I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who is trekking through the process. I’m not sitting on a high horse. I can’t even afford a horse.
It is often said that you have to be partially insane to be a creative. I’m not sure if that idea is influenced by the odd forms of modern art, or if someone recognized the risk of choosing fields with high unemployment rates.
As a photographer, sociologist, journalist, and student, I’ve place myself into a fast paced, highly competitive, quickly changing world. I knew it would be this way going in and I accepted that.
What I didn’t expect was my own personal fragility and how developing the wrong outlook on being a creative would push me into a trench. An immature mindset I thought was necessary for ‘making it’, almost killed me.
If I didn’t feel I was going to execute something the way I envisioned, I would psych myself out and try to run the other direction. Why bother, I would tell myself. I took my work so personally, that I linked being a great photographer with being great human being. I feared failure so much that I was willing to sacrifice my relationships in order to obtain success. I compared myself to others periodically. It didn’t matter if I was progressing, all I focused on was that I wasn’t there yet. Anytime I made an achievement, I would tell myself I didn’t deserve it. Anytime I screwed up, I would hate myself and my work. I have perfectionist tendencies, you see.
These thoughts, what I call monsters, are what have almost killed my ability to create and produce. I previously thought that these monsters were friends. They were just trying to push me past my limits. It was normal to have these thoughts continuously. As long as it got me to my goal, self-deprecation was a good motivator. It was okay to be depressed through the process because one day when I was successful I could finally be happy.
I changed. I was once an excited freshman ready to conquer and create. I had ideas flowing out of me and everything was a new adventure. I shot because I wanted to. I was a photojournalist because I was a dreamer. I dreamed of telling stories and meeting the amazing people that give the world character. I chose photojournalism because I wanted to give others a voice. I wanted to serve.
Then the monsters started camping out in my head. I woke up one day. I realized I was bitter and angry at the industry and at the lay offs I had personally witnessed. I only wanted to shoot when I thought I would get something out of it. I stopped taking risks. I stopped listening to critiques because I hated feeling like a failure. I wasn’t as interested in my subjects as I was in creating beautiful photos. I started following a path that I knew wasn’t for me, because everyone else defined it as success. It became about getting ahead rather than being happy and to top it off I almost quit because I thought my depression had to do something with my career rather than recognizing that I was creating my own depression.
I woke up with the personality of a bitter old photographer who had been shooting for 40 years. I’ve only been shooting for two. Two freaking years and I had already gotten to that point.
For a while now, I have slowly but surely been digging myself out of the trench. I guess you could say you get sick of yourself after a certain point. It’s been through this journey of bouncing back, that I’ve recognized some truths about myself as a creative and about the creative process in general. I’ve recognized the things I have to change in order to truly grow.
We should not only accept failure, but welcome it.
If you’re not learning, your dead. Here is a contact sheet of all the photographs I’m not particularly proud of from this summer. Every single photograph represents a lesson learned. I was once in a place where I would hide these from everyone. I’m currently getting out of a place of fear. A fear that holds me back from pursuing any project because I don’t want to disappoint myself.
When Atlanta freelancer Chris Stanford spoke at WKU, he told our class to go photograph man holes if we had to because every moment spent behind the camera was a learning opportunity. I haven’t photographed man holes yet, but I’m making a promise to myself that I’ll value my “crappy” frames as much as I value the winners. The time spent behind the camera is essentially the only thing that will make me move forward. While it’s okay to have big goals, we should focus on our current victories.
Side-note, someone is always going to hate your work. Get over it.
We should pursue what we actually want, not what we’ve been told we should want.
When selecting an internship, or a job opportunity, or project, many of us are taught to go for the most prestigious. Doing so signifies achievement, so we are taught. We’re given this pre-planned trajectory of what the ladder to success is supposed to look like. In photojournalism, it goes from small newspaper to medium newspaper to major newspaper. I’ve seen people achieve the big time, and I’ve seen them left with nothing.
Make it known that I find nothing wrong with the traditional path if that is what someone truly wants. If that makes you happy, more power to you. If it doesn’t, let someone else have the opportunity. If we remain apart of a cookie cutter system, we will become exactly that, cookie cutter. I don’t care if you want to become a professional pet photographer. If photographing kittens and puppies all day makes you happy and you’re passionate about it, there will be a way to make that dream happen. Our time is valuable and much of it should be spent chasing what we love. We should seek out the things that thrill us and leave us fulfilled. Let go of the things that make you feel secure. Let go of the standardized success ruler. You will not create your best work that way and you will find yourself smothered in a comfort bubble.
Be honest with yourself.
We should achieve balance.
One time my best friends had to set me down for an intervention because they said I was too obsessed with my work. I talked about it too much and I let my work stress influence how I treated them. I let it push away the people who had been there before I even started my career. I didn’t listen to them at first.
