So, come on then, hands up those of you who have ever felt like you can’t call yourself a professional photographer?
Maybe you’ve networked with some of your photography idols and felt like a total fraud in their midst, like you don’t belong or shouldn’t be there or that they’re all about to find you out at any moment and start baying for your blood? Or maybe you’ve had someone say to you that they admire your work and your talent and you promptly look over your shoulder expecting to see someone you admire standing right behind you? Maybe you simply don’t think you’re anything special and certainly not worth the admiration you, yourself, have imparted on other photographers you look up to.
If I were stood on a stage at a conference right now, I would expect to be seeing a sea of hands waving in front of me. Because, for those of you going through this right now and, probably, feeling guilty as a result, here’s a little not-so-secret secret… feeling that way is totally normal and virtually everyone, at some time or another, has felt exactly the way you’re feeling right now. I’m waving my hand too!
I’d heard the words “Imposter Syndrome” before but, hell, if I didn’t know it was actually a recognised condition and is actually something around 70% of the world’s population has suffered with at some point in their lifetimes! How’s that for a crazy-ass figure?! And yet, when you’re in the throes of it, you feel like you’re the only person in the world feeling this way. You feel like a complete fraud, like you don’t belong, like you shouldn’t belong and like the world is going to find out sooner or later and you’re terrified of what will happen when it does.
I remember, a few years ago now, I watched a short talk by a photographer I had admired for some years at a photography show. She spoke about her experiences and her thoughts and ideas and she spoke so humbly and with total humility that I felt moved to go up and thank her at the end for saying things I felt like I needed to hear and for inspiring little ol’ me to do what I was doing. And yet, despite how humbly she had spoken, I had built up such a huge idea of her in my mind. I’d placed her up on this pedestal so high it felt out of my reach so that, when I walked up to her, I suddenly became a total bag of nerves and all I could manage was to squeak “Thank you!” at her and run. A year or so later, at another photography conference, I ran into her again. I tried to do better this time and actually managed to introduce myself and ask her how she was. Imagine my absolute surprise when she squinted down at my name badge and uttered the words, “I remember you…” to me. Holy crap! She remembered me?! This photographer whose work I had followed with passion and desire and complete jealousy from afar and had met so briefly a year before in the most forgettable of moments and-oh-god-she-thinks-I’m-an-idiot-and-I’m-a-total-fraud-and-I-shouldn’t-be-here…
And, just like that, with those three words, she did the one thing for me that I simply hadn’t been able to do for myself. She acknowledged me as a fellow photographer and I suddenly felt like I belonged. I took a second to remind her of where we had met previously and had a short chat with her as woman-to-woman or, better yet, as photographer-to-photographer, and realised she was a woman just like me, she was a human being just like me. And that was enough to know and validate me in this world I had felt I didn’t belong in for such a long time before.
But that’s just it, isn’t it? When you’re first starting out in photography, when you’re reading up on techniques and looking at all these photographers work for inspiration and ideas, they become these heroes on websites and in magazines that you look up to, that you build up in your mind. It’s the same in any field of interest. Look at how we idolise Hollywood actors! And, unsurprisingly, you start to compare yourself to all these people you follow and admire and, very quickly, feelings of not belonging kick in.
The problem is, feeling like an imposter and fraud has its negative effects. It stops you getting out there and showing your work. It stops you from developing the confidence you need to get along in this business. It stops you from moving in those circles that you dream of moving in. It stops you from meeting those people you admire and look up to (because it’s still good to do that!). So while it can be a totally natural thing to feel and while you are just one of a huge number of people who is experiencing the feeling (remember, you are not alone!), here are 5 things you can do to move on past this and start feeling like the photographer you are.
Have a mantra
Now before you click off of here mumbling something about “hippy, voodoo shit”, just hold on for a few minutes and hear me out. Up until a year ago I was one of those people who would have clicked away from this page at the mention of mantras and, yes, my words, “hippy, voodoo shit”. But, in total honesty, this shit Really. Does. Work! Now I’m not suggesting you throw out all your shoes and start sitting around on cushions and burning incense all day long (although if you want to do that, then go right ahead) but here’s what you should be doing. Every day you need to repeat an affirmation to yourself. You can speak it, you can think it, you can write it down in a diary, on a sheet of paper on your desk, on your bathroom mirror in lipstick, however you damn well please. The point is, you need to say it to yourself every single day. Something simple, something that you want to achieve. So, in the interests of this post, for example, you could say, “I am a successful, professional photographer.” I guarantee you, when you first start doing it, you’re going to feel like an idiot and probably not believe a word of it. But the more you say and/or write it, the more you start to believe it. And with belief comes action. And with action comes actuality. Give it a try, starting today, and see what starts to happen. By the way, here’s a great little article explaining the science behind affirmations…
Learn to love your work
Now this one is a bit of a toughy and can take a little effort on your part, particularly as a creative person who is probably never happy with any of your own work! But, here’s the thing, until you start to love the work you’re producing, you can’t expect anyone else to. And if you can’t expect anyone else to love your work, how are you ever going to stop feeling like you don’t belong and call yourself a photographer? See where I’m going with this? So, here’s something really simple you can do… take any one of your images and really sit and look at it, for a good 10 minutes. Think about all the things you can do to improve the shot, sure. That part will be easy. But then, just come up with one thing you really love about that image… Maybe it’s the composition. Maybe it’s the emotion you captured. Maybe the exposure was spot on with this shot. Or you like how you caught a bird flying through your scene. Anything! Just one thing. Then take another photo and do the same thing again. Like having a mantra, repetition is what’s key here and the more you do it, the easier it will become.
Allow others to love your work and tell you so
Oh. My. God. You want me to listen to other people telling me what they like about my work? Without my face burning up and me stuttering something about how it was a fluke, a lucky shot? Err… YES! Show your work to a few friends whose opinions you value (I stress friendshere and not family, nearly everyone’s family members will tell you what they think you want to hear and will gush even if what you’re showing them is total crap). Ask them for an honest opinion. There is a chance they may not like what you show them, but that’s ok. Thank them for their opinion. And those that love what you’ve done and tell you so? Thank them for their opinion. It’s actually a lot easier to thank someone for a criticism than it is a compliment, you’ll probably find. But keep doing it. It GETS EASIER!!
Learn from your mistakes
We don’t get everything right all the time. It’s a physical impossibility. But here’s what humans are really great at… learning from their mistakes. So if you make a mistake, if you feel like you failed in something, if you totally think you fucked up… embrace it. Own it. Work out how you can make it better next time. And then bloody well go and do it again!
Stop trying to be perfect
Remember my last blog post? You are not perfect and you never will be. None of us are. Life is not perfect. And, ultimately, there is no such thing as perfection. It’s an ever-moving, ever-changing target. The moment you let yourself off the hook and realise that you cannot be perfect, or even half-perfect, all of the time, the moment you allow yourself to be less-than-perfect and just be you, you will realise that, actually, no one else is either. They’re all just like you. Which makes you no imposter, no fraud. You’re just another unique entity trying to make their voice heard. God, I love that about you!