The Fear and the Hunger

In A Beautiful Anarchy, Rants and Sermons, The Life Creative by David41 Comments

The life of the photographer, or any artist, really, can be an emotional ride. It should be. We’re emotional beings, and if the struggle doesn’t make you want to laugh or cry, or both, on any given day, you probably need to check your pulse. I wrote this for the latest episode of Vision is Better but I know many of you aren’t YouTubers, so I thought I’d post it here in written form. Would you do me a favour and let me know, in the comments, how many of you would prefer that I give you written versions of my Vision is Better show? I won’t always be able to do it but if you’d rather read than watch, I’d love to know that. If you’d rather watch this, it’s on YouTube here, and if you’d rather listen to it, there’s an Mp3 here. Or just read it, the old fashioned way.

I am at a place in my career, and my life, that I never dreamed of. Some of the hardest work I do is keeping track of the details needed to run a business while I spend a month at a time in places like Italy, India, or Kenya, while juggling plans to swim with whales or sharks. That’s a privilege I never dreamt of.  I don’t say this to boast, though I hear myself say it and I feel like the luckiest man in the world. I have an amazing audience. I have work I adore. And yet almost everyday I scroll through Instagram and see other photographers with these massive followings or another gallery opening or a connection to some celebrity, and I think, I don’t have that! What the hell am I missing?

I forget their path doesn’t look like mine and I wonder briefly why I don’t have more “followers” Am I doing something wrong? I look at the photographs they are making and I wonder what magic juju they have that I don’t.  And I look at ever-changing business models and wonder how long I’ll be able to keep the fear at bay. And I wonder how many books I’ve got left in me, and what my next steps are, and it’s hard not to reach for a bottle of something or wonder if I shouldn’t be medicated.

I tell you this because I think it helps us all to know that emotional states like envy, doubt, or fear are not relative to what we have or how far we have come. They do not go away when you hit a magical but arbitrary milestone like publishing a book, getting a gallery show, or getting twenty-thousand followers. They still lurk. And yes, 20K followers on Instagram is more than most, and much fewer than many, and is a number about as meaningful as how many angels can dance on the head of a pin  – I know that – but it’s hard not to compare and feel like I’m not playing the game the right way. But I felt like this last year, too. And 5 years before that. It never really changes, and I’m not sure it’s necessarily even a bad thing: it’s a hunger. I still have it. And it still gnaws at me.

Last week I flew to Calgary to do sold-out lectures to celebrate the launch of my latest -and 10th- book; a book I couldn’t have conceived 9 years ago when this all began. And I’ve been doing lectures and performing for over 20 years. And I’m still always nervous. I still always feel unprepared and worry they’ll all see I’m just making this shit up. And though I think really I’m saying a couple things here, here’s my point: if I ever don’t feel some of this nervousness or fear, it’s time to pack it in. Because that worry comes from caring – caring that I do this well. Caring that I’m moving forward and learning new things and leaning into the fears. When I rest on my past success, when it’s comfortable and there’s no risk, when I think I’ve arrived, that’s when I’ll just start mailing it in, and the passion and the excitement and the frisson of doing something new will fade. That’s when apathy sets in and I don’t want that for my life. And I don’t want it for my audience: for you.

So to all of you in the same place as me – that have put it all on the line for what you love and the dream that one day you’ll have a book, an exhibit, or a larger audience for your work- know this: it will probably never be enough and that’s a good thing. Because these things don’t happen by magic. They happen by the work and the dirt under the fingernails that only come from the hunger and the longing. And the more we step into the unknown – no matter how many times you’ve done so before – the more we look at that blank page and wonder, Now what? Or, What am I missing? The more it pushes us to risk and work and double-down. After making a living solely on my creativity for over 20 years, that is the only thing that is sure. It’s either that or back down, look over the shoulder, see what others are doing, and try those things instead. But that has never been the right path for creatives or artists. In fact, to come full circle, that’s what got us here, to this conversation in the first place. From “Luckiest man in the world,” and being so grateful, to “What the hell am I missing?” and “Where did I go wrong?” in the blink of a short-sighted eye. What changed?

I looked around. I looked over my shoulder.

This is not a race. It’s not a game with winners and losers. You can’t do your work looking anywhere but AT your work. And it’s only by doing our work that we will get wherever the hell it is we’re going. And that fear? Those sweaty palms and sleepless nights? It’s just a voice saying, “What if?” and there’s more than one way to answer that. The work of any creative is to respond by doing their work, by letting their work be the way we discover the answer to that great, and often scary, question. What if? The only relationship that truly matters is the relationship between you and your work. That will determine how you relate to the audience your work finds for itself. That will keep you from looking over your shoulder.

