Artists, of all mediums, ultimately face similar challenges when growing, expanding, and evolving. I’ll speak to my own journey, as a photographer, throughout this piece, since that is what I know. Initially, things are fairly linear and straightforward. The entry point is always the same - gear|material acquisition. Of course, the necessary gear, or materials, varies depending on an individual’s needs; however, a photo cannot be created without a camera, just as the sculpture cannot be crafted without a substrate. Tools of the trade, so to speak.
For me, this meant purchasing a DSLR and lens, some years back, along with the necessary accessories like memory cards, a carrying bag, etc. Along the way, as my interest intensified and expanded, I started adding more lenses, lighting gear, grip equipment, professional-level software, a new laptop, and things of the sort. I was investing a lot of time, energy, emotion, and finances into something that was a profound passion, never expecting it to become a professional pursuit. Though it has been said over and over, it’s worth noting and reiterating that gear does not make the artist. Masterpieces have been created using the most modest of tools. Top-end equipment is not a substitute for finely-honed skill and will never make up for creative mediocrity.
From there, hopefully, the next step is establishing a strong technical foundation. This usually entails developing an understanding of said tools and exploring various techniques and approaches to put those tools to work. From personal experience, I can state definitively that it is far too easy to become enamored by and entrenched in technical nuance and minutia. As artists, we leverage technical skill to ply our trade; this is not a destination, but a means to reach a destination.
As a photographer, and someone who is self-taught, I started down the path by learning about the interdependent triangle of aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. Per the advice of many a pro, I set my camera to manual and committed to mastering the basics. From there I began to build on that rudimentary foundation by reading books, watching videos on YouTube, joining online communities, and attending local meetup groups. Oh yeah, and shooting at every opportunity, which, for me, meant damn-near every day. Sunsets, flowers, cityscapes, people, landscapes, animals, architecture; I was enveloped by possibility and felt impelled to explore and create as much as possible.
The initial steps, of an artist’s respective path, tend to be fun and exciting! Infatuation, passion, energy, and exuberance are abundant. This stage is all about discovery and is a fairly external process. In my case, this period was both enthralling and thrilling! On the daily, I was learning something new, whether theoretical or practical. Given my lack of experience and know-how, I wasn’t judging or critiquing what I was creating, rather, I was reveling the process itself. Exotic words like bokeh began to take on a newfound meaning and esoteric software such as Lightroom started to become familiar. Heck, I even learned that so many of the photos I admired used certain foreign, to me, techniques like “dodging & burning” and “color grading”, among others.
It was around this point when I finally started to feel comfortable with my gear and confident in my, albeit limited, understanding of the craft that things started to get more complex; the waters that had been so clear started to get murky and my path onward was quickly becoming less defined. The simple, and magical, joy of creating, simply for the sake of creating, started to fade and a desire to create in-line with my own vision began to emerge. This was the first time, personally, that the act of creating photographs became somewhat weighted. Not in a bad way necessarily, but I could no longer look at a picture I created of a spectacular sunset, or a lovely portrait, and feel content having captured a beautiful moment. I started to seriously consider framing and composition, the interplay of colors, the emotions conveyed by the individuals in front of my lens, and, in a manner that is challenging to articulate, how my imagery “felt” rather than merely how it appeared.
This transition brings us to the next stage in artistic evolution; the humbling, disorienting, and somewhat maddening, undertaking of developing one’s own style. As we learn, we do so by imitation and repetition, in many respects. At some point, we begin to shift toward an approach that emanates from within. This is when our process of growth, in a variety of ways, moves from external to internal. For many, this is when joy, excitement, and passion become tempered by doubt, fear, and uncertainty. I believe this happens because, during this phase, we are challenged to be authentic, and create from a place of authenticity. This entails being vulnerable and being seen. To be vulnerable is to risk being hurt or rejected, to be seen is to risk being judged or dismissed. Anxieties centered around worthiness, deserving, skill, talent, and belonging start to creep in, seemingly, from out of nowhere.
This juncture felt so bewildering and belittling, to me. Though others were taking notice of my art, despite the fact that I was more learned and capable than ever before, in spite of all of my growth and achievements, big and small, and even though I was dedicated and improving day-by-day and week-by-week, I felt, well, sort of like a joke. Negative self-talk began to permeate my mind and picking up my camera started to feel like a chore or a burden. My drive to create was greatly diminished, and I felt frustrated and furious, to have invested so much only to reach what felt like a very cold, anticlimactic, dead-end.
