In the creative life very few things go the way we expect them to, and I suspect when they do, it’s because we’re not reaching far enough beyond our comfort zone, not risking enough. First steps into any new endeavour—whether that’s learning a new technique or beginning a new body of work—are not the steps that get you to a polished outcome; they’re the steps that get you started, and believing that they should be easier than they are, or result in quick and easy results, will only lead to frustration and the belief that something must be wrong with you or the idea you are exploring. If that belief stops you from exploring any further, then you’re trapped.
So much of the creative life happens in the mind, and what you think and believe determines everything: what your work is about, what it looks like, and how deep or personal it might be. All of this is a mind thing, not a camera thing. We know this, but it’s easy to forget it the moment things get hard, don’t go as planned, or just plain fail.
I’ve had whole trips that didn’t go well. I’ve spent thousands of dollars and weeks of my life only to come back without a single meaningful photograph.
What do you do with that, besides the inevitable self-flagellation? How you react will either teach you or trap you, depending on how you choose to think about it: is this so-called failure a trauma or a trophy? Is it something that has truly harmed you, or is it something in which you can find a valuable lesson or a raw material for new work? Does it sideline you or introduce you to a new direction, reveal a new opportunity to improve your skills, or hone your thinking for the next time you try?
Life is hard and short, and it hurts when we spend any of it doing something that doesn’t work out the way we planned. When the magazine doesn’t publish your work, the gallery isn’t interested, or the project feels like it’s going nowhere. No one would blame you for feeling hurt and confused (well, you might), but what you do next depends on how you think about it.
There is a difference between what hurts us and what harms us.
I have relearned this painfully over the last seven weeks as I’ve wrestled with phantom limb pain after the amputation; you wouldn’t believe the pain you can feel in a body part you no longer have. It would be funny were it not so truly painful. It hurts like hell. But it does not harm, and remembering that makes it a little easier. I go to a massage therapist, and what she does is often painful. It hurts, to be sure, but not only does it not harm me, it helps me heal. Keeping that in mind makes the pain more bearable, it helps to remove the sting.
If you care about your creative work, the inevitable failures, detours, and missteps, will hurt.
The more personal the work is—the more it matters to you—the more it will hurt. But whether or not it harms probably depends on how you react, how you think about them. If you are taking risks with your art, you will experience many failed efforts. That’s a good thing. You learn more from failure than you will ever learn from success, but whether you learn and move forward probably depends on whether you think of those failures as trauma or trophies, the latter of which are hard-won and worthy of celebration.
For the Love of the Photograph,
P.S.#1 – I’m Back on Instagram
I left social media three years ago for many reasons (other than needing a break from it all). But lately, I’ve felt like I’m missing something. Not followers, not likes, but connection. So for those of you on Instagram, seek me out again. I’m there. I’m approaching it differently and more playfully than I did before. If you’ve missed that connection or want to hear from me or see my work a bit more frequently, you can still find me at @davidduchemin.
PS#2 – Footnotes: A Quick Update
Thanks to so many of you for asking about my recovery since the amputation. There’s not much to tell at this point. I’m walking, though still with crutches. And though I aim to ditch the crutches by August 5th, two months since the surgery, it remains to be seen whether that’s doable (or wise). I’ll let the experts tell me that. The phantom pain seems to be slowly diminishing, and the worst of it seems to be over. Now it’s the hard work: multiple 10-minute daily walks, rehab exercises, and patience. That’s the most difficult part.
I’m also driving again. One of my biggest fears was how easily I’d take to being behind the wheel again since it was my driving foot that I gave up. I’m thrilled to have discovered my body and brain seem to remember how it all works. I can’t feel the pedals, but I know exactly where they are, and I can feel the truck’s response.
I’m still in my temporary leg, but I’ve got a very cool hydraulic foot on order, and it shouldn’t be long before we start working on something closer to my definitive leg and foot. It’s a fascinating, if not often frustrating, process. There has been trauma, but I’m keeping this experience as a trophy. Thank you for being part of that.