Insecurity Among Photographers: Is It Unavoidable?

Insecurity Among Photographers: Is It Unavoidable?

It's hard doing creative things.  There is a lot we put ourselves through, and the emotional journey of an artist is a rollercoaster with loops, turns, and upside-down parts.  Here are a few examples of thoughts you might have had before.

"How do I know if I'm good enough to call myself a pro?" 

"I'm angry people don't want to pay what I'm worth.  They don't understand what goes into what I do."

"When I tell people I want to be a photographer, they tell me I'll be a starving artist and never make a living.  Are they right?"

"I want to hang out with other photographers, but I can't get over the feeling that they're all idiots who do everything wrong."

"Eh, it's fine. I don't think I'll apply for the job. They probably wouldn't think I'm qualified."

My name is Braxton. I'm an insecure photographer. Most of us are. Here's a picture of me being insecure in the desert:

Photo by Tyson Rollins

I used to work in a factory, the Stouffer's Lasagna factory. One of the many products I worked on there was Salisbury steak. My job, for 10 hours, was to stand alone in a small room poking the meat with a metal stick as it went by on a conveyor belt to ensure that none of the patties were touching. There was almost never anything touching. At the end of the shift, I felt no insecurity about whether or not I was a good meat-poker, nor did I get defensive if anyone suggested I wouldn't one day make a terrific living off of poking oval-shaped raw meat pucks. Later, I worked in a ladder factory. I made Little Giant Ladders. Cut aluminum tubes are razor sharp. One of my jobs there was to pick up sharp aluminum tubes, rest them on a rotary sander, twiddle them until smooth, then stack them on a pallet, hundreds, probably thousands of times each day. I was great at that job. I knew I was great because the rest of the assembly line couldn't possibly keep up with my twiddling pace. Despite my exceptional digital dexterity, I never once complained that my employer has no idea what goes into what I do, and if they did, that they would pay me more. I never asked: "Am I good enough to go pro?"

I was. I was so pro.

For some reason, photography is different. From the moment I picked up a camera and casually took photos of friends and of nature, I felt some worry about what other people thought about them. I wanted everyone to like my pictures. Why? When I meet someone who is enjoying some frozen Salisbury steak, I don't yearn for their approval of its shape and flavor. When I notice someone using a Little Giant Ladder, I don't check their hands for cuts (probably because I know a cut would be impossible due to my sanding excellence). When someone tells me they've seen my latest photos on my website or Instagram, I blush, I get weird, and I say wrong words. When I interview for a photography job and they don't call back, it kind of hurts. It's different. It isn't only photography. Singing, writing, painting, dancing, etc. all seem to have this extra layer of emotion draped over them. To be honest, I don't know exactly why it is so. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I'll make some guesses.

Guess One

In photography, there is an endless array of solutions to any given problem. There is basically one way to sand a metal pipe. There are many, many ways to bring a product to market through imagery. Some are better than others, and it's not always clear which is which until the job is already done. Most of the time, you're operating on your best guess, and people hire you because they trust that your guess will be better than their guess. Imagine doing advanced algebra, except there are no clear answers, and your grade is based on whether people like the answer you wrote or not and on your ability to verbally justify the decisions you made. "You did such a pretty job on that quadratic equation!"

Guess Two

Creative endeavors reflect your personality, humor, and values. As a garbage man, your options for expressing your secret childhood trauma and your yearning for deep human connection are limited. As an auto mechanic, it can be challenging to communicate the triumphant tragedy of man's eternal struggle against the oppressive force of nature's fury. As a photographer, on the other hand, if you are tasked with creating a funny ad for a company, there is really no way to escape if you have a terribly obscure, problematic sense of humor. It's going to come through. You can't hide very well. Your work is a looking glass for the world to see right into you. Rejection of your work is, very actually, a rejection of you. Approval of your work is a validation of you.  

Guess Three

No one ever discouraged me from taking factory jobs. Most people discouraged me from or at least questioned my judgement for pursuing art as a career. I believe each of them did this out of genuine concern for my well-being. Let's face it. Many people do quit and do something else. As a result of this "help," I got to pursue my interest within the frame of probable failure and through the lens of needing to prove everyone wrong. The default assumption was my failure. Any success would be a hard-fought surprise, and as we all know, we already tell ourselves all of these same things. So, it's double for us. 

Me, being insecure on a stool.

