We have a lot to be thankful of as photographers. We make our livings doing the things we love. Clients hire us to create images because they love what we do. They entrust their most precious moments to us, and believe that we will deliver. Personally, I have photography to thank for the fact that I am able to live in another country, travel the world, and meet everyone from farmers in remote villages to presidents of entire countries. The diverse work that I do gives me experiences that not too many people have. So why is it that every winter I dig deep into the recesses of my soul and question who I am and why I do what I do? Why do I always want to quit?
Several of my colleagues in the region have come to me with the same problem: there are a couple of times a year when we all think about throwing in the towel. We end up in a funk; a dark hole we’d rather not be in. We’re not alone, that’s for sure. Zack Arias poured his heart out in his short, “Transform,” a few years back and showed us all that even “sucksessful” photographers go through this. So just what is it that makes us do this?
In a chat with my good friend Andy Faulk a month ago, we nailed the problem down to a few specific recurring thoughts. I’ll present them here with solutions that work for me. Here’s a heads up though: a big part of this is realizing that it’s all just mind games. None of it is true. But let’s start from the beginning.
Idle Hands Are the Devil’s Tools
It’s true. Humans do some strange things when bored or in isolation. The brain plays tricks on us and we end up going down paths we may not ordinarily follow. When given prolonged period of time to look around us or deep into the recesses of our souls, we inevitably find the funk. Without a goal or something to occupy our brains, they start to wander. Sometimes this leads us to our most creative ideas. Sometimes it takes us to dark places. Let’s look at the dark places here.
I’m Still Shooting the Same Crap
This is a hard one. You look at your work and you can’t see progress. You’ve shot the same images for the whole year. You’ve used the same light, the same location, the same poses, or the same lens for every shoot. You can see it. You hate yourself for it. “A year is a long time,” you say. “Why haven’t I made giant leaps in my technique or the images I’m creating?”
The truth here is that you probably just can’t see it through the haze of self-doubt. Everyone around you will see your progress. Show someone a couple of images from last year and a couple from this year. Don’t tell them why, just ask if they see differences between the two sets. Try this with photographers and non-photographers. You’ll get different answers and see a wide variety of differences in your work from having these conversations. It might take a while to set in, but you’ll start to see the changes in your work as other people tell you what they’re seeing.
I’m Not Worth What I Charge
Why would people give me money for this garbage? After you’re done hating your work, you’re going to move on to this. A client is expected to give me X amount of money and I’m expected to give this in return. I don’t feel like I’m doing it. I feel like I’m under-delivering. I don’t deserve this. Somewhere in there, you might even feel like you’re cheating people.
It’s at this point that you have to remember that people look at your work before they hire you. They see what you do and they choose to send you a deposit. That’s not something you can do for them, they have to do that. If you’re still not feeling great about what you’ve delivered, send out surveys asking your clients from this year what they thought. Overwhelmingly, you’re going to hear that people are happy with their images and loved their experience with you.
My Work Is Meaningless
We’ve all been there. This is the point where the work that once filled your soul with joy and gave you a reason to wake up in the morning no longer plays that role. You start questioning your motivations. Why is it that I shoot engagements, families, events, or advertising? Sometimes you just can’t see the meaning in what you do. Sometimes this is a sign that you need to change direction.
If your work is good and your clients appreciate it, it is not meaningless. That is a fact you can rely on. The images you make of a family will be treasured forever. The advertisements you craft will sell products that will make both the producer and the customer happy. However, if the act of creating those and the satisfaction that they bring others cannot make you feel the meaning it what you do, perhaps it is time to change direction.
I Don’t Even Want to Pick Up a Camera
I went through this over the summer this year. Unless I was on commissioned time, I didn’t even take a camera with me. I wouldn’t even shoot a picture with my phone. I had no desire to craft images, not even of my memories. For me, this was more of a burnout than anything else, but friends and colleagues have told me that their disgust at their own images has led to this for them as well.
In both cases, the way through is blunt force for me. Pick up a camera and force images. They may suck. You may never show them to anyone. However, these will get the blocks out of the way so you can begin making images you care about again. Waiting for this phase to pass will only sink you deeper into it. Don’t let that happen.
The funk rears its ugly head and gets into the best of us. Recognizing it, knowing how to shut it down, and getting on with making images is one of the hardest things I have to do each year. In the past, retail therapy and pretending that everyone around me is luckier than I am have served to cover it up, but those just prolong the inevitable. They don’t fix the underlying problems. Do you suffer the blues from time to time about your work as well? What does it look like for you? How do you deal with it?