Someone once said that the only person you should compare yourself to is the person that you were yesterday. I think the same goes for people who create.
(This is one of those times where I completely don’t take my own advice, by the way)
I’ve just been through a period where I’ve felt burnt out and started questioning why I was doing what I’m doing. I couldn’t face editing, or taking photos, and just tried to ignore everything. I was actually tired of it.
We have a tendency when we create things to measure what we create by what is out there already; it’s natural. It’s very human. We see what others are creating, we admire it and on a good day it motivates us to strive further to evolve and learn and create new things, that will in turn be looked at and inspire others etc. It’s a perpetual, self-feeding cycle.
On a bad day though, we look at what others are doing and can’t help but think that everything we’re doing is wrong / bad / not good enough / insert self-deprecating adjectives here. Suddenly what once became a shiny point in a tantalizing distance for us becomes an oasis in a desert that for some reason we’re stuck in but no one else can see. So while your friends or family or even strangers are telling you that what you’re creating is good, you’re thinking, “Yeah, but it’s no oasis is it?” A future that seemed ripe with possibility is suddenly …. Not. You start wondering why you’re doing it, why you are expending so much energy and time and passion (and money!) into something that you’re obviously never going to be “good enough” at. Do people think I’m wasting my time? Are people just being polite? “Oh this month she wants to be a photographer let’s support her, but you know, how long will that last?”
The truth is, people don’t think that way. Sure, your Mum maybe is being polite because she is polite. But we’re the only ones who actively compare our work to other people. Other people look at it from this magical place we’re not allowed in, called an objective space. They see two photographers and they don’t compare them, they just think, “Wow, all these people are giving me pretty things to look at, isn’t this cool?”
So why do we compare ourselves? Why can we see beauty in what others create but not find it in our own work? I am extremely guilty of this. I will look at other people’s photography and say, “Why doesn’t mine look like that? My colours aren’t punchy enough. My focus isn’t sharp enough. Is there some professional filter people run things through that I’m not aware of? Is it a plug-in for Photoshop?”
I can see that my work has an emotionality that people connect with, but I doubt every time I post anything. I think technically I’m not where I want to be, and I feel like it shows. Every. Single. Time. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually been excited about sharing photos because I’ve felt like I’ve come far technically – the Louden Swain Saturday Night Special in Pasadena, 2015 and Osric Chau’s Captain American cosplay shoot are two examples in a tiny list.
It’s only because I had such a strong reaction personally to them that I felt like they would be successful. The whole process – taking them, editing them, posting them, there was very little of the usual doubt that I have. There was nervousness, there always is. But not the same doubt. It was liberating, and I wish I knew how to feel like that more often, but so far I haven’t mastered it.
The thing about creating, and about photography, is that it is such a personal thing. There are technical considerations that are universal, but other than that it becomes very much about how each person sees the world and how they want to show others how they see the world. There are always many, many photographers at the conventions but each one gets something different. Even pressing the shutter simultaneously, we will all have different interpretations of a moment. That’s what makes it incredible. But we also have to remember that each person is coming to that moment from very different circumstances – over and above different camera equipment, we’re sitting in different places, we’ve been photographing for different periods of time with varying experience levels, we’re concentrating on different things, we’ve focused on what we think tells a story.
I think what makes it so difficult today is the rate at which we can find information is so fast that we seem to expect ourselves to be able to learn just as quickly. The technology is so advanced that there isn’t the slow burn of learning how to process a photo in a darkroom, or really lining up a shot and being deliberate like you would using film because you don’t have as many chances to make a mistake. Film was very unforgiving compared to digital photography. Because that side of it comes relatively quickly (it’s still not easy, but you know what I mean), it’s too easy to think you’ll be the photographer you want to be in the blink of an eye. But things like photography don’t work like that. The people that I look up to mostly have been working for ten, twenty years longer than me. To them I’m probably an upstart who wants everything to happen for her straight away.
Instead of thinking about who we want to be, we should try to be gentle with who we are now. Doubt is normal. It keeps us honest and keeps us learning. If we felt 100% sure of everything we would never try. We would never push ourselves in directions we didn’t think we were capable of. We’d become complacent, and our work would suffer. As long as we don’t let doubt cripple us, we need to use it.
And I know it will take me time to listen to this, and I know I’ll go away and still compare. But I’ll try to focus more on comparing who I am now to who I was when I first started and there’s a surprising distance between the two of us. There’s no doubting that, and that’s something to be proud of.