Ego Vs. Humility: A Photographic Battle

We are photographers. We are not a bunch known for a lack of opinions. By and large, we know (or think we know) what’s good and bad and aren’t shy about telling others just how qualified our own personal greatness makes us to pass judgment on other far inferior work. Yes, I’m generalizing to make a larger point. There are as many different types of photographers as there are different types of people. And, if ego sits on one shoulder, its distant cousin humility stands firmly on the other, grasping tightly to the other end of the rope in an endless game of tug of war. But knowing when to pull, and when to offer slack, from one side or the other can be the secret to both successful shoots and successful creative relationships.

First, I should start with an admission. When it comes to ego, yep, I’ve got one. A big one depending on what day of the week it is and the situation I find myself in. I can’t say I’m proud of it. But to deny the existence of my own ego might possibly be the most egotistical self-aggrandizing attitude of them all. So, at least I’m not that far gone yet.

I also find this belief in my own opinion rather peculiar. I was not an especially confident child growing up… or even as a grown up. I wasn’t part of the “in crowd.” I wasn’t popular. I wasn’t cool. For years it would be an open question as to whether or not I even possessed any self-confidence at all.

It got to a point to where, so tired of being denied access to the inner circle, I instead stopped banging on the door altogether. If they didn’t want me as part of the group, I would instead build a life of contentment on my own.

As with most growing pains, that approach would shift and change over the years, and I’m proud to report that I now have several sets of friends, am modestly well adjusted socially, and no longer start my mornings with a freestyle rendition of Tupac’s “Me Against The World.” I may never have become one of the cool kids, but I do play well with others.

I mention all of this simply as the backstory of my own personal ego. Spending all those years apart from the herd was painful for me as a child and young adult. But it also forced me to trust in my own opinion. Groupthink wasn’t really an option. Truth be told, it was likely due in large part to my immunity to peer pressure and willingness to stand alone that set me so at odds with the inner sanctum in the first place. My individuality being a native trait that both determined the outcome of my relationships, while ultimately becoming an outcome itself.  

Growing up more and more as a lone wolf made me trust the voice in my head over any others. And while in high school I took this solitude to be proof of the inaccuracy of my own judgment, in adulthood the belief shifted to a feeling that it was, in fact, I who was right all along.

Surely, the real truth was somewhere in between. I was neither wrong all the time, nor was I right all the time. But, either way, ego was teaching me to believe in myself.

As crazy as it may sound, ego is absolutely essential to my being a photographer. While I constantly regret it’s moments of excess, I also rely on it to get me through the war of attrition that is a creative career.

Think about it. In order to become an artist, you have to first have something to say. More importantly, you have to be bold or arrogant enough to think that what you have to say is important enough that rest of the world should listen. You have to believe enough in your own abilities to have the courage to share your talent with the world. All of this requires ego. On a certain level, either conscious or subconscious, you are saying to the world “I am good at this and I deserve your attention.” Whether you’re striving to succeed as a professional photographer, running for president of the United States, or just running for president of the PTA, being able to state that last sentence is absolutely essential to success.

The ego provides us that little kickstart to give us the courage to take a leap of faith. It also can provide the steel necessary to sustain us through the hard times.

No one reaches a mountain top without a few stumbles. There is no such thing as smooth sailing through the ebbs and flows of life. As you attempt to build an artistic career, you will face setbacks. You will have doors slammed in your face. You will sit across from reviewers looking at your portfolio who flat out don’t like your work and will tell you so. You will post work online and have people tell you that your work sucks. You will lose bids for jobs. You will have well intentioned people try to advise you that “maybe it’s time to consider another career.”  

The amount of rejection and scrutiny that even the most successful photographers face is borderline incomprehensible. You’ll need ego to carry you through.

What is it, if not ego, to have the whole world seeming to tell you that your work should look one way, but you stand firm and say otherwise? How else do you have the strength to follow through on your artistic vision even if the world doesn’t happen to see things the same way? How cocky do you need to be to scream from the rafters that the sky is red and not blue? You need to have an undying belief in yourself and your abilities. Ego will help see you through.

But while his presence is necessary, an overabundance of ego can also lead to your downfall.

While there may only be one finger on the shutter button, photography is a collaborative art form. On even the smallest shoot, there are at least two contributors to an image’s success: photographer and subject. And no matter how ingenious we may be at placing our lights or composing our shots, none of it amounts to a hill of beans without an engaging subject. While a great concept and approach can achieve a strong photographic result, that subject before the lens can take your good image and make it great.

But that requires teamwork. And there’s a reason people say “There’s no I in team.” Teamwork, to a certain degree, requires a suppression of ego. It is where the tug of war starts to shift slightly to the side of humility. Rather than a threat to our on-set supremacy, humility affords us the ability to listen openly to others suggestions. We may not agree. We may ultimately decide to stick to our own plan. But being open to the possibility that we are wrong and exposing our own vulnerability, ironically provides us the strength to take our work to the next level.