So, what's the upside? Why are we doing this? Specifically, because it's a reflection of us because it's challenging and because of the variety of solutions we get to explore to each problem. We are insecure because we love what we do and recognize that success here is rare. We have done other jobs and understand that there is something special about this thing. If it were about the money, we would all be dentists. But it's not about the money. It's about love. It's about making one's hobby or career about what is fundamental to our happiness. The free creation of self-reflection, subjective, and expressive work. It's about our natural inclination to observe and appreciate the world and its people, their experience and emotion. We are the captors of the human condition.

While we will never escape the inherent insecurity associated with this job, where every shutter actuation carries with it emotional risk, we can and should be confident that we are doing something important, something that requires elevated insight into the heart of what we're all doing here. And we should invite more people to do it with us.  

 Me, confident that what I'm doing is right.

Writing articles for Fstoppers is a similar animal. With tens of thousands of readers come hundreds of comments —some wonderful, some angry, some that honestly make no sense whatsoever. Thanks for reading and sharing. We need more photographers, not less. More conversation, not less. 

Are you insecure? What do you think makes photography different than other, less creative endeavors?          

Images used with permission of Tyson Rollins.

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8 Comments

Alexandro Lacadena's picture

This feels familiar... I have to admit that I stopped uploading pictures and editing because I think that I'm not "as good as" a pro one.
I'm not a professional photographer relying just in this as my incomes, I have other side jobs, and I'm pretty confident that I'm good (or that's what people say) but day after day I'm doing less and less photography things just because that" pressure". I saw once a graph showing progress of knowledge of photographers with a line showing how they feel, and was exactly this. The more the person knows, the "worst" it feels; but also, increases the quality of results. I think that all social media thing is responsible of this, as when uploading a shot and not getting "likes", you feel like you are not as good as others in the platform, when most times isn't that the thing... We have to (I have to) chill and enjoy the process, as we have the results already :)

Jan Holler's picture

"The more the person knows, the "worst" it feels", somehow true but not necessarily. Great thing to begin with: skipping social media and photo sites. It is not the world which has to like your photos. It is the customer, the friend, the family. And if it is profession, the area you live in. Start small and the question of insecurity stays small.

Jan Holler's picture

So let's start with a friendly comment: Great article, very honest, touched me. Thanks to you and fstoppers, these are articles who stand out from the mass.
Quiet an experience you made. I think most of the difficulties are those of many self employed and not specific to photography, perhaps typically for all jobs which needs own thinking and creativity. One sentence caught my eyes: "...if you are tasked with creating a funny ad for a company". Please be aware that you are a photographer and not (I guess) e.g. a creative director of a company who learned his business from the ground. A least the motif should be given. The task to convert it too a good photograph is up to you then. And that is already enough to do! What helps to get over insecurity might be to focus on a certain field of photography and try to improve to a point which allows one to feel secure (enough) to do business and feel confident about it. But again, my main profession is a completely different one (self employed), still I feel that being said is true for many other professions than being a photographer. Cheers!

Braxton Wilhelmsen's picture

I think I see what you're saying, but, for the record, I AM an Art Director for a company who learned his business from the ground. Thank for the comment!

Jan Holler's picture

Please excuse. Part of my comment makes no sense in that case.

John Leigh's picture

Fantaastic article verbalising the very thoughts I have had in mind for some while you expressed them really well and made some great points here - its all true for me, the worry of failure , the emotions wrapped up in what Im doing and the uncertainty whether I can keep going scraping a living like this in my people and product photography - time will tell but I hope I can keep going and prove everyone wrong

Rick Pappas's picture

Your "Guess" examples are all introverted. They are all about you. I'm betting that you feel the same way about meeting potential partners. I'm right, aren't I?
Successful architects are all about their client's needs. Successful rock stars know what their listeners want. Every successful salesperson knows that they need to know their customer's needs in order to come up with a solution that will aid in the customer's success. While we all want to be "artistes" which is fine on a personal level, commercial photography requires meeting the objective of your customer. That doesn't have to be totally limiting.

So, get your skill set together. On your time learn to work different scenes and circumstances. Once you have confidence....then ask your customers how you can collaborate to meet their needs. What is amiss about your article is that this should be about them. Not you.

Samuel Pyeatte's picture

I struggle with mental illness. When I was in the hospital, I told the doctor that photography was my favorite hobby. But I had stopped taking photos. The doctor asked why. I told her it was because of money. That was a lie. It was because of insecurity. I feel that displaying photos are just another way of being criticized. It stems from a bad experience taking a photography course from a highly critical instructor. I've learned since then that there is destructive and constructive criticism. He was destructively critical. After reading the, I think that I'm going to pick up my camera again. Thank you so much.