These are the three demons you must slay to succeed in photography

Benjamin Stevens

How to overcome mental hurdles without doing gymnastics.

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To be courageous, we must be willing to surrender our perfectionism, if only for a moment. If my self-worth is attached to being flawless, why would I ever try to learn anything new? After all, learning requires mistakes.
Vironika Tugaleva

Have you ever walked down the street and then tripped on the uneven pavement?

Regaining your balance, you watch as your sunglasses go flying through the air. A hot rush of embarrassment courses through your veins in a matter of seconds.

But, as you glance around timidly, not one of the handful of people in your vicinity has noticed. And if they did, they sure aren’t making a big fuss of it.

Similar scenarios play out in photography when we consider releasing our work into the world.

All sorts of possible scenarios play out in our heads.

What if this image is poorly received on Instagram?

What if I missed cloning out a couple of dust spots?

What if my image sharpening comes across as heavy-handed?

However, we should be asking ourselves questions with more substance.

Why am I obsessed with the opinions of others?

What does my lack of sharpening ability say about my worth as a photographer? As a person? Does it say anything?

We all run these questions through our minds from time to time.

But how do we as photographers become more resolute? Less fragile, less perturbed, and more courageous?

Succeeding in photography means succeeding over ourselves.

It starts by identifying three important mental demons and then setting out to slay them.

Perfectionism

Find the perfection in every moment instead of trying to make every moment perfect.
Donnalynn Civello

Trying to make every moment perfect is a one-way ticket to enduring sadness.

Perfectionists are aware that they are striving toward an abstract concept. But they continue to strive nonetheless, seeking perfection in everything they do.

Photographers who suffer from perfectionism are often suffering from a desire for control.

And of course, photographers can indeed control much of the process. They control when and what they photograph. They control post-processing and sentence images to the cutting-room floor.

But they run into trouble when they go up to upload their images. They have no control over the reception of their work.

The simple act of uploading to Instagram is met with fear, uncertainty, and anxiety.

How to beat perfectionism

To defeat perfectionism, photographers must first re-evaluate their standards.

Are your standards achievable? Indeed, is their pursuit sustainable? What level of happiness or contentment are your standards giving you?

Second, realize the world is imperfect. Imperfection powers the world.

No one looks through candid Polaroids of their childhood and bemoans the prevalence of grain and poor exposure. No one seems to mind that Aunt Debbie managed to enjoy a day on the beach without a head.

Technically perfect photographs lack heart, soul, emotion, and nostalgia. They lack the rough edges of the photographer who took them and of the places and people in their photographs.

Third, become comfortable with discomfort.

Whenever I am self-conscious about my work (which is often), I imagine the worst-case scenario and prepare accordingly.

The ancient Stoics had a concept for this — premeditatio malorum — or the “premeditation of evils”:

What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events…
Seneca

The good news is that photography is unlikely to ever be a life or death scenario. Even serious consequences are so unlikely that preparing for them is questionable.

But as photographers, we will encounter minor grievances nonetheless. By preparing for the day when something inevitably goes wrong, we develop resilience and build character.

Our work may receive praise when we know deep down we didn’t deserve it. Conversely, we may receive criticism for work we put our heart and soul into.

Perfectionists attempt to arrange their lives in a predictable, repeatable manner. But life is far from neat and tidy. It is conflicting, contradictory, and very much unpredictable.

By letting go of the illusion of perfection and rolling with life’s punches, we will be better for it in the long run.

Self-esteem

Self-esteem is a particular way of experiencing the self. Its two components are self-efficacy and self-respect. Self-efficacy is the experience of competence in thinking, learning, making appropriate decisions, and responding effectively to the challenges of life. Self-respect is the experience of success, achievement, love, joy, fulfilment — in a word, happiness — are natural and appropriate to us.
Nathaniel Branden

Much is said about self-esteem.

Feelings of low self-esteem can begin in childhood and persist for many years.

But self-esteem is far from static. It fluctuates during the course of our lives. Even individuals with healthy self-esteem can be set back by a major life event.

Nevertheless, many of us suffer from chronic self-esteem issues.

Low self-esteem equates to low self-worth. We are like the proverbial house of cards — extremely fragile and sensitive to the slightest perturbation.

