How To Overcome Disappointment as a Photographer

How To Overcome Disappointment as a Photographer

Sometimes the best lessons in photography can come from sources far from the art world. Last week I saw an image that helped to remind me of one of the best lessons for a successful business and a successful life.

It wasn’t supposed to go down like that. We had every advantage. We had put in the work. We dedicated ourselves to training. We’d done every “right.” But, in the end, it wasn’t enough.

But before I get too deep. Before I get too lyrical, I feel it is only fair to point out that I am, in fact, referring to just a game. After all, soccer (football) is just a game, even if millions of fans around the world completely lose their minds once a week in celebration of it. And FC Barcelona is just one of the thousands of teams, even if I do have their oversized team flag covering my office wall in the absence of my own national one.

But part of the reason I’ve always loved athletics is their ability to act as a metaphor for the journey of life itself. We begin as novices. Each of us is gifted with our own specific talents, but it is those who put in the hard work out of view of the shiny lights who eventually go on to shine on game day. We all have our deficiencies. Even the greatest of all time have their setbacks. Lionel Messi is arguably one of the greatest players of all time, but the left footer could still use improvement with his right. Michael Jordan may have been unstoppable at 6 foot 6 inches, but he played in a league with more than its fair share of players whose growth spurts took them above seven feet. Muhammad Ali may well have been the greatest, but having his prime years taken from him, he fought the majority of his most memorable fights in times of physical decline.  

Yet, whether one finds themselves gifted with advantage or cursed by setbacks, the simple fact remains. It’s not about what situation you’ve inherited, it’s what you choose to make of your situation.

This year’s Barca team wasn’t supposed to succeed. Sure they are one of the more established clubs in the world, but they are also aging, just starting over with a new coach, and most importantly they lost one of their best players, perhaps the third best player in the world, in the first week of the season. Every prediction was that this would be a down year. That the team didn’t stand a chance. Warnings arrived clear and fast that fans should be expecting a pretty awful season and as the campaign opened with two humiliating defeats to our eternal rivals in the first two matches of the season, the phrase “better luck next year” had already begun to make an early appearance.

But then something unexplainable happened. The team stood up, dug in their heels, and dealt with it. Playing in multiple competitions, many of which they would seem on paper to be overmatched in, the team proceeded to simply do the unthinkable. They won. They set a record unbeaten streak in the league. And they cruised their way through the Champions League, a global competition of the world’s best. They cruised through the competition. At least, they were cruising until last week.

After having changed the narrative from “hopeless disaster” to potentially being champions of the world, the team headed into what was supposed to be nothing more than a coronation. Entering the second of a two game series with a cushion of three goals, and facing an opponent virtually everyone outside of their opponent’s home city would have deemed inferior, all they had to do was not embarrass themselves. Well, you can probably tell by my tone that it didn’t go so well. All of that unexpected promise that had been built up by a season of overachieving went straight out of the window. They were on the receiving end of one of the most miraculous comebacks in the history of the competition. And their quest to be European champions was ended. Just like that.

All of which brings me to the image I saw on my television screen. Our team captain, Andrés Iniesta, a team fixture and icon of the sport, prematurely gray, standing on the sidelines watching helplessly as the final whistle threatens to blow. For those unfamiliar with soccer, unlike the NFL where players are drafted from college, many international soccer teams have their own academies where players as young as single digits are brought into the club early, play throughout their youth for the academy teams, and, if they are lucky, can continue to play for the teams senior side once they come of age. Their entire lives, in essence, are literally intertwined with one organization.

Iniesta is one such player. Despite being only 33 years old, Andrés Iniesta has played for FC Barcelona since he was 12 years old. He’s worked hard. He’s represented himself and his team well. He’s been through the ups and downs of the club for over two decades and is personally responsible for some of the club's most iconic moments. And now, as they team gradually moves into its next phase, this year is widely being rumored to potentially be Iniesta’s final year in uniform, with him expected to perhaps move on to a smaller club before easing his way into retirement. So this season, improbable as it may have been, could ultimately have been his last hurrah. This is a man who has fought every inch for his club since grade school, who was instrumental in bringing countless trophies to the club over the years, who was personally responsible for bringing his country their first and only World Cup in 2010. To see the image of him standing on the sideline, helpless, watching as this final moment went so horribly wrong was heartbreaking.

Truthfully, it's over a week later and the entire fanbase is still in the grief cycle. Not that it rises to the level of losing someone you love, or any of life's real tragedies, but more like that shared sense of overwrought blues that devotees feel when the dreams they’ve pinned onto the backs of twenty-somethings half a world away whom they’ve never even met suddenly come crashing down.

But, in the midst of this, who else would offer the most striking words of wisdom but the man who has been there so many times before. Tweeting out a picture of himself at the following day’s training session and some inspiring words written in Catalan, the captain offered the reminder that while things don’t always work out the way we would want, there is always tomorrow. And while we may find ourselves faced with disappointment over outcomes beyond our control, we always have the choice, in fact, the obligation to stand back up, face the fight, and soldier on.

