Friday, May 24, 2013

INSPIRATION vs. INTIMIDATION

While some family and friends might provide honest feedback, at some point you will need to leave your comfort zone and seek professional critiques if you hope to grow.
While some family and friends might provide honest feedback, at some point you will need to leave your comfort zone and seek professional critiques if you hope to grow.
As I was thinking about this blog post I came across a quote in Guy Kawasaki's book APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur-How to Publish a Book. While Kawasaki is talking about writers, I easily substituted photographer and it wrapped up something that I have thought about often over the years.
"Don't let successful writers [photographers] awe you. ...it's OK for you to admire them for the quality of their writing [photography] or their success. However, don't let other authors [photographers] awe you, because this is the first step to envy and self-doubt."
The final two words, self-doubt, really struck home. I was never envious of other photographers, but I have struggled with self-doubt my entire career.

When I decided I wanted to be a professional photographer, I read books by well known photographers, attended National Press Photographers Association Short Courses, looked through magazines and newspapers, paying particular attention to the photo credits and then following those photographer's work.

You might wonder what is wrong with that? Probably nothing for some, however I compared every shot I took with the work I was following or being presented with at conferences and guess what? It didn't come close. While it didn't stop me from becoming a professional, I know that it kept me from becoming a better photographer earlier in my career. Mostly because I was reluctant to widely share my photography and slow to find [photography] mentors.

Look for inspiration: I encourage every photographer to go back and look at the work of those that came before or follow photographer's whose work that they enjoy. There is nothing wrong with that, just be careful not to compare yourself too closely with others, especially if it causes you to put down your camera in frustration. Remember that there is something to learn from both the past and present, but only you can take a photograph that is your vision.

Founder of the Air Force photojournalism program Ken Hackman, right, offers advice during the Visual Media Workshop in Arlington, Va.
Founder of the Air Force photojournalism program Ken Hackman, right, offers advice during the Visual Media Workshop in Arlington, Va.
Same thing goes when attending workshops, trade shows or conferences. These gatherings can truly offer some inspiration and provide you with ideas or techniques that will help you get better. Challenge yourself to not be overwhelmed and just enjoy the experience of being around lots of creative people. And if you do share, you might be surprised just how many others feel the same way you do.

Beware of intimidation: As you progress and become more confident as a photographer, you will want to share your work outside friends and family. Opening yourself up to that honest critique is hard, nobody wants to hear that they may not be as good as they think they are or that photo you are proudly hanging over the couch is not appreciated by others the same way you enjoy it. As hard as it can be to hear that truth, don't allow yourself to be intimidated by it. Seek out critiques from photographers whose work you admire and that you know will challenge you. Seek out lots of critiques because every one is different too. This how you will grow?

Shane McCoy, a photographer and videographer with the U.S. Marshals Service, provides a critique during the Visual Media Workshop.
Shane McCoy, a photographer and videographer with the U.S. Marshals Service, provides a critique during the Visual Media Workshop.
I've had critiques early in my career that almost made me walk away from photography and I've had students who came to me in tears and were ready to change majors after receiving a particularly harsh critique. As an instructor it was my role to reassure, but also be honest. I offer that because there is nothing wrong with receiving a harsh critique if along with that you are offered constructive ideas on how to improve. Remember also that sometimes people can just be jerks. That happens and as hard as it is, move on. Sometimes it is because there is not an appreciation for what stage you are at.

I never stop trying to make a better photograph today then I did yesterday. Sometimes you are the only one that likes a particular shot and that is fine. Be proud of your work and don't let the fact that there are numerous "celebrity" photographers all over the web intimidate you or keep you from shooting. Again, if you like the photograph and want to hang it on the wall, then do that.

I recently attended the Visual Media Workshops DC Shootoff and one of the presenters, Lou Jones, who has been taking pictures for decades, looked out at the audience at the conclusion of his talk and said, "I consider every one of you my competition, and I welcome it."

That's a great attitude. Take the pictures that you want to take and realize that not everyone will like or appreciate them, but so what. Just keep shooting and sharing.


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