Self-esteem stems from a lack of personal agency, defined as the degree of power an individual has over their own lives.

Those with low personal agency relinquish the power to make their own choices and decisions to others.

The photographer who allows others to judge the strength, integrity, or merit of their work is doomed to failure. In placing too much stock in the opinions of others, they are in fact shooting for others. They are choosing to capture images according to trends or worse still, what they believe others want to see.

What does healthy-self-esteem look like?

A photographer with healthy self-esteem shoots what they want to shoot. There is a high amount of autonomy in their lives.

They have a holistic view of their strengths and weaknesses, but they do not let their weaknesses define them.

Indeed, they view weakness as a chance to improve. When challenges are overcome in succession, the photographer with healthy self-esteem wins at life.

These wins then sow the seeds of pride and achievement and allow a framework to be built to tackle similar challenges in the future.

Personal agency increases — the photographer does not lean on others for something under their control.

Photographers with healthy self-esteem are not subject to negativity bias — or at least not very often. In other words, they take as much pleasure from their victories as they do wisdom from their defeats.

They do not deflect compliments to their work or respond in a self-deprecating manner. They are not afraid to ask questions and learn from others.

They also avoid comparing themselves to other people. But not because they are afraid of not measuring up. Photography to them is a personal journey of improvement. The only person they need to measure up to is themselves.

Confidence

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.
Eleanor Roosevelt

Confidence is often confused with self-esteem, but the two are separate concepts.

Confidence comes from the Latin fidere, or “to trust”. Confident people trust they have the ability to succeed in the world. They believe they can rise to the challenge and perform a task successfully.

A photographer low on confidence allows these beliefs to be eroded easily. Or worse still, they never possessed the beliefs in the first place.

But as we all know, confidence is not a measure of competence. You may in fact be a very competent and talented photographer — despite your beliefs to the contrary.

Low confidence also affects our ability to take criticism constructively. It stymies creative growth because we don’t see criticism as a tool for self-improvement.

Even if we silently yearn to break our creative shackles, we have not developed the ability to do so.

What does confidence look like in the real world?

The confident photographer accepts that creativity and criticism go hand in hand. That criticism is not a reason to shut up shop, but a chance to learn about ourselves and other people.

To say that a confident photographer is totally unperturbed by the opinions of others would be untrue. They are only human after all.

But they have courage and conviction. They do not deviate from their creative path. To devote precious energy to worrying about others would be to waste resources straying from that path.

They are comfortable in their abilities — or lack thereof — content with where they are and how far they have to go.

Some concluding thoughts

The three demons of perfectionism, self-esteem, and confidence are separate entities.

But they have the potential to reinforce each other in detrimental ways.

The perfectionist who attempts to control their environment lacks self-esteem and confidence. They are unable to release imperfect, humanized work into the world.

The photographer low in self-esteem believes perfection is the antidote to confidence. Unwittingly, they never reach their lofty, self-imposed standards.

They are easily pushed off course when criticized by others, pushing them to work harder and harder. They consign themselves to climbing a mountain with a summit they have no belief they can reach. And they are perpetual climbers at that, never once stopping to admire how far they have ascended.

When we walk down the street, we may subconsciously be aware of the potential to stumble and make a fool of ourselves.

But armed with this knowledge, we do not avoid walking down the street. We do not choose to only walk on streets with perfectly level paving.

Deep down, we realize the consequences of tripping in the street are relatively minor. At worst, we will suffer brief embarrassment and turn a couple of heads.

But more often than not, people are dealing with their own shit. They aren’t paying attention to the way you walk. They are too busy thinking about their own lives. They are trying to avoid the same situation you are trying to avoid. To trip, and to potentially look stupid in doing so.

Photography, of course, is no different. We worry about other photographers judging us who are themselves worried about judgment.

Judgment will come knocking sooner or later. No doubt about it. This is one of the rules of the creative game.

Regardless, the potential risk of showing our work to others does not justify the lengths we go to avoiding it.

Devote your energy to practicing your craft and savoring the enjoyment it brings.

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Photographer and writer who is passionate about creativity, mindfulness and philosophy.

Seattle, WA
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