In photography, it's easy to fall into a competitive mindset, often to a negative degree. In this age of social media where the work and exploits of our peers is readily on display, it can be difficult not to see the successes of others as a reflection of our own accomplishments and failings.
Even then, competition has its place. Healthy competition can give us goals that we otherwise wouldn’t have dreamed possible. Seeing the accomplishments of others allows us to understand what’s possible and achievable, and this itself can be a gift.
Still, there is something greater than competition: community. In reality, competition and community are both best fully realized by acknowledging others — your peers and your colleagues. Competition may drive you, but community will build you. Here's how to use the best of a competitive attitude while fostering community.
Developing as an individual creative
It can be essential to develop as an individual for any type of creative, but especially as a photographer. This independent space gives you the freedom to explore and develop ones own unique style — an essential element of any creative's journey.
That said, it's impossible to truly exist in a vacuum. We are constantly aware of others and the work they are doing, now more than ever in this age of social media. This reality is a blessing of inspiration and opportunities to learn. And if you want it, an environment of unyielding competition.
Learning through community
Personally as a photographer, I owe a huge amount of my photography education to community. When I was just learning photography, I feel like I learned the most in photography forums and groups that were encouraging of progress and mentoring. Surrounding myself with likeminded photographers who were eager to learn and eager to share, it was inspiring to feed off the energy and the passion of others as we dove into learning photography.
Community provides a platform for sharing work, receiving feedback and nearly as importantly, giving feedback.
I feel that giving critiques on work are one of the strongest and fastest ways to learn. Giving critiques — critically analyzing how and why a photo may be successful or unsuccessful, what works and what doesn't — can help you understand the fundamentals of photography that can be just as important as making images.
Learning in the safe, supportive setting of a community gives you not only a sense of belonging, a drive to learn alongside your peers and a push to take risks, but it also gives you access to all the wealth of knowledge in that community. This last point is at the heart of why fostering community is something that benefits everyone involved.
Gaining inspiration from your peers
Looking at the work of others is a huge opportunity for learning. Seeing the work of others can unlock inspiration and set you on paths of learning and exploration that you might never have come up with on your own.
This sense of opportunity combined with a drive to excel can be one of the healthiest ways to use the work of others and what they've accomplished as ways to grow as a photographer.
Inspiration is one of the greatest gifts you can receive, and taking inspiration from the work of others and making it your own is something artists have done for millennia. This impact can be one of the greatest assets of being part of a creative community.
Using competition as a motivator
The notion of community isn't in conflict with being competitive. In fact, the two are two halves of the being part of a larger world beyond the individual. With the awareness of others comes a keen sensitivity of their skills and achievements in relation to your own.
Competition can be an extremely strong motivator — and the value of this motivation shouldn't be underestimated. Considering others operating in the same space as you — people making images in the same genre, those achieving success and setting the bar — gives you a measure with which to judge yourself.
Seeing what others have accomplished can help in goal setting. If others have achieved milestones at the highest levels, you know what is possible and can draw on these example as inspiration.
If you are someone who thrives on comparing yourself to others, challenging yourself to rise to the level of those you admire may be just the fire you need to drive your greatest ambitions.
Competition as a double-edged sword
Using the competition as a measure for what's possible and realistic can help temper expectations. At the same time, there are so many irreproducible elements of success that trying to match the achievements of others may set one up frustration when goals aren't met.
Beyond opportunity and individual talents and drive, there are often so many other outside factors in personal successes that may go unseen. Individual advantages, countless hours perfecting a craft, and so forth, which, even if they were reproducible, are something only attainable to a fraction of those that dream of reaching the highest levels.
When to abandon competition
The best approach is to use competition as opportunistically as possible — to use it to fuel your own drive.
And while competition can be healthy and a huge source of drive, it's of paramount importance to understand when to abandon a competitive nature when it no longer serves you in a beneficial way.
More than that, it's important to know when a feeling of competition is negatively affecting you.
Whether it's imposter syndrome, jealousy or self doubt because of what others are doing. These kinds of feelings make us feel helpless and they can be paralyzing at their worst.
Creatives are naturally sensitive to feedback and measures of success. While it can be hard to break out of a negative cycle, it's important to have an awareness of how and why feelings of comparison and competition are affecting your mental health.
Why community wins over competition
As an alternative to competition, I have a suggestion, and it's simple: community. The power of this choice is that it's a simple shift in perspective, because competition and community are two halves of the same whole.
A community of individuals is always going to be stronger than any single person. It's going to be kinder and more more generous — there are simply more resources. Even if I don't know the answer to something, I guarantee one of my friends does, or if not, one of their friends. The access to solutions becomes exponentially larger in a broad community.
Community is greater than any single person. When you engage with your peers, that's community. And it's easier to achieve than you think.
Building Community as a Photographer
So, how do you foster that kind of network and trust? Building community can take so many forms of engagement, and most of them are ridiculously easy.
Share your work
Share what you learn
Mentor new photographers
Create dialogue with your peers
Share the work of others, comment and like
Ask yourself what you can learn from those achieving success
Participate on live streams
As for help
Collaborate with other photographers
These are a few activities that can encourage community building. There are so many others. I'd encourage you to find the actions you can take to push your sense of competition, to use it healthily and finally to abandon it when it no longer serves your interests.
This advice is easier said than done, but at least by identifying the productive and negative sides of competition, I hope that we can foster a conversation about how to build the photography community for the better.
When you engage in these kinds of actions, you build the community itself and you build your equity in that community. I guarantee you, whatever you put out into the photography community, you will get back.
Community vs competition
It's simple. Community > competition. Both are two parts of the same world. And the truth of it is that you're part of community whether you feel it or not, whether you take part in it or not. It's your actions and your perceptions that dictate your relation to your peers — whether you look to them as inspiration or whether you view their successes as your failures.
When you go it alone, you build up yourself. When you foster community, you build up everyone.
Develop your style as an individual, but stand out in your value as a collaborator. When you foster your creative community, I guarantee you that you'll be richer for it.