Comparing Yourself to Other Photographers: Just Don't Do It
Many years ago, a photographer, at the very beginning of his career, took a course in portraiture at a local college. He worked hard through the semester to come up with a portfolio of about a dozen photographs.
On the final day of class, each student had to pin his or her prints up on boards set up around the studio for a grade. Our friend had decided his work was not good enough to show and so declined to even bring his work to class. When his turn came to be graded, he had to admit to the other students and the teacher his feelings about his own work: “I didn't think it was worth looking at, or at least when compared to the rest of the people in the class.” His fellow students and the teacher were shocked. Several of his classmates spoke up, declaring that he was far and away the best photographer in the class. When he took the time to look around the studio at the other student’s work, he had to admit that while there was some good work exhibited, he was just as good, if not better, a photographer than any of them. He decided right then and there that he had no business ever judging his own work. That he was, in fact, the least person qualified to do so. It was a painful lesson. He vowed to never again to judge his own work, for bad or good. He vowed, in fact, to remain as neutral as possible about his work going forward.
Fast forward a number of years. Our photographer friend is gradually building up a successful business of his own. He is pouring all of his creative resources into his work, ninety percent of which is advertising, marketing, accounting, filing, repairing equipment and teaching assistants the ins and outs of the business. The other ten percent is devoted to actual picture making. He dislikes all the other work that is associated with having a successful photography career and clings tenaciously to the ten percent in which he is shooting with a passion. With each assignment he finds himself admiring certain pictures during the shoot and then becoming increasingly dismayed when his clients routinely go right by his “pets” without so much as a murmur of approval or disapproval. They simply don’t register anything to his great annoyance. Occasionally he will point out his little favorites and still his clients would insist on choosing their own favorites. Sometimes they would pay heed to his entreaties, but most often they would be very polite and move on past the pictures he liked best and make choices of their own. Now and again he would stop the process of allowing a client to make their own choices and insist, even crusade for the inclusion of a particular photo. His clients liked and respected him enough to recognize when a photo was important to him and take his advice along with the photo. It caused him a great deal of distress until so many instances of this had piled up that he woke up to the fact one day that his job was to make the pictures and it was the responsibility of other people, whether they were photo editors or museum curators, to do the choosing. If he was really that enamored of a particular image, he could always blow that one up and hang it on his studio wall for his own pleasure.
What was interfering in his creative life and causing him so much grief in each of these instances for our photographer friend was his ego. His ego was insisting on having its own way and was essentially becoming a nuisance, thereby driving a wedge between him and his love for his work as a photographer. In each instance, he was clinging to something that did not really belong to him, and that something was a delicate balance between his own desire to be the best photographer he could and the businessman who was striving to be in service to his clients. They came to him because he had spent years studying his craft, thousands of hours refining his technique and countless dollars in an effort to find his own unique way of making pictures, and his ego, that malevolent creature, wanted to be the king on top of the hill, or man who lived underneath it. He had, at one time or another, lost perspective and humility in his work in spite of the simple fact that he was a terrific artist, a gifted photographer. Not the greatest of all time and not the worst either, but a completely successful businessman and a highly regarded artist. He had to learn to not compare himself to other photographers and he had to also learn not to judge himself and his work. That task needed to be left to other people.
The first step in this process was to hire people who could do some of the things in his business he found distasteful, or simply wasn't any good at, like accounting. It freed him up to concentrate more on what he loved to do, and as a result, his work not only got better, but he found himself experimenting with different techniques and subjects that he had never had the time for in the past.
The second step in the process was the direct result of the first. When he could spend more time doing what he loved best and his experience and creativity increased (and incidentally, his business and bank account grew exponentially as well), he found himself loving all of it: the good work and the bad work. Some days he made very successful photographs and some days he made dull ones, or even ugly ones. He began to see all of it as one great big joy in his life, and like his own children, stopped judging them and enjoyed all of them for what they were: an integral and happy part of his life. His ego was shown the door and was no longer allowed to interfere with his process.
When he finally made the decision to allow his clients to choose whatever they wanted, and happily so, he walked away from every encounter a satisfied man, to the same degree that his clients did. What was interesting, as a final chapter to this tale, was that he began to enlarge the pictures he loved the most, frame them and display them on his studio wall and gradually, as one framed photo replaced one from last year, his style emerged, his very own personal style, one that his clients kept coming back for year after year, so much so that now, he no longer thinks in terms of better or best, or even worse or worst, but he notices that now they all get along well and do not compete in his mind for attention because they’re all getting equal amounts of time and energy and he gets to see them every day of his working life, and, ironically enough, his “pets” and his client’s choices are mostly one and the same.