There is nothing romantic or ideal about the lone wolf workaholic. In creative culture, we worship the industry leaders for their work but we don’t want to believe that some of them are lonely, or alcoholics, or miserable. Dedication to your work has a threshold. Who cares if you land a client or get a promotion or get the internship of your dreams if no one is there to hug you. I want my version of success to include the ones I love. I don’t want to roll over at the age of 35 and only see my camera equipment. I don’t want to be on my death bed and all I have is hard drives of photographs. Photographs of other peoples families and moments because I didn’t take the time to have my own.
I have been taught the opposite but I am going to put my mom’s birthday over shooting an assignment. I am going to put the same effort into photographing my family and friends.
By never settling, I mean don’t settle for half-ass work. While my main point of this is to avoid obsession, I also feel it’s important to utilize every learning opportunity. I am extremely guilty of settling for decent when I know I could have produced great. Whether it’s a camera, a paint brush, or design software, we hold the tools, therefore we hold our potential. Push yourself. Don’t be lazy, don’t be safe.
You don’t like what you’ve just created? Do something about it. Trust me, I have been the spokesperson for self-deprecation with no action to fix it. Yet, the majority of my best work was created when I decided to stay longer, push harder, and try something different.
We should look at other people’s work as inspiration, not comparison.
I look at the work of photographers I admire and all of a sudden become overwhelmed. Rather than appreciating the work itself, rather than viewing the work as a source of motivation, I start comparing. I start taking my work up against theirs and I pick mine apart. Ignorantly, I take the work of people who have been shooting for over 10 years and I compare it with the 2 years experience that is backing my own. It’s done nothing but halt my own growth. It has ripped me of my own vision.
Context matters. The people we admire, they’ve been where we are. They have paid their dues. Some of them, just have pure talent. Envy is one of the seven deadly sins for a reason.
It is okay to like your own work. It is okay to like one of your own photographs despite what an editor tells you. It is okay to get excited when you’ve seen progress in yourself. Hating everything you produce is poison. It keeps you from recognizing what you do right. It will silently kill your motivation to create in the first place. If you must compare to push forward, compare your current work to your old.
For the love of god stop worrying about contests and social media.
Yes, by all means go ahead and submit your work. There is nothing wrong with creative competitions and much of the work selected deserves to be recognized. I did an award thing and it was an amazing opportunity and experience. However, what is wrong with competitions is obsession. When we place our self worth under the outcomes of those competitions we are essentially gambling. At their core, competitions are nothing more than a panel of judges selecting what they think is the strongest work. There are so many great creatives whose work has not been recognized and that has nothing to do with the status of their careers.
If winning awards is what you are chasing you are going to be left feeling empty inside. Social media functions the same way. “Likes” do not signify success. Having 1,000+ Instagram followers does not determine the value of your work nor does it determine your capabilities. You will become a slave to a panel of judges and a website and your work will be stale, predictable, and will not represent who you are as a creative. If you develop arrogance, it will keep you in a comfort zone and you will not progress outside of it.
We should practice gratitude.
All career initiative aside, gratitude is the most important thing we can have. It doesn’t matter where we are in our careers if we cannot practice this simple concept.
As creatives, we have been given a gift. We have the ability to take our ideas, our vision, our feelings, and share them with the world. In that, we also have the ability to influence the world.
Becoming a photojournalist has made my life anything but boring. My life instead has become enriched.
I have sat across the table from a former career drug dealer and I listened to him tell me how he got his life together. I have watched the passion of a french chef prepare a perfect meal. I have been given the opportunity to tell the story of a father struggling to raise his two kids in the rural hills of Kentucky. I have witnessed the unwavering love of an elderly woman caring for her dying husband. In a month, photography is taking me halfway across the world. I get to take reality and make art from it. I am making a living from experiencing life while many people feel stuck inside a cubicle. That is a gift that shouldn’t be taken for granted.
We as creatives owe the world gratitude. The best way of showing our gratitude is through humility and the knowledge that what we do, while still valuable, is just a tiny part of a complex system.
So that’s my two cents. I’m still trekking. I’m still lifting up my feet one by one through the mud because I fight my monsters on a daily basis.
While I could regret getting to such a low point, I would rather think it’s made me stronger. I appreciate the journey because I know, one day, I’ll look back and laugh at myself.
If we want our careers for the longterm, we must be in it for the longterm. As a very dear friends constantly reminds me, there are no shortcuts.
*This is all advice I am working on following myself. I couldn’t be writing this had I not heard the advice from others time and time again. I couldn’t be at this point without encouragement from my professors, the wise words of my close friends, the mentors I’ve had the privilege of knowing, and the support of the photo staff at The Roanoke Times. You know who you are.
About the author: Brittany Greeson is a third year Photojournalism and Sociology student at Western Kentucky University. She has previously interned for The Oregonian and The Roanoke Times. She has been honored to have received recognition from the Hearst Journalism Awards Program and the Scripps Howard Foundation and will be studying at The Danish School of Media and Journalism for the fall semester. Her hope is to eventually specialize in portraiture and documentary storytelling.