The fear and the hunger – that’s the constant battle of the creative. We all have it, on some level. It’s a sign that you care. It’s a sign that you’ve got skin in the game and a dog in the fight. Don’t try to escape it. Leverage it. Let it fuel you and push you forward, and off your ass. Learn to feel that spark of nerves, fear, whatever, and see it as a good omen – a sign that change is coming and out of change comes something new, something better, or deeper. Learn to see it as an indicator – that you’re still alive, still making, creating, doing, and still so, so lucky to have another day to make an impact and pass that spark on to others. Don’t worry that it’s been 5 years, 10 years, whatever, and you still feel the fear and the hunger, instead: worry the morning you wake and you look back and you realize you haven’t felt that hunger for years.

And while all that’s happening, don’t forget to be grateful and to love where you’re at, and to remember how lucky we all are to do what we do. Don’t forget to celebrate the work of others and learn from it, and to give back to this wonderful craft. Just don’t compare yourself to others. Your path is not theirs, and your path will never be fully your own while you’ve still got one eye on what they’re doing.

The creative life is never without its ups and downs. A couple years ago I wrote what I now consider to be the first of my two most personal – and I think important – books: A Beautiful Anarchy: When the Life Creative Becomes the Life Created. We spend all this time talking about how to use cameras to make photographs that we forget to even talk about how we create, how to be creative. This book talks about that, and I know so many of you already have a copy, but I sometimes forget that there are always people new to me and my blog and I wanted to introduce you to this book if you haven’t seen it.

“A Beautiful Anarchy is raw energy bundled up in a book, and opening its cover is like lighting a fuse. This isn’t an ordinary book.  Read this book if you want to make more meaningful photographs and live a more complete life.”  ~ Chris Orwig, author of Visual Poetry, and The Creative Fight.


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  1. Great to have the choice to read or listen. When I’m in a room with others without headphones, reading is great. When I’m driving and want a companion with something meaningful to say, it’s nice to listen.

  2. Usually, it is recommended to “read the Book before the Movie”. It is an approach that I have usually subscribed to.
    However, in the case of David’s video’s I always watch them before reading the text. The eloquent enthusiasm of his presentations act as clear indicator of where one would “high-light” the text, thus holding my focus on the most profound concepts of his presentations.
    No doubt his prior vocation as a stand-up comedian have managed to hone his presentations to a degree that most people will never achieve .
    Ever one has their own way of learning. David’s approach meshes with the way my mind seems to operate.
    Best wishes,
    John Dufton

  3. I treasure the quiet moment when I grab my cup of tea, sit at my desk in front of my big monitor and watch you sharing your thoughts. This is particularly true when you deal with matters of the creative heart and soul.

    That said, I also really look forward to receiving the Contact Sheet in my inbox. I love the links to other photographers, and truly enjoy reading what you have to say. Usually, it is the Contact Sheet that reminds me to go and watch the video.

    I did a little side-by-side comparison of the written and the video, and both read and listened. I took away different”nuggets” from each. So, I vote for both video and written. (I’ve never listened to the MP3)

    Enjoy the whales.

  4. Hi David 🙂 I am a relatively slow reader, but I like all three formats. Whenever practical for the subject, I prefer audio only versions. Doing the dishes and such stuff with a low mental workload actually tends to strengthen my listening experience for recorded voice. I rarely do this with videos, because I expect to loose out on some important information.

    The biggest time pit for me is the comments section. I tend to read comments (in my usual slow speed), but rarely do I find it very enlightening in proportion to the time spent. With videos it is easier for me to skip the comments.

    However, no matter the format, I find you to be one of most inspiring sources within photography. And I’ve actually met a guy who made the choice to go full time into his own nieche from your inspiration.

    I guess more readers will prefere text and more youtubers will prefer videos. Maybe run some server statistics and remember to charish your time.

    Thanks 🙂

  5. I do enjoy reading the blog immensely, but I wouldn’t want the videos to go away. It was a sad day last year when the episodes stopped and I’m very happy they’re back. I suppose you could say I prefer the video, in that I would watch that first and then refer to a transcription on the blog if I wanted to check something specific. But I do rewatch episodes anyways, so a written version isn’t essential. Please keep the videos coming!

  6. Prefer the written version,too.There are places with hard internet access and reading is faster than watching.

  7. I’m by education and inclination a reader. I almost never listen to podcasts or books read aloud. I find the printed page, on paper or on screen, offers me a much more interactive experience. I suspect this is true for all of us still under the influence of Adler’s “How to Read a Book.”

    OTOH, a trained, gifted, and highly motivated presenter like yourself offers a much richer experience to me than any printed page can. Your passion, inflection, engaging eye contact, and especially your body language add so much to what you have to say that I would greatly miss watching your short, topical videos. After all, we are visual artist and should savor the visual experience, right?

