Recently on Twitter, I asked my fellow photographers what the best and worst parts of being a music photographer were. The best parts varied from photographer to photographer, but more than anything, one thing stuck out to me: the shared feeling of imposter syndrome and self-doubt as one of the worst aspects of being a photographer.
Here are some methods for addressing imposter syndrome and self-doubt head on as a creative.
What is Imposter Syndrome to the Creative?
Imposter Syndrome is defined as possessing feelings of doubt and inadequacy despite an outward appearance of success. The paradox of imposter syndrome is that the conventional payoff of success for hard work can result in even deeper feelings of self-doubt instead of being rewarded by validation.
Why Imposter Syndrome as a Photographer?
First off, doubt and lack of confidence is not only more common that you think, it's practically baked into our work and lives as creative people.
Consider the photography community so many of us inhabit. We make images and we upload the best to Instagram and our other social media accounts. The handful of images we share might represent just 1% of the total images we take.
And yet as the creators, while we might show only the best, we are perhaps the only ones that see the very worst as well. The out of focus images. The poor exposures. The missed opportunities and failed captures. If you're a perfectionist, which I feel applies to so many photographers, these failures can seem magnified even if you're meeting or exceeding goals by all other standards.
So while there's an intellectual understanding the everyone is simply posting their hero shots, the emotional impact of the situation can be distinctly different.
Outside of social media, if you find some measure of success as a photographer, these same feelings apply. We know our own struggles, not not those of others — only seeing their own outward victories without the daily hardships we feel all too keenly.
With the emphasis on building a following, continuously putting out new content, and putting forward an image of success — all contrasted with seeing a stream of images from your peers in this digital age — the case for imposter syndrome can almost feel inevitable.
Facing Doubt as a Photographer
1. Acknowledge It
I feel the first step to overcoming imposter syndrome as a creative is acknowledging it. Recognize any feelings of doubt, insecurity and inadequacy for what they are: a perception or belief that can be overcome. This is the first step to realizing that these feelings are not connected to reality or your achievements and success.
2. Talk to Other Photographers About Your Doubts
In addition to simply acknowledging imposter syndrome, it can be important to share your feelings. In doing so, what becomes immediately clear is that these kinds of thoughts are not only shared by others, but they are incredibly common. Realizing that you're not alone in doubt or a lack of confidence can help you come to a different perspective on these feelings. Specifically, that the relationship with your success as a creative isn't something specific to you, but it's something all too common that's shared by others in your community as well.
Reach out to people you know in the photo community. If you have trusted friends who are photographers, this can be ideal, but even people who may simply be peers. And, perhaps most importantly, consider talking with people who you perhaps view as competitors or people who have achieved what you want to achieve, who may even be directly triggering your feelings of doubt.
What you'll find with resounding universality is that people at every level of their photography have felt the same aspects of doubt and uncertainty in their work. This understanding can be a revelation in putting your own feelings of inadequacy into perspective.
3. Find Inspiration and Motivation In Competition
Competition is a double-edged sword. But make it cut for you. Instead of seeing the work and success of others and feeling frustration, use it to work for you. Find inspiration in the wins of others not as failings of yourself, but fuel that can motivate you toward your own goals.
Make the wins of your fellow photographers into wins of your own, things that push the photography community forward and elevate photography. Unless you're directly competing with another photographer on a job, their success has no bearing on your own achievements or what you can go on to do. If you allow yourself to find inspiration and motivation in the success of others, it can have a dramatic effect on how you view your own work.
4. Recognize Your Own Success
Take a hard look at the success you've had and understand that you've truly earned it. This feeling may be easier said than done, but this point is critically important. The recognition, the followers, the clients, the fans, respect of your peers — no matter how big or small — are things you can and should be proud of. You have to give yourself that permission.
Understand that everyone has had their own journey in photography and that the only one you know the complete story about is you. Instead of looking outward to see what others have achieved, look at where you've started and consider where you are now.
Short of outright deception, stealing photos, or blatantly lying about your credentials or past achievements, you have deserved everything that has come to you.
5. Concentrate on Your Work, Style and Craft
Imposter syndrome is often a result of comparison to others. One way of addressing this feeling is to focus your attention on your own work and your style and your own craft. These are the elements within your own control, and with this knowledge, you should be in a good position to understand your direct efforts on your own success.
Find the voice you have as a photographer and visual storyteller, and define your style — both to your audiences and most importantly to yourself.
6. Make the Images Only You Can Make
For this last point, I'll leave you with a story. I worked on a project where multiple photographers were given a similar assignment. After the job was out in market, I was astounded by the variety and creativity that every other photographer brought to the job. I looked at my images and they felt so small in comparison to the images my peers produced. I thought, “Did I do enough? Did I let them down?”
I was chatting with one of the clients in a casual conversation after the campaign launch and when I shared these feeling of doubt, they looked at my like I was out of my mind. They assured me that what I did was exactly what they wanted, expressed how much they loved the images I made and left me with this thought: “If you all shot the same, we wouldn't need all of you.” As someone who has dealt with imposter syndrome, these words have had a profound effect on me and are something that I will always remember.
While it's easy to fall into a cycle of comparisons with others, what you have to focus on in your own success is the images that only you can make. This act removes the element of competition and recognizes that every creative has something to offer that is uniquely theirs, whether in style, approach, or execution. And when you bring execute your craft, when you focus on the images that are so wholly yours and have your stamp on them, the doubt of comparison begins to fall away.
To a certain degree, I feel that imposter syndrome is a natural response to success for many people. For anyone who lacks a sense of entitlement, achieving success may feel like it's unearned, despite all the hard work that has gone into it.
The above suggestions are things that have personally helped me deal with feelings of doubt and imposter syndrome. If you're struggling with these same feelings of uncertainty and doubt, I hope they can help you as well — if not to overcome these feelings, then at least to keep them at bay and to rejoice in your own victories, big and small.