Robert Frank called photography an art for lazy people, and I agree with him, as far as that goes, especially in the digital age where you can point your automated camera at something, apply some funky filter with the push of a button to what you’ve captured, and send it out on social media for the world to see, a finely finished product with nothing much to say.
It’s actually saying something that’s difficult. Successful creative works are never the product of technological factors. They make no concessions to current taste and listen to no counsel but their own. This is not to say, however, that there aren’t foundational skills you need to master as a precondition to saying what you want to say. Developing the skill sets necessary to be creative is rule based. Once you understand the rules, you’re better able to get out of your own way and let the process and your own creativity bring you to someplace unexpected.
Likewise, slavishly ape-ing others isn’t going to get you there either. Emulating either the conceptual or formal decisions of other photographers will not teach you where those decisions come from or how they were arrived at, but is merely a shortcut to your own creative solution, since your mentor has done all the legwork. Structured creative guidelines can easily become comfortable formulas that inhibit unanticipated solutions. A photo workshop is a bus tour; real creativity comes with the unstructured walk.
The solution to creating your own vision is to identify and observe the “rules” and then learn to break them. Creativity arises out of the tension between the rules and your imagination. But don’t confuse true creativity solely with a false concept of “originality.” Enduring, authentic aesthetic choices are rarely without some stylistic antecedent, but are historical and culturally specific, grounded in cultural tradition. So look at other work, lots of it. Not just any, however, but the stuff that’s lasted, that’s remained relevant across constantly changing, ephemeral fashion. You can’t move your thinking beyond an established aesthetic if you don’t know where that aesthetic begins and ends. On the other hand, too close of a focus on a given aesthetic can result in a closed perspective. Originality can only exist with a standard from which to deviate.
So, the “rules” are pretty simple when it comes to creative pursuits: Learn to use your tools. Learn the formal and conceptual ideas that govern the use of those tools for your given creative end. Learn the history of your medium and acquaint yourself with the best of what’s previously been done in the field. Then, ignore it all and take your own way.