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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