Photographers and Self-Doubt: Let’s Talk…

However much we may not like to admit the fact, photography has a competitive element to it. The idea of a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ photograph dictates a sense of success and failure. The process of commissioning is centred on a practice of rejection. The editing of a series of images requires the editor to reject images in favour of one over another. Photography is a game where there is no manual for success, many manuals for success, no correct solution and many correct solutions. Success in photography is a slippery eel that can be caught but easily let go, and never caught again.

I have written and spoken before about the fact that within photography two and two does not make four, it can make whatever you want it to make, and that sense of freedom comes with its own pressures. In a world without rules the responsibility to set an agenda falls upon the self. In that respect the photographer is a lone soldier in the battlefield of creative endeavour and that can be a pressure that many find hard to accept and respond to positively.

It is therefore no surprise that many engaged with photography seek out rules to support their understanding as to what constitutes a successful photograph. Rules that can provide a belief structure that can be relied upon and used as a judgement scale. If we are unsure in any aspect of our lives we turn to the experts and the manual for security, resources that provide a safety net for our insecurities and concerns.

Unfortunately, photography experts often disagree with each other, and its manuals do not contain the answers needed to provide photographic security. There is no shortage of snake-oil salesmen within the photographic environment promising cure all elixirs, but photography does not offer security, either creatively or financially, whatever some might say. It is a breeding ground for self-doubt. The subjective is at the forefront of the medium and objectivity is difficult to find and identify and yet the allure of photography as a communicative creative medium draws the self-doubter to it as a moth to a flame.

The balance between confidence and self-doubt is difficult to attain and even more difficult to maintain, with the slip into uncontrolled ego, or crushing lack of belief just a small step in ether direction. Success can feed the ego, rejection instigate despair.

I know of many successful photographers whose entire career has been based on an ego fuelled sense of self-belief and work that does not support that sense of greatness. Others buy into their confidence and the photographer is exalted through exposure as being a beacon of excellent practice. Photographers looking at the work, but unaware of the photographers ‘schtick’, not only question the work of the ‘successful’ photographer but also their own. The self-doubt begins to grow and a sense of otherness, of not fitting in begins to develop. The narrative we tell ourselves in this situation is both distorted and dangerous.

If you are reading this and starting to experience pangs of recognition do not be concerned, you are not alone.

I have met, listened to, spoken with and read about far more photographers who lack self-belief than I have those whose belief is a greater ‘super power’ than their photographic ability. And yet we cannot help but judge our success against the success of others. My personal approach to this is one of the stoic. I have had success and enjoyed it, but I have always been aware that success is transitory, I do not yearn for what has been, but I do enjoy it as a memory. This approach also allows me to enjoy the success of others. I am not resentful when others achieve recognition, awards or financial success, because I have reached a sense of acceptance with my own work and place in the photographic universe.

This is of course easier said than done and I am not being flippant when I suggest that this is an option. However, an ability to step away from the over heated, competitive nature, of all aspects of photography, from the camera club to the magazine commission, from the gallery space to the festival circuit can only be good for anybodies mental wellbeing.

If we see a lack of belief as a process of questioning perhaps we can reframe the negative aspects of self-belief and use it as a positive in the photographic process. To do this we need to remove the need for definitive answers to the problems that creating a photographic practice presents and the desire to judge ourselves against others. The rise of the photographic competition has not helped in this respect and neither has the portfolio review where often conflicting views are paid for as the search for an answer continues.

There are two words that seem to me to be the most important to focus on when attempting to address issues of lack of self-belief in photography. They are ‘Expectation’ and ‘Acceptance’ two processes that sit well together and can create a sense of well being.

Our expectation of ourselves must be realistic and achievable, it needs to be informed through research and discussion and structured to ensure that an emotional pressure to achieve does not overcome a methodical and considered roadmap. Acceptance comes from this approach and a realisation that the work we create is a visual representation of how we see the world and who we are. We cannot pretend to be someone else or be the person we think others want us to be. We are what we are and the work we create is the evidence of that.

You may need to develop a confidence in the work, but that can be done slowly in safe spaces, supported by people you trust and respect. There is no rush to do this, incremental improvement will last much longer over a life time of photographic engagement than a crash and burn approach. I always say to every photographer I speak with, help and mentor that you can only be the photographer you can be. The acceptance of this fact can help in building a confidence in your work and controlling self-doubt, it will never go away but it doesn’t have to be listened to.

Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).

Grant’s book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99

© Grant Scott 2021

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