Comparison Is the Thief of Joy
You are slowly making your way through your photographic "career." Every single day. Every single week. One photograph after another. Posing to a slightly larger Instagram following each time. You may even be artistically improving with each image you capture. Each published edit is getting you slightly more attention. It might even lead to some money at the end of the day, as you are finally getting some paid gigs. But to you, it still seems like you are just an insignificant grain of sand compared to all of the household names, experienced, and/or rich photographers out there. Seeing their numbers on social media makes you, at best, lose hope for what lies ahead and, at worst, feel worthless. It seems like they’ve somehow transformed past the imaginary barrier of not being known and are now just cashing in on the fame, notoriety, and/or customer base. But let me tell you something to relieve the stress a little bit: you are not alone in this.
Sure, there are thousands upon thousands of working photographers who make their living taking pictures for paying clients. And I am incredibly happy for those who get to earn their rent money doing something they love. But this article is more aimed towards those who do not.
The vast majority of photographers are working their hardest to appear like they know what they are doing. The sad truth of current social media is that the main goal is to look as successful as possible, the best of them all, the one to follow or hire. I'm not even going to try to count the number of messages I have received in the last few years asking me “how to make it big,” “how to become a successful photojournalist,” or in a similar spirit. Every single time I respond to those, I have to disappoint, because I actually have no idea either.
I might seem on the outside like I’ve “made it” or that “I’ve got it all figured out” with all my journeys to a war-ravaged country followed by my written photo essays, but let me be clear on one thing: I usually just grasp the cards I’m dealt and do my best to work with them. My photography still has not gotten me a single advantage in the professional world. I am not earning a stable income photographing. My documentary work is all done for free for the sake of making it. Don't ask me why. I myself do not know why. I just know I have to do it.
Life Is in the Way
Like the vast majority of photographers in the world, I have a regular job that requires me to dedicate at least five, sometimes six days a week to it. Outside of that job, I have a family that needs me at home every single day, a daughter I absolutely adore spending time with. I do not have as much time to photograph as I’d love to have. I make time whenever I can, but it does not always work out. Every once in a while, I leave for work a few hours early to spend some time photographing the streets of Prague. Or I do not head straight back home after my shift is over and instead spend an hour or two in the city with my camera at the cost of not seeing my little girl for the last few minutes before she goes to sleep maybe once a week. I save extra cash, vacation days, and overtime hours to be able to travel to work on a story I feel close to, even though I could be spending that time just relaxing on a vacation.
It is a careful balancing act between my passion for photography and storytelling and being with my family. My baby girl isn’t even two years old, so every single day is different. Each day brings something new. It is not easy not seeing her every once in a while, but I do my best and constantly balance my life to pursue what I feel is my calling and be the best possible father I can possibly be.
Not a lot of people read the stories I brought back with me, some only scrolled through the photographs, and many haven’t even seen them. But a solid amount of those who did have sent me amazing messages of encouragement or even gratitude for waking them up to go out and work on their own passion projects. Those are my favorite kinds of messages and comments, the ones that are inspired to create for themselves.
Move Past the Race and Enjoy the Process
There were some, though, who kept asking the same questions I mentioned earlier. And my answer to that is always this: don’t do it to get famous. Don’t do it to get rich. Do it because you love photography. Once you realise it brings you joy, you can always find an excuse to pursue it. And if you truly and genuinely love photography, you will keep pursuing it regardless of your results or outcomes in terms of whatever you see as success.
Apologies in advance for the Thanos reference, but I honestly used to think I’d finally rest and watch the sun set over a grateful universe once I hit “X” amount of followers, or once I was effortlessly selling out gallery shows, or when I had a series of bestseller books filled with my photographs. Those all sound incredible, but I stopped using those to define success for myself. Sure, I won’t mind if that ever happens, and I know I’ll be pretty happy with myself. But I won’t be disappointed if that never happens.
What matters to me now is to just enjoy the journey and figure it all out as I’m moving along. In the end, everybody does. Just roll with the punches and make the most of your time on this beautiful floating space rock.
I really love your thoughts and feelings on this issue of success.
To me, success has nothing to do with how other people receive one's photography. One is NOT successful if lots of other people love one's photographs. One is successful if one is satisfied by one's photographs and the endeavors taken to create them. It is all about how the photographer feels about his/her photos, not how other people feel about them. Any other definition of success is kind of whacked.
Thank you for the comment, Tom!
Exactly. If you're not being paid by a client to deliver a certain quality or look then you yourself are the only one to please. Don't create content for others. Create whatever makes you content.
That's not just the secret to successful photography, it is the secret to a successful life.
Ondrej, this was a good read. Thank you, for reminding me why I like to photograph. It’s for the love of photography and nothing more. I never expect to fill galleries with my photos, nor become famous. I do it for me, if others find it appealing that’s a bonus.
Thank you very much for taking the time to read my article, Fred! That is why I do it as well. It takes away the burden of wanting to please others and lets you be honest to yourself creative-wise.
Best of luck in your photography!