What Is The Central Obstacle To Being a Portrait Photographer?

It is always easy to find or create obstacles. They are the reasons not to do things, to delay the inevitable or avoid a challenge. Things we tell ourselves to ensure we remain within our self-acknowledged comfort zones.

Photography requires us to ignore or knock down these obstacles. To increase the size of our comfort zones. I was reminded of this recently whilst watching an interview with the writer James Baldwin from the late 1960s. Baldwin was being challenged by a Harvard professor concerning the social and economic challenges Baldwin had overcome as a gay black American man of letters. The professor claimed that Baldwin was proof that it was possible to overcome societal obstacles. Baldwin countered with his lived experience of those obstacles, his personal challenges of overcoming them and the broader impact they have on people from his background.

Baldwin’s points were of course well made and authentic, the professor’s based on academic theory and non-lived experience were unconvincing.

Issues concerning education, wealth, colour, gender can affect progression within photography, on this there is no debate. They can be obstacles placed by society in the way of anyone hoping to succeed within the creative industries. I am pleased to see that many of these are now being expressed openly and addressed by many, although only time will see the results of such awareness.

I do not wish to underplay the importance of such obstacles, but there are other obstacles photographers face that can be self-created and most often fed by anxiety. Anxiety is a feeling that can be encouraged in its creation by the very need photography has for the photographer to engage with the new and the unknown. Symptoms of generalised anxiety disorders vary from person to person, but include constant worrying, a sense of dread and difficulty concentrating. It is a natural human response when we feel that we are under threat and is the most common of mental disorders affecting nearly 30% of adults at some point in their lives. But anxiety disorders are treatable and a number of effective treatments are available.

There are many basic treatments that can be self-imposed including lifestyle changes, and the adoption of an incremental development of a personal comfort zone. Over time, if people continually avoid facing difficult situations, the anxiety grows. Increasing the comfort zone means facing difficult situations, and potentially reducing the sense of anxiety in time.

Approaching a stranger to photograph them is for many photographers the ultimate challenge to a comfort zone. The fear of rejection can be strong at this point and for many hard to overcome. I often find this with young photographers, born of a social media age and lacking in self-confidence, who are fearful of direct personal contact. Interestingly, the rise in figures connected with anxiety worldwide has coincided with a rise in an interest in landscape and observational street photography. I wonder if these are connected with a sense of being an outsider? Not for all but for some.

The photographer needs to fulfil both the role of outsider and insider to become the conduit for what they have seen and experienced. To do this requires a sense of self-confidence and confidence in the work created past, and present. There is no room for anxiety, if it does exist it has to be overcome, that is easier to say or write than do, but it is possible and it is this sense of possibility that needs to be emphasised.

As a boy I was told that the worst thing that anyone could say when being asked to do something was ‘no’, a response that may not be what you want to hear, but nothing more than a word. ‘No’ is not rejection, it is a response and an opinion. One that needs to be respected and not taken to heart. Not seen as an obstacle but a challenge. Accepting that ‘no’ prevents progression, it becomes your own obstacle that only you can remove. My suggestion is to try and understand why it is there and work towards building the strength to overcome your obstacle building in future.

*A friend of mine photographer David Eustace gave a Ted Talk titled What If, it deals with the themes suggested in this article and just may just help.

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). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com. He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.

© Grant Scott 2022

1 comment

  1. Had a conversation with Nicola Davison Reed a couple of days ago on Instagram, exactly on this point. She has been doing a series of street portraits lately, and is quite introverted like myself. She apparently struggled at first with approaching people, but once she had some success, it was easier. Hoping I can follow suit.

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