The creative process
What is art? This is an existential question. To me art is self-expression. If you create something that is meaningful and says something to you, then I would consider it to be art. If your creation appeals to a wider audience, this may be when others would consider your work to be art. However, this is highly subjective and can also tied to a cult of personality surrounding the creator and what is in fashion (or dead….for some reason the impact of a body of work increases if you are dead). Regardless, I wouldn't worry too much about others opinions on what is art and what is not; what is good art and what is bad art.
Who are you trying to please? As an artist this is an important question. First and foremost, one has to be satisfied with ones own work both from a creative and technical standpoint. Ideally, one should follow one's own vision for the body of your work regardless of the opinions of others. Many will disagree with me on this since their are seemingly an endless number of forums for people to comment on your images and a thriving cottage industry of photography seminars and tours. As a means to improve technical skills this can be useful, but from a creative standpoint, I am highly dubious. Many artists were not appreciated in their time yet continued to follow their own vision. Certainly they would not have been concerned with how many likes they had on Instagram. I am of the opinion that you should follow your vision and what you are trying to say. Are you the next Monet or Adams or Dylan? Probably not, but I am certain that you won’t be by following someone else’s vision. Be true to yourself. Many artists, Ted Kooser comes to mind, have day jobs that pay the bills and allow for complete artistic freedom, others combine a mix of commercial and artistic work. You have to find your way.
What are you trying to say? Photography is a visual means to tell a story. All the technical ability in the world will not substitute for a good subject. (There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept - Ansel Adams). If you are doing commercial work, this is provided, otherwise it is up to you. Most people follow their interests. For example, many photographers are interested in environmental and social justice issues and tell stories around them. Once you have identified interests, then building project around them is useful. Projects are a method of advancing story telling and allow one to envision what images that would best tell the story. This is significant, since if you have the image in your imagination of what you want to say, it allows you to put yourself in a situation to capture it. This makes photography very different from other non verbal forms of communication (e.g. painting) where one goes directly from the imagination to the final product. In studio photography one has to solve the problem of staging and lighting to produce the desired image. In the field, all one can do is be ready to capture an image when the situation presents itself (if at all).