I’m bad at doing things I’m not already good at

Ok, so that title is a bit of a Catch 22, but I bet you all know what I mean. Every year past childhood it becomes more difficult to get out of our comfort zone and try something new. At least I hope I’m not the only one who feels that way…

For me, my discomfort with trying new things goes way back. I didn’t learn to swim or ride a bike until I was in middle school in part because I was scared of doing things wrong. I refused to keep going to soccer in elementary school and I quit high school track right before our first meet because I was scared of performing badly.

As part of my work this year to honor my inner child, I’m trying to do more things I’m bad at (or at least don’t excel at). More specifically, I’m trying to get over my fear of doing something wrong or badly. I’m trying to let myself do things because I enjoy them, because they help me express myself, because they are a challenge and we learn more from our mistakes than from anything. That means not doing things with the end goal of creating something “good” that other people approve of.

Of course this quickly comes to bear on my photography. I’m constantly around photographers (some of my favorite people in the world) and inevitably they ask if I shoot, if I’m a photographer too. For years I’ve been saying, “I take photographs, but I’m not a photographer.”

I know that sounds like a dodge. In fact, I got called out for it on Facebook last week by a couple good friends, which precipitated this post.

What I meant was: I have so much respect for photographers and know so many of them who are putting everything they have into making images that have a real impact on people. I make photos every once in a while — in my mind those are two vastly different things. And especially in this marketplace, the last thing photographers need is one more dilettante cutting into their pie.

Having gotten that off my chest, I also admit that I’m scared. As I’ve said before, thinking of myself as a creative, let alone an “artist,” has always been daunting. I’m only starting to get comfortable with the idea as it applies to my writing, something I’ve always been good at, always loved, and have had years of education and experience in.

But photography? Photography is none of those things for me. I took a couple classes in high school and a photojournalism class in college that impacted me deeply, but mostly because it made me realize how insanely hard it is to get something honest out of someone when you’re holding a big black box in front of your face. Add to that the fact that I’m lucky enough to call many of the most talented photographers I know friends, and the idea of admitting that I want to be a better photographer is downright terrifying.

Most new photographers think what they’re doing is pretty good, even if they know it’s not “great.” And honestly, that’s how it should be when you’re just starting out. But I KNOW I’m not that good. And I’m not fishing for compliments here, seriously.

I’ve spent years looking at images, pulling them apart, explaining their pros and cons. I capture a few nice elements sometimes, but by and large my stuff is mediocre. And that’s ok. I’m just starting. Even great photographers say they’re lucky to make one good photo a day. But god, it’s just so hard for me to share things publicly that are mediocre.

So why am I putting myself through this? Part of it is in the name of making myself vulnerable during this sabbatical I’m taking. Part of it is that I really do like taking pictures, especially when I’m traveling and want to share what I’m seeing. Part of it is the allure of getting better at something. Part of it is the simple thrill of being able to point to something and say, “See, I made that!”

But here’s the real reason I keep working at this photography thing — it helps me understand all my friends who are photographers so much better. While working at American Photo Magazine and the RESOLVE Blog, I must have interviewed hundreds of photographers. My questions were usually about creativity and family and funding, but rarely about technique or the art itself. I felt I couldn’t relate on that plane, so I didn’t try.

Now I have so many questions. I understand in such a tangible way what it means to get access, to approach someone for a portrait, to capture a true moment. I struggle to move past making photos that are simply pretty, or well composed, or explanatory. I’m trying to kill my inner overthinker and learn to make images that are reactions, that capture an honest emotion. It’s so much harder than I ever imagined.

But in the difficulty, I find a whole new world to ask my many photographer friends for help with. And, the thing that really compelled me to write this post: Peter convinced me that I might be able to help in return.

He says this “virgin” time, when you are just learning to see, finding your vision, facing your fears, is something that many artists wish they could revisit. Since I’m coming at photography from a greater base of knowledge and understanding than most new photographers, maybe I’ll be able to lend some insights into this process.

Failing all of that, taking my photography seriously and sharing it publicly will inevitably allow me to understand and relate more to the photographers I know. By the end of this sabbatical, I hope to have figured out my next career move, which most likely will involve helping photographers in some way. I know now that I can never do that fully until I have tried to make art with a camera.

All images © Miki Johnson. Taken in Istanbul and Berlin, June 2010, with a Contax 2T.

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8 thoughts on “I’m bad at doing things I’m not already good at

  1. Hum. I have a lot of thoughts on this. It's really cool that you're trying as hard as you are to test and push yourself outside of your boundaries. One of the things I often ask other photographers and myself is – why do you shoot what you shoot or maybe why photography at all? A camera is a tool. Nothing more and nothing less. It's important to understand how to use your tools when creating with a vision. But, if you have nothing to say, you have no angle, you have no reason for using your tool, then you'll likely create images without any sort of impact (whether or not you know how to use the tool from a technical standpoint or not) – for yourself or for any other viewer. I just looked it up – there are now 4.75 billion photos on Flickr. Thinking of the camera in terms of a tool, imagine if millions of people were walking around everyday pounding nails into whatever and wherever they felt inspired by random feelings or occurrences or funny happenings – at the end of the day did they really start to build something? Or where they just using a tool because they had it with them. I think that's a big part of where photography is now. My take is that no images have impact unless their creator and its subjects really have something to say. And in order for an image to really be heard – it needs to be universally understood. It all comes back to you what you've just noted – capturing a true and honest emotion. I love watching children look at photographs – they are the true test of an images power. They don't know any of the rules yet, they don't know a lot about a lot, but they know if something is powerful, or funny, or sad, or silly, or pretty, or worth looking at for more than a millisecond. The famous, cliche even, adage – “A picture is worth a thousand words.” – Can be true, but is unfortunately not true for most photographs. But, the questions remains the answer. “Can you say a thousand words without using a single one?” That is the true photographic test.So, Miki – What do you shoot? Why? What do you have to say? Start your photographic journey by trying to say something that matters to you. Chances are that what you really need to say is just what someone else needs to hear – and you will have done your job by creating something worth seeing.(ps – if you don't come visit me in MSP once you get back in the US. I'm going to be super bummed.)

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    • Hi Clark,Thanks for the words of wisdom. One of the hardest things for me is actually that I'm not sure what I'm saying with my photographs. I'm working to find my voice in my writing, and likewise my eye in my photographs. Right now most of what I seem to do is try to react honestly to things I see. To just make a photo because I feel compelled to, and try to figure out why afterward. If I can do that enough, I think I may figure out what it's important for me to say with my images and be able to work more directly at conveying that :)p.s. MSP is on the route so far. You better not be off on some fancy assignment when we come through 😉

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  2. I wouldn't put so much pressure on yourself, Miki. I was doing photography and posting them up on the web for five years before I even felt comfortable referring to myself as a photographer. I think Clark's advice is great. Why do you enjoy photography? For me, it initially had nothing to do with an interest in photography. I enjoy scenic places and travel. Photography came out of that interest. If I had been inclined to write more for publication then I'd be writing about the same subjects rather than take photos. Or if painting was the easiest way to express myself I'd do that. No matter what “art” you pursue it's just a medium for expression.

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    • Thanks for the thoughts Richard. I have to say, though, if “putting less pressure on myself” were something I could just “do” I probably wouldn't be writing this blog at all, or taking this sabbatical for that matter. Putting too much pressure on myself has been a lifelong problem, but one that is so ingrained it's going to take me even longer to unlearn it, I can see now. Regardless of whether or not I call myself a “photographer,” I'm going to work really hard at it since I've set my mind to it. That's the big up side of being an overachiver 😉

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