What did I do? Well, at first, I did nothing. I sat in silence. I sulked. I complained. I isolated myself, awash in self-loathing. It was my first full-on foray into creative self-sabotage. Things were complicated by the fact that, by this point, I was making money. To those on the outside, looking in, I was a “professional” photographer. The professional moniker, that felt so misplaced, only served to intensify my negativity. There’s nothing quite like feeling bad when things seem to be going well; nothing like the downward spiral and redundant circle of feeling bad for feeling bad. Things changed, quickly, dramatically, and profoundly, once I started to open up about my struggles, to those in my life and fellow creatives. I began to see and appreciate my plight as a necessary and universal part of the process. I began to relate to my penchant for getting in my own way as a catalyst rather than something cataclysmic. The power of openness and communication cannot be overstated. As a creative, vulnerability is a veritable panacea.
Through being vulnerable, I began to seek out sources of support, encouragement, and inspiration. I invested myself, wholly, into creative communities where others were facing, or had faced similar challenges; digital and physical spaces where there were footprints and tread-worn paths to follow. I began to create, for myself, for the joy of bringing my visions and projects to life. I began to seek out other means of creative expression such as writing, movement, and music. I opened myself up to the process and all that it entails, the good and the bad, for better and worse. Through vulnerability and radical acceptance, I began to find peace in the chaos and serenity in the strongest of personal storms. In essence, I began to find myself, truly, not only creatively but personally.
This particular stage, this great transition, only arises at an apex of our journey; it only manifests when we are on the cusp of unimaginable progress and untold magic. Everything that precedes this point, whatever circuitous route you might take to get here, was merely a stepping stone to this place of discomfort and struggle. Truly, this precipice is the poetic beginning of our artistic becoming. Tragically, far too many photographers and artists of all mediums get stuck in this stage. It becomes a sort of purgatory. When we fail to maintain focus on our passions and the possibilities replete on horizon’s edge, we stop fighting the good fight and our momentum becomes replaced by the dysfunctional, and destructive, a duo of apathy and indifference. We are either moving forward or moving backward, in art and life, there is no standing still.
In my humble opinion, creative self-sabotage, when it rears its ugly, unwieldy head, is actually a harbinger of great things to come. It is a signal that you have arrived, in a powerful sense. It is not something to be feared or destroyed but understood and respected. Unfortunately, there are no simple, straightforward ways or means to manage and move through this particular stage. Ultimately, we all have to figure out the best path ourselves; the way, or ways, you navigate the murky waters and shadowy landscape will be singularly unique, as unique as your individuality. Personally, I find solace in the notion that though this path may be solitary, on a grander scale, I am never alone, nor are you, and we are always in the presence of a great company.
Moreover, it’s critically important to understand that this collective process, and the stages that this process entails, is cyclical; immense progress will always be punctuated by a vast plateau. As we grow and evolve, so too do our dreams and aspirations; so too does our motivation and inspiration. The journey is so surreal, extending beyond our selves and connecting us to all those that seek to express, and create; to nurture and cultivate light and beauty.
As I have sought, and struggled, to find my respective voice, as an artist and photographer, my path has crossed with countless others that are striving to do the same. Many of whom I deified at one point in time; Titans of fashion and portraiture that once seemed so far removed - individuals that I now share figurative space with and call friends. How quickly things can change, we can change, when we step aside and get out of our own way. If art, and being an artist, is any type of race, it is one of endurance, rather than strength or power, where we are only competing with ourselves. If you keep moving, if you keep striving, if you don’t lose sight of your passion and purpose, if you seek to create rather than destroy and empower rather dimish, if you accept that struggle, strife, chaos, and tumult are part of the process, if you challenging your paradigms, notions, and beliefs, if you start from a place of self-acceptance and love, you will reach your destination and find yourself infinitely impelled
I know this to be true because I am sitting here writing this. I know this to be true because I am a successful, accomplished, noteworthy photographer. I know this because I no longer just create photographs, I teach, educate and empower fellow creatives. I know this because there were so many points when I thought I couldn’t but I did, when I thought it wasn’t possible but it happened, when I thought it was out of reach until it was within my grasp. I could prattle on endlessly about all of my ups and down, about the nights that seemed to stretch on forever, filled with doubt, fear and anxiety, about all of the challenges and obstacles, about everything that has stood in my way. But, it’s all somewhat moot, because I am here, now, writing this.
More importantly, this piece of prose isn’t about me, it’s about you; all you are and have yet to become, all you’ve achieved and have yet to achieve, and how you are far more capable, talented, worthy, deserving, and amazing than you know. You’ve got this. You really do. More than anything, I know this to be true.