Two heads are stronger than one. Being open to accepting the contributions of our subjects only increases our mental bandwidth. It also allows the subject to feel more like a part of the process and less like a living prop. This inclusion makes them feel engaged, and, as a result, your images will improve. Even if you don’t go with their idea, the fact that you are willing to listen will go miles towards bringing out the best in them.

And that humility extends beyond those in front of the camera. As your career grows and your sets become more and more crowded, you will soon have a multitude of soloists looking to contribute a verse to your concerto. Stylists, hair and makeup artist, digital techs, and, most important of all, clients will all have an opinion on what an image should or should not be.  

Just last week I was on set with two subjects in front of the camera, but no less than twenty of the clients' team members behind me huddled around the digital tech’s monitor offering either a chorus of applause or a chorus of silence with every pull of the trigger. A far cry from the days when it was just me and my (air quotes) model, a.k.a. “friend,” and peeking at the back of my camera.

But as you progress towards shoots like mine, and even larger productions, the tug of war between ego and humility becomes all the more important.

No matter how big the set gets, you are still in charge. You have to know what you are trying to accomplish, how to accomplish it, and have the confidence to be accounted for.

Enter ego.

You also have to recognize the incredible skillset and creativity of everyone on set. From the art director to the assistants, a great idea can come from anywhere. And it doesn't matter the source, just so long as you accomplish the result. 

You have to recognize that the client is always right. And, as Bob Dylan said, we all "gotta serve somebody.” You have to both be able to express your own opinions as well as listen to those expressed by others. Then take all of those opinions into your purview and deliver the right recipe.

Ego and humility aren’t always the most natural bedfellows, but both are absolutely essential to your creative career. They provide both the drive, sustenance, and adaptability required to perform our job at the highest level. It’s a match made in heaven.

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Anonymous's picture

I think I knew you in school except, you were white and your name was Patrick. :-)

Simon Patterson's picture

That's funny, I knew him as Simon! 😀

Samuel Flores Sanchez's picture

Good article. I don't think that ego is necessary though. That is precisely the ego talking, telling "I'm necessary, you need me" :D
But I think that he who can rid of the ego completely it has nothing to lose and everything to gain. Without ego, there's no desire or anxiety, only calm and a profound enjoinment that covers everything you do.
It's a common error to think "if you don't have desire anymore, why are you going to continue working?".
this man explains it better than I do:

Anonymous's picture

Thanks for the link. I've enjoyed it so far but it froze up so I couldn't watch the whole thing, but I will. In any case, I think the search for happiness is separate from the goals of your career. Of course you want to be happy all the time but I don't think selflessness (a lack of ego) will aid you in most careers and especially those where you need recognition of your skills to be successful.

Samuel Flores Sanchez's picture

I experience things differently but that's what makes life interesting.

Thanks for the good conversation!

Anonymous's picture

And thanks again for the link. I really do agree with you, generally. In fact, I've been told, in other words, I don't have enough ego!

Studio 403's picture

Well, I am an ego manganic with an inferiority complex , So I win both ways, he he

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

As a kid, I had a very lonely childhood and that was largely because I was extremely shy - very lacking in self-confidence, for example, in speaking front of a group of people. And then I had one of those moments - it suddenly dawned on me that most other people are also shy, in a sense, and I found that if I talked "to fill up the holes in the air", it helped them relax - even to join in the discussion. So my shyness largely evaporated.
It's a similar kind of issue. Because without the confidence to speak in front of others, it's almost impossible to market yourself and your work.
Opinions are a trickier subject - they are an odd phenomenon. Opinions can "agree" (converge) or "disagree" (diverge). But one thing they CANNOT do, is to be either "right" OR "wrong". They may form the basis for a discussion. They may be the same/similar or different. But NEVER right or wrong. And until people understand this, they have an awful tendency to push their "opinions", as if they are holy grail - which they are not.
So I think I prefer the photographers who offer helpful comment on other people's work, rather than the trolls who belittle it. After all, as one person said, "A critic is a person who has failed art and literature" - which doesn't leave much to be said for a critic's opinion. But each generation owes it to the next one, to be supportive and perhaps offer helpful advice and encouragement. As most photographers do, actually.

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

That's a purely semantic argument. If it's a "fact", it ceases to be an opinion anyway.

John Miller's picture

Maybe this is a prerequisite for photography. Like Pat said you just summed up my life. The bottom line is we are all the same and we are just trying to do good at what we do in life. All around great article.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

To be a successful photographer you need an ego - but you don't need to be a dick or prima donna. When I assisted and did PA work on large sets with dozens of people, I saw the tippy top "creatives" were actually very good to work with, as they had their shit together, the newbies were ok to deal with as they weren't sure of everything and looked to others for input.
The middle level directors, photographers, ADs, 1st Asst were the hardest to deal with as they all seemed scared of losing control of the situation so yelling and being an ahole were common traits. On one set a friend of mine was fired in the AM because he bought Swiss Miss cocoa and a bag of small marshmallows instead of the requested (by the director) "Swiss Miss cocoa with Mini Marshmallows". Her nickname after that was of course "Swiss Miss"

Confidence and ego need to balance eachother out.