I would love to say that I make images 100% for myself, and I think I do for the most part. My own beliefs and preferences guide me more than anything else throughout the image creation process. But I’ve built those sensibilities of mine over the years not only by making my own work, but by observing the work of others and picking up bits of inspiration from everywhere. There are fellow photographers and artists I really respect and whose work I really love, and I would be lying if I said they didn’t influence me in some way during the image creation process.
Maybe when I’m honing in a composition I realize that the way I’m balancing it seems like something a certain photographer would do. Or maybe when I’m shooting a certain subject or type of light I think about how it seems like something a certain photographer would choose to shoot. Or maybe when I’m processing an image and trying to dial it in, I think about a certain photographer’s work and how I love their restrained approach, and wonder what they might think about this image I’m making–this may guide me to pull back the contrast or saturation, for example. Or maybe I come across a combination of composition and light and form that I just know is going to be widely popular. That won’t be the reason I shot it, but I’ll recognize that people are probably going to like it (which isn’t always the case).
So it’s not that I’m making images to try and meet the expectations of peers, but I do recognize that certain images will have wide or niche appeal, and I do draw inspiration from my peers, even if I’m not actively trying to do so. I don’t let this stop me from making an image I like. If I like it I’m going to shoot it, regardless of what people might like to see from me instead.
Regarding processing and keeping it “real”, that’s almost another answer on its own, but I’ll say that making my processing believable isn’t about satisfying anyone else’s requirements. It’s about keeping the “fourth wall” intact so that the processing doesn’t detract from the subject or the viewing experience.