The Power of Resilience as a Photographer

The Power of Resilience as a Photographer

I hold these truths to be self-evident. One, things don’t always go the way we’d like them to. And two, how we respond to failure is equally, if not more important than how we deal with success.

Life is not always easy. I have no illusions that I’m breaking the lid off a fresh story with that one, but it still bears repeating. Life is not always easy.

For every major success, there are likely an equal if not a greater number of failures. For every major assignment you land, there is a handful that have just slipped through the cracks. For every cold email I send requesting a meeting with a client, ten more may go into the digital wastebasket of history.

Even the greatest of photographers must deal with immeasurable levels of rejection. It is those who get knocked down but refuse to stay down that ultimately work themselves into our collective imagination and stake their claim.

Resilience is not easy to come by. It’s a lifelong journey. It may begin in the schoolyard the first time we are knocked down in a fight. Or the first time a new romantic relationship has us floating on air only to face unexpected rejection and a broken heart. Perhaps we were raised in a home full of love, but where the cupboards weren’t always full of food and we had to learn how to make do with what we had. Resilience begins with some level of pain, but the story doesn’t end there.

You see the benefit of pain is preparation. Every scar teaches us a lesson. It may teach us the errors of our ways. It may teach us that, no matter our actions, sometimes things just go wrong. But most importantly, our scars teach us that no matter how deep the initial cut, we can and we will recover. Whatever doesn’t kill us does really make us stronger. And when we get knocked down, the only appropriate response is to get back on our feet.

As artists, we have to have a particularly high pain threshold. After all, our job is to literally pour our heart and soul into our work then send it out into a world for judgment. As you grow as an artist, you’ll quickly realize that there is no such thing as great art without its critics. Even the Mona Lisa will have its detractors, and the idea that even your best work will make it through the gauntlet unscathed is mere illusion. Yet you persist.

But how? How will you face the constant barbs of bitter words and betrayed promises to push forward and continue to turn your dream into reality? Resilience.

I can’t say that it comes easily. When I was a teenager and playing quarterback on my high school team, no doubt my biggest failing was my inability to stay focused when things didn’t go well. When my passes were connecting, I was unstoppable. But even just one errant throw was enough to throw me off course for the rest of the game. I hadn’t yet learned to have a short memory for disappointment and a long view of the battle ahead.

In my earliest photography days, I hadn’t yet learned to turn the tide on a lackluster shoot. When things weren’t working, I hadn’t yet learned the tricks to know how to fix it. More importantly, I hadn’t been through enough photographic battles to have the confidence to know that I could fix it. As a photographer, you are more powerful than you know. You can fix almost anything. But as a beginner, I didn’t yet have enough persistence to work through the issues.

Now, some 12 years later, I find myself in far more pressure-filled situations. Instead of only being subject to my own self-inflicted derision when obstacles arise, I must now face challenges without the veil of privacy. With large casts and crew behind me, a mass of client creatives and executives huddled around a monitor watching every flick, and the still ever-present voice of judgment in my head, I must proceed with my work in plain view.

I don’t mind. I rather like it. Perhaps there’s a bit of me that likes the pressure. But even as I have been blessed by my share of success on that stage, there are still times when things just aren’t quite working.

Last week, I had such an experience. Working with my favorite client, a rather large corporation who years earlier I wouldn’t have dared to even approach, the day’s particular shoot was getting off to a slow start. Having had a number of creative calls with the client, I arrived on set and dutifully began setting up the lighting as we had discussed.  

It looked… OK. But still, I didn’t see that twinkle in the art director’s eye that I so look forward to on set. The shots weren’t bad, they just weren’t… great. I’m guessing you’ve all been there.

Now, high school football Chris would have let the poor start ruin the entire shoot. Early still-learning photography Chris would’ve continued down the stale path and ultimately turned into a bland product. But over the years, I’ve acquired something special in addition to my technical abilities. I acquired resiliency.

I knew that I couldn’t allow some initial pain to derail the end result. I knew that one way or another, my job is to turn in something amazing that will make the client shine. So, as my mother would always tell me, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

Opting to shift to plan B, then C, then D, before eventually blowing it all up and going to plan E, we eventually got through the pain to the promised land. The art director was happy. The executives were happy. And ultimately I was satisfied with the result. Not only did the client get the look they were after, but they also go to see how I deal with adversity. I got to prove to them my ability to adapt to changing creative direction on the fly. And I got to show that, in the future, they can present me with difficult challenges without fear that I will fold up. In short, I got to prove to them my resiliency. And by proving that, I strengthened my relationship with them and gave them more confidence to hire me in the future.

But getting to the point where I could handle a situation like that wasn’t an overnight trip. In fact, the journey and growth are still ongoing. Even situations like proving to the client (and to myself) my ability to handle tough situations add to my confidence and toughness for the next time things get rough. And they will get rough.

But even when things do inevitably go awry, the important thing is that you get back on your feet. Be fearless. Be resilient. Success isn’t the absence of obstacles, it’s the ability to overcome them and not let anything stand in your way.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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Well said - and applicable to just about anything, eh Chris? I'll share this with my early 20s daughter...

Excellent article, Christopher. I think most of us in the biz are perfectionists and it causes great pain when feel we didn't do our best work. So... if a client is disappointed, our own insecurities are triggered and we can be very hard on ourselves! The best response is getting out and doing more great work, then we keep our subconscious "wolves at bay"!


Well said. I'm an oil painter too. Loads of my friends and peers told me my work was great. Then I entered a gallery exhibition and was turned down. I asked why and was told all the faults in my work. I was really hurt and ready to give up but then I thought "I've got to up my game" and had lessons and read up and got better. So thats the way I think now, every time there is criticism or I look and think somethings not good enough - get better! It means my work is always improving. Now I need to apply it to my photography but its still scary.

That's the right attitude.

Great article. Thank you