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.