when it comes from our inner sensibilities, rather than from copying others.


Self-image sets the boundaries of individual accomplishment.

-Maxwell Maltz

Her unique, intriguing images show her personal aesthetic. We need to look no further than our own sense of self to effectively deal with our image-saturated culture. By staying true to our inner voice, we can choose to shut down our computers and experience photography in our own way, whether out and about with a disposable camera, or visiting a local gallery.

When we walk in the same direction as everyone else and ignore our own gut instincts, life can become a blur of disconnection. Challenging the status quo and pushing boundaries by following our personal vision can help us to break out.

This does not only apply to photography, of course. Whatever we’re passionate about investing our time in, the magic will always be found when we work with our own vision. So often, we try to conform to what we think other people expect of us, but this never works! How can we contribute all that we have inside when we’re so busy hiding?

Like Mike’s dream of creating an all-natural water filter that’s both environmentally friendly and beautiful to look at, breaking out of the status quo was essential for making his vision for Soma a reality.

Moving forward

My challenge for us all is to listen to our inner voice, express our personal sensibilities, and use our intuition to guide our actions, every day. If we’re not used to pushing ourselves in these ways, then doing so can require us to muster up a bit of courage. That’s okay; embrace the opportunity to expand your comfort zone.

Go forth as your vision guides you forward, forging new, unique paths – no holds barred.


Millions of men have lived to fight, build palaces and boundaries, shape destinies and societies; but the compelling force of all times has been the force of originality and creation profoundly affecting the roots of human spirit.

– Ansel Adams