    Gear is good, but VISION is better indeed.

  8. The following 2 quotes above really resonated with me David!

    “…worry the morning you wake and you look back and you realize you haven’t felt that hunger for years.”

    “Just don’t compare yourself to others. Your path is not theirs, and your path will never be fully your own while you’ve still got one eye on what they’re doing.”

    I am so prone to comparing myself to others and this was a good reminder that I am on my own creative path…not someone else’s.

    I prefer the written, like the majority of the commenters above. I haven’t listened to your videos…I just know I love your writing!

    One last question:. You said above: “A couple years ago I wrote what I now consider to be the first of my two most personal – and I think important – books: A Beautiful Anarchy: When the Life Creative Becomes the Life Created. ” What is the second most personal and important book for you…I would love to know!

    Blessings and Cheers!

  9. David,
    You are one of very few photographers that are gifted as a writer. You often (as in this latest blog) hit the nail on the head with how I feel about the art of photography, and life in general. The striving and following the madness of social media can just suck the creative juice right out of you……me anyway. I now photograph for myself and my photography is much more enjoyable. I am blessed that my love and knowledge of plants/botany is equally as rewarding as photography.

  10. Not my quote but one that I like, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

  11. Here’s to the hunger, despite whatever baggage comes with it! Great post, David, thanks much. Like others, I prefer the written word, just as I still lean more towards stills over video. I consume all, but these days video is at the bottom of my list. I do try to tune into your videos once in a while, though. The strength of video is seeing your expressions, and with audio hearing your voice. It can be more personal. But there’s still something that draws me more to these written words. Either way, though, it’s your message that keeps me coming back!

  12. Thank you for another beautiful piece, David. It’s helpful to hear that your mind does some of the same things as mine, and helpful to hear how you reflect on some of the negative thoughts. Like many others, I tend to read more than watch vids. I always mean to watch your vids, but don’t always get there. I seem to read most of the time. And I understand that it wouldn’t work to write all of them. I’m so grateful for the generous way you share this life.

  13. I prefer written. I rarely watch videos – I’m not able to make the time, it seems – and I feel my time is being held hostage by the video format. I can’t easily speed up, slow down, skip, back up, pause, review – while extracting the feeling and content in a short amount of time. Also, important content is easier to revisit in written blocks of text. I’m a writer and a fast reader, so the written word just works better for me.

  14. David,

    Long before YouTube, C.S. Lewis made a few wildly popular radio broadcasts. His voice was so successful over the radio he decided to use the script written for his voice as a the text for a book. To his surprise, Lewis found the script turned into text was a poor translation. The subtleties of his speaking voice that came off as close and relatable over radio came off as second rate writing when set down on the page. Lewis did publish the book, Mere Christianity, but only after an entire rewrite to make the best presentation on paper.

    David, I have been reading you for years. You have a singular writing voice. And you are coming into your own when you speak to the camera. However, they are not the same voice, word for word. Your presence on YouTube is not the same as your presence on your blog. There are things we say in real time that sound intelligent, spontaneous, thoughtful; the brain of the receiver filling in an amazing amount of gaps and surprisingly forgiving to false starts and sentences that jump the tracks. Not so in writing.

    I suggest keeping the video David and the writing David separate. Let each mode of communication be its best; not a translation of each other.

  15. Thanks David, always inspiring. As for the medium, I’m a fan of podcasts. That allows me to listen to you while sitting on the tram to work, doing my grocery shopping, or even my vacuuming. None of that multi-tasking is possible if it’s a video or a blog post. Just a thought.

  16. i’m retired, my income doesn ‘t depend on my making great photographs… i find your messages, thoughtfulness and challenges to be invaluable. sometimes it’s you tube, sometimes the written word, but i think i prefer the audio versions.

    i’ll enjoy your inspiration however it comes. truly, thank you!

  17. I really enjoy the written version – being able to read and pause and take in the words as they target a place within me. Sometimes after I have absorbed a written piece, listening is good, but I am truly best with the written word.