And while I realize the bulk of this article has strayed far from apertures and shutter speeds, I find the lessons I learn in moments like these to be equally valuable to any discussion of where to place my lights or when to press the shutter.

You see the pursuit of an artistic career, far more than most other pursuits, is one filled with disappointment. Even the greatest among us have to deal with setbacks. Some public. Some private. Muhammad Ali may have died an icon, but what separated him from other boxing champions was more than just his lighting fast left jab. It was his ability to consistently overcome obstacles. It was his ability to continue to get back on his feet when life knocked him down both inside and outside of the ring. With or without gloves, he was a fighter.

As a photographer, you will get knocked down far more times than you will be lifted up. You will get radio silence from far more clients than you will ultimately book. And for as many people you meet that will fall in love with your portfolio, there will always be ten more that will opt to go another direction.

Those things are beyond your control. But what is in your control is your reaction. Do you simply accept their rebuke and allow the defeat to define you? Or do you stand tall, remain firm in your conviction, and continue to focus on the positive as you strive ahead?

As I hope to have shown in this essay, champions strive ahead. They are the greatest not because they never face defeat, but because they are never defeated. So next time you come up just short on a triple bid, or an art director doesn’t return your call, or you blow a 4-1 lead and get demolished on national television, remember to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep chasing the dream.

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, this is something really unexpected, an article mentioning football (sorry I can't call it soccer) on Fstoppers. I absolutely agree with every word except this phrase "can come from sources far from the art world", man you've seen Messi, Iniesta and Xavi play together if that's not art, I don't know what it is. Anyway if you want to know more about defeat, I'm a fan of Inter, I know it all...

Glory Supporter.

Good article though.

Great piece. Knowing what I know about soccer and FC Barcelona, I think if any photographer enjoys the success of Barcelona in a photography sense, then it's every bit a good reward. They win far more than they lose, and if their win ratio is anything synonymous with one's ratio of 'yesses to nos' with clients booking photo sessions with you, then the sky is truly your limit.

I bought a Neymar Jr. jersey the day before he announced his transfer! Luckily, I opted for the Brazil national team jersey instead :)

I have three Neymar jerseys in the drawer now that I can't wear anymore :-(

i think it's far simpler to just state, "control what you can control, ignore what you cannot." the problem is that a narcissist doesn't understand what's not under their control. they believe that everything is about them and thus controllable.

if you want to talk footie, you can do so without the false pretense of a teachable lesson on photography using a tortured metaphor.

focus is more than just a setting on your camera lens.

*steps off soapbox*

Beautiful article, at least it inspired me. God bless!

That photo of Tito warmed my heart...

You've heard to saying 'don't head into a gun fight with a knife'.

So sports is MY bag. Period. And it's awful to need to say this but... GEAR - PLACEMENT - TIMING - SHEER LUCK, ALL play equal parts in this arena of photography. We all sit, side-by-each, basically the same angles, the angle of view, the relatively the same capable gear -- all flapping out 11+ FPS. But, ONE guy gets the image.

Planning - Shamming..! It all comes down to placement and luck. You need good placement for a good background. And we all know that a shite background will kill the most famous of images. Placement is not at your discretion. It's all media relations, room allotted, and possibly, the 'pecking order of who you know vs. what you know.

And this doesn't apply to merely sports. It's any venue, event, happening you are assigned to shoot.

We actually have a tagline on Twitter that shows #SoYouWantToBeASportsPhotograher. It shows the hundreds images spoiled by some minor factor in the image. If shooting images are your game, and I care not what that arena covers.. suck it up buttercup.

Whether on the front lawn of he Whitehouse on that MUST GRAB image, or, in some under-lit venue covering god knows what. This IS the life of image makers that count on these to place food on the table, and a roof over your head. Not every outing will be a good and fruitful adventure.

Great inspiring article! I am a FC Porto fan, as I am an FC Barcelona fan. Both clubs share a lot as a region. Two big clubs from neighbour countries, from regions of those countries that are being milked to satisfy Madrid and Lisbon apetite for corruption. Anyway, Indeed true, deal with what you can, and hope for the best of you can't.

I'm pretty much immune to disappointment since my entire life has mostly been one huge disappointment. It's just one bad thing after another. It's not bad though. When people cancel on me I just go find something else to do instead of getting up set. I try to find the positives in disappointments now. Getting upset isn't going to change the situation so I just move on. When bad things happen I just chalk it up to life kicking me in the bawls for not learning something. When I had my truck It kept breaking down so i taught my self how to fix it. now i can pretty much do all the maintenance on my vehicles my self.

Michael Jordan always said he never lost in his life. Either he won, or he learned something. :-)