Photography is really easy when you're good for your age. It's easy when you "just do it on the side." It's easy in a mid-sized city where the competition is mainly comprised of soccer moms wielding mid-level DSLRs and the latest photoshop actions. Photography is easy when you stick to the formula of what works online—hipsters on mountains in 2015, just mountains in 2016, girls in bodysuits in 2017. It's a well-balanced cocktail of expectations management paired with low-risk creativity. Keep expectations low, play it safe, and you'll probably be fine.
That recipe marks the start of many people's creative journeys, I imagine; it certainly characterized mine. And that's okay! It's good to start off with little risk. Training wheels and water wings and practice tests and driver's permits are all appropriate precursors to the real thing.
After seven years though, I've finally started taking off my water wings. I'm in LA now. I do photography full time. I realized following the Instagram formula essentially commodifies my work, and with each successive birthday I hear the phrase "good for your age" a little less often. I'm taking better images and tackling more challenging concepts.
So this is good! It's growth. Yet with all the progress, I've experienced a vague feeling that something is off. Sometimes my aggressive, get-it-done-no-matter-what streak mysteriously melts into a sluggish, vague sense of unease. I'll drag my feet, doing little work. I thought it was a lack of inspiration, maybe, or a lack of discipline. Maybe this was just how things work as you developed creatively? Do you just go a little slower, like a quality-over-quantity kind of thing? Or do I need to just grind a little harder? Whatever it is, this smudgy haze has been both unnerving and slowing me, like some sort of creative sedative.
With the help of a wonderful book called The Artist Way, the smudgy haze came in focus for me. One simple quote made it clear:
And that's when I realized: I'm afraid to make art. I'm afraid to try new concepts. I'm afraid I won't do a good job, that I'll look stupid, that I don't have good taste, that I'm not a real creative. I'm scared of rejection and scared of failure. Scariest of all, as I work with bigger people on bigger projects with bigger budgets, the stage I could fail on keeps getting bigger too.
Last month I did a photoshoot that was surrounded in fear. It was a simple test shoot inspired by an installation at a local gallery from the artist Pipilotti Rist. The installation featured hanging pieces of underwear, as if they were Edison bulbs on a string of lights. I decided to integrate the concept into an image and set out with my friend Dixon to create underwear lampshades from XXL mens whitey tighties. v sexy.
So, the concept was pretty edgy (what if it just looks stupid?). My team was amazing. In fact, the model had done a photoshoot for Vogue earlier that year (I'm not that legit)! I did some of the styling, which is not my strong point (what kind of fashion photographer doesn't know fashion?). Meanwhile, I'd recently gotten some critical (and accurate) feedback on my work from people I respect, further unnerving me (what if this is bad too?). So many insecurities.
I would've procrastinated more on the whole thing had it not been for Dixon. He was literally flying to LA from Atlanta expressly to do several photoshoots with me, so I had no choice but to press onward.
Of course, everything ended up being fine. Ironically, most people don't even notice the lampshades unless I mention them. In fact, they aren't even in half the photos as they didn't work for certain framing. I knew I was being irrational, but try telling fear that.
I don't have a nice one-liner bow for this story. I pushed forward because I had to, not because I conquered fear. It's still there. I'm still grappling with it this week as I procrastinate on test shoots and emails and meetings. The Artist Way offers some solutions and I've got some ideas of my own, but for now I think I'll just say candidly: I don't have it figured out. I'm afraid.