I have never been comfortable describing myself as a photographer despite having spent the last twenty years being paid to make photographs and having had my work exhibited and published in books by prestigious publishers.
The reason for this is because I spent the fifteen years prior to working as a photographer working with photography as an art director. It has been many years since I art directed a project for payment, and now I find myself writing, broadcasting and teaching as much as I work as a commissioned photographer.
So how do I describe what I do? Well, I usually say that I work with photography, and that is how I earn my living. Of course, this often requires further explanation but it is a start.
The truth is that I would feel like an imposter nailing my colours to any one descriptive label of practice.
When I look at the photographer’s who have dedicated their lives to the medium, I can only look at my approach to the subject with a sense of realisation that I have not gone that far, made those sacrifices and travelled the difficult path that a life commited to photography can present.
But that is of course to dismiss what I have achieved and that would be a mistake both creatively and spiritually. We all need to have a sense of self worth and a respect for and belief in our work if we are going to present ourselves with a sense of confidence.
On the occasions when I have described myself as a photographer in the UK, I have been asked if I ‘did weddings’? In the US I have been asked who I worked for. Two different understandings of the role indicative of two different understandings of the medium as a profession.
By describing ourselves as a photographer we are nailing our colours to the mast, stating our profession and therefore inviting subsidiary questioning. Some may be uncomfortable with that questioning, insecure in their answers and fearful of being judged as unimpressive, not ‘professional’ enough. This of course rarely happens but fear is often a more decisive reality than truth or fact. However, much you have achieved, the sense of being the imposter can overwhelm any curriculum vitae or body or work.
The truth of course is that none of this truly matters, it doesn’t matter what you decide to call yourself, or what others may think of you progress within your progression. The imposter syndrome is a phenomenon, an experience, a self-created reality, not a mental disorder. It is signalled through self-doubt, an inability to realistically assess your competence and skills and the attribution of your success to external factors. I have written previously about the relationship between photography and self-doubt so there is no surprise that it appears again when discussing photography and a sense of the imposter syndrome.
I cannot remove self-doubt and I cannot make you feel that you are not an imposter if you feel that you are, just as I cannot lose my sense of being an art director first and a photographer second. I have had people treat me as such and however unrealistic that is, I am stuck with it. However, I can suggest that it doesn’t matter how you feel as even though you may have that feeling, or hear those internal voices, you don’t have to listen to them. You know what you have done and what and who you are, the judgement of others is an opinion and not fact.
Don’t forget that the only way to stop feeling like an impostor is to stop thinking like an impostor, and that is something you could definitely start work on.
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 https://bluecoatpress.co.uk/product/what-does-photography-mean-to-you/
© Grant Scott 2021
For me, I have done many different things and do not feel qualified to claim the titles of any, entirely. I used to sing and play guitar, but never called myself a musician. For a while I did mechanical work on cars, but would never call myself a mechanic. I make images, but don’t call myself a photographer, though others have. I do graphic design but do not call myself a graphic designer.
Why would I maintain a stance of imposter syndrome, if that’s what it is? It’s because I have too much respect for those in each of the areas where I have worked to think that I have reached a level of mastery that entitles me to that same respect. I suppose it may be a self fulfilling prophesy. I also suffer from Rodney Dangerfield syndrome, “No respect, I tell you.”
“However much you have achieved, the sense of being the imposter can overwhelm any curriculum vitae or body or work.” This is true for anyone in all professions, from my own observation.
In my view, the imposter syndrome is neither a phenomenon nor an experience. It’s a self-created reality, a mental disorder. It is indeed signalled through self-doubt and by one’s inability to objectively assess one’s competence, skills and more importantly, creativity.
Yep, your blog is an awakening. A reminder that the only way is to try to stop thinking like an imposter.
I am a photographer. Period. It’s not a claim based on achievements. It’s not an aspiration. It’s what I do. As simple as that.