Fear and Photography

‘Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.’ William Shakespeare

Recently I compiled a collection of video interviews of photographers I really admire (Don McCullin, Annie Leibovitz etc.). Something that Elliot Erwitt said lingered in my head. When asked if he ever got anxious taking photos on the street he said in a very relaxed way, ‘No, I’m not really an anxious person.’

I thought that was so interesting because I think for the rest of us mortals, striving every day to be better at what we do, trying to create original and beautiful things with our creative pursuits – there is a lot of anxiety and fear. And that, I think, is holding so many people back from creating wonderful, original pieces of work.

Solo Tree, California Dreaming

From California Dreaming. © Anthony Epes, 2015

Anxiety and fear blind your creative vision. Let me give you an example. You are walking around on the street and you see a great photo: three people doing something a little crazy. You hold up your camera, and suddenly one of the them turns and notices you. Your heart is struck with anxiety, what to do, what to do? Take the photo anyway? Or slowly lower the camera and walk away?

Fighting through layers of that stuff we accumulate along the way – the I should be better, I should be doing this with my life, I should be further ahead! The judgments, the self-criticism…. And what happens is our work is filtered through these layers. It has to fight the anxiety we feel about ourselves and our craft. It gets bent and distorted at every angle as it goes from the very centre of our being, the place that is still free and untainted by the effects of this world, and the more it has to fight to get out, the more distorted and blemished it becomes, until it arrives at the surface as a strangled, mutated version of our original creative vision.

We want to get to a place with our photography where we are so attuned with our camera and so comfortable with ourselves taking photos, that we can access our originality and unique vision as though we are just opening a door. We want our work to be a pure expression of who we are.

‘We pay a heavy price for our fear of failure. It is a powerful obstacle to growth. It assures the progressive narrowing of the personality and prevents exploration and experimentation.’ – John W Gardener

Fear is an interesting concept (I like to think of it as a concept because the more I emotionally distance myself from it, the less it’s likely to eat me whole). A little fear and a little anxiety can be great drivers for creating work. It can keep you motivated and alert and save you from the most dreaded of all creativity killers – inertia. But too much, and it’s a real threat to your creativity. And it’s too much fear that I see most often.

Roadstar 7, California Dreaming

From California Dreaming. © Anthony Epes, 2015

Think about your process of taking photos and if you ever feel fear holding you back from doing things that you want, like

  • You see an interesting person on the street, but you are reluctant to take their photo. What if they get really angry and attack me!!
  • You’re wandering around a new city and feel self-conscious and conspicuous with your camera, so you find yourself hesitating or leaving your kit at the hotel.
  • You have an amazing idea for a project but the process makes you feel uncomfortable. Everyone will think it’s a boring idea!

Fear can also tangle you up in more subtle ways. Perhaps you think, yes I’ll do some shooting at dawn before work, that was a super inspiring thing to do on Anthony’s workshop! The alarm goes, you didn’t get as much sleep as you hoped so start thinking about work and how tired you’ll be and you think oh sod it, I won’t do it today. Back you drift into what someone I recently heard call the poor man’s Nirvana (sleep). And when you’ve done that once, it becomes more and more difficult to rouse yourself and prioritise that part of your life.

Those types of subtle fears, ones that seem to be about avoiding discomfort but are actually, I believe, your fear of doing something new, are the most insidious and dangerous because they seem so logical. Oh I wanted to go out to do some street photography today but look at my pile of washing/list of things to do/that lovely wine waiting for me in the fridge! There is always something else to do! There is never a good time (like having children) to stop your existing life and go out and be creative. No one is going to say – here you go, now here is four hours to just wander around looking at the sky. You have to carve out your time yourself. You have to make being creative a priority (I don’t want to taint this for you with other shoulds in your life but it’s a bit like making time to exercise or meditate or read. You know, all the stuff that’s good for you and makes you feel alive and happy but is harder to start than turning on a movie and opening a tube of Pringles.)

How do you get rid of this fear? Possibly you can’t ever get rid of it completely (I have never found a way; if you have, answers on a postcard please). But what has worked for me is just noticing that it’s happening. When I hear my own excuses as to why I shouldn’t go out, I question myself, is there fear here? If so why?

Perhaps you are already out, camera in hand. Is there a sense of unease? As yourself – why? Perhaps you feel an an unyielding pressure to create something spectacular, in the next 40 minutes of your lunch break. Or – I have camera in hand, but I am actually thinking about how I am going to afford that new sofa that I saw at the weekend? Are the expectations pushing me ahead, rather than the joy of looking? Am I here taking photos or am I away somewhere, lost in my thoughts about my life, my anxieties, the dramas of my life.

Roadstar 11, California Dreaming

From California Dreaming. © Anthony Epes, 2015

It is impossible to totally quieten the mind – thoughts just keep coming in whether you want them to or not (I love what the meditation teacher Jack Kornfield says – that the mind has no shame, it “secretes thoughts the way the mouth secretes saliva.”). So the only choice you have is to ignore your mind, the thoughts, and pay attention to being completely present:

  • Don’t rush
  • Don’t think ahead
  • Don’t wonder where you are going

Instead:

  • Listen to the sounds around you
  • Look for the light
  • Imagine yourself just drifting, like a small child looking around with fresh eyes, catching the things that interest and being totally absorbed until you are ready to shift the interest to the next thing
  • Try and look at the whole scene
  • Spend three times longer looking than you usually would. Stop yourself from moving.
  • Don’t think about taking photos, think only about looking and seeing
  • If in doubt, stay still
  • And perhaps most importantly….have fun! (remember how much you love photography?)

Photography for me is not a list of technical skills or camera gear to acquire. It’s not exotic locales or hip people to photograph – photography is a state of mind. The more you work on removing what is cluttering up your vision, the more you’ll see searingly original, interesting photos that make people go – wow!

I hope you enjoyed today’s post and please if you have any thoughts or ideas please do comment – I love hearing your feedback!

Or if there is something I can help you with – please do send me an email or comment on my facebook page.

Happy photographing!
Anthony

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Diana Bird

My co-author: I could not write these blog posts with out the aid of my lovely co-author Diana, my beautiful wife. Diana and I run Cities at Dawn together and she helps write and shape my blog posts. She is an awesome writer and seems to know my philosophy about photography almost as well as I know it (she has been listening to me for all these years after all! Well maybe about photography, definitely not about the art of stacking the dishwasher. But I supposed a man can’t have it all)

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