  18. Thanks Da I’d I also love the written to read with a good coffee first I got in the quiet AM but I must say I do enjoy your videos too. It’s good to hear your voice in real as well in in our head when we read. Since we can’t all join the tours and lectures it’s a nice treat to be spoken to directly occasionally too! I’d also say it offered your other generational fans or fans to be a chance to connect in their medium as well. While both may be a lot of work I think a mix would serve you well asnd your audience too. A few short videos from the field may be fun too on location sharing some thoughts and reflections. I know I’d love to watch those too and tag along with you on the adventures… And share a glass of bourbon around the camp fire or hotel bar you may end the day at!! Cheers

    By the way your message of minding our own path vs comparing is always great advice and one I need reminders often…. Hard not to watch your or other artist work evolve and grow and wonder what am I coding wrong or why can’t I keep up and do that too! And the best artists all say the same thing – do your own work and work hard and put your passion and soul into it. As my buddy Art Wolfe told me once the secret is simply to ” integrate your life and passions daily…”

  19. I vote for the written word. As those before me said, it taste better, slowly, as a good glass of wine… youtubes videos are like a fast funny & wonderful cocktail, i enjoy it but also they ends quickly and dissappear.
    I think there are very different audiences in every medium, also in every social network. I don’t know if your words are for all, David, not everyone want to hear your mantras. Lot of people love to change gear and that it’s all their photography, lot of them doesn’t want to work and fight every image to get them better. And not everybody wants to search inside his soul.
    Really, do you want to write a blog, prepare and send emails, record videos, make facebbok post, instagram posts and don’t know what else?
    For me better, i follow you everywhere, but think deeply why you going to do that, why you gonna choose that lens, that focal distance and if it’s better one or another. Maybe each one is for a different purpose or a different theme.
    Thank you for your post, constantly i’m travelling in this up and down game asking myself what i’m doing wrong, what thing could i do better and you gave me a little felt of “you are not the only one…”.

  20. Hi David, thank you for all you do to share your creative voice, with all the realities of life included . While I will watch videos, I prefer to read in the morning with a good cup of coffee, or in the evening while the house (and my spouse) are quiet. Perhaps it’s a generational thing.

  21. Written version……..always.
    And I often print off written words so I can read and re-read ……..slowly.

  22. Here’s another vote for the written version. I’ve enjoyed your videos, but don’t always get to them. I feel like they take more time. With your written words, I feel like I can go faster, but I can reread certain parts slowly, and I can more easily go over them multiple times. Thank you for all your gifts, David, in whatever form you bestow them.

  23. Written is good, it allows me to read/re-read at my leisure. Digest. It’s harder to find the time to sit & watch a video.

    I like multiple channels of information – I can read something and get one set of information, I can then listen to the same piece and “hear” what I missed reading.

  24. Understand both, but prefer the written version.
    Sometimes your articles are very interesting, so I want to print them.

  25. I also prefer the written word. I find YouTubes a very transient experience. The written word allows me to stop and ponder the words. And your words normally require some pondering as they so relate to the journey that many of us are on.
    Thanks for your words today and for putting in the extra time to make them available. As usual, they hit a chord and remind me about it being what I want to create.

  26. Your messages always resonate with me, and I thank you for them. I prefer being able to read rather than listen to your messages and appreciate having the option.

  27. Dear dear David,
    You live by sharing the ethos as ‘vision is better’, & ive seen a lot of ur youtube vdo’s & found a streak of light added each time to the thought. Your written word has a charm & meaning if it’s own coz you think & feel & breath in life ineach word you express. Spoken & written, both. For some, like me it’s easier & more meaningful to read while reflecting on each word & thought you pen down. A YouTube can be clicked off at the end, the written word stays in the heart & the mind for much longer.
    Just like your pictures & that’s why is liked & valued not by a 1,00,000 or a million but a few lesser, but each one I can promise you who has found a connection with your thoughts & your pictures & thus you. The weight of these few thousands outweighs the blankness of just likes & followers that may be in a few 100,000’s, that I can tell you.
    I know it’s added work for you to make a post, then vdo’graph it then write it & then do justice by following up with responses on each forum.
    From one, that is you have a big thumbs up for this & a larger thanks( for some like me vision(per se) may not be better, but going with you each week surely makes the sense of sight & the attempt/ effort to make it better surely is.
    & you keep that fire burning, just like with each new image that you take & turn it into a picture coz of the story it tells. That’s special, & there you’re a winner. Anarchy is beautiful & this is your chosen path, far removed from the techniques of others. Vision, life & pictures’ s more than just about technique. It’s the soul of the matter & you can never be untrue or unfaithful to it,
    Where’s my bourbon? Cheers
    Raj, drlhi

  28. Great piece. I’m more of a reader as I can “stew” on it more that way and seem to get more. The same is true of photos versus videos. You can’t stare at a video and get different feelings the way you can with a photo. Just my thoughts and opinion. Thanks.

  29. Thanks for asking the question – and the answer is, yes, I prefer the written word.

  30. Also prefer the written version. It’s so ‘silent’, although I hear your voice in my head while reading you words.

  31. I prefer the written version. Occasionally I like to watch a video but I can concentrate better when I read it.
    After 28 years of teaching I still get nervous before a new course starts. I guess you never really get over that.

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