This is the main barrier to improving your photography

You haven’t heard from me for a while and I’m sorry about that. I’ve been mulching in a creative bubble. I have a super cool project; a new hotel has commissioned me to put together a limited edition book of East London at Dawn. As a photographer this is the kind of work you dream of: being paid to fulfil one of your creative ideas and, as so many of you who’ve been on my London workshops know, East London is my favourite part of the city.

But while I’m doing work like this – creating, shooting, thinking, looking at my images, I find it really difficult to live in the real world and do all those other things that life requires of me – emails, bills, etc. Di says I start acting like a cloud. I forget to return phone calls, I’m not great at remembering what’s happening in my diary. At least I can say, look man, I’m just an artist. And people sort of, sort of, understand 🙂

I think the point here being that any kind of creative pursuit requires more time than you think, and it requires a totally different brain space to the one that is keeping you going on a day to day basis. So although I totally, totally advocate keeping your camera at hand and taking photos as you go about your daily life because that is a powerful habit to develop for your creativity – remember, too, that carving out time for some dreaminess, drifting and creative mulching is also super beneficial for your photography.

Now let’s get to the main point of this post. The main point of this post is illustrated by this photo that I took a few mornings ago in Wapping.

This is the main barrier to improving your photos

I walked past this butcher and thought – awesome! Capturing people up at dawn is really hard, less so at the moment as dawn is so late in autumn and winter, but it’s still difficult to find people doing interesting things. I knew Di would love this shot – that blue early morning light on the buildings contrasting with the yellow tungsten inside. It really was a perfect combination of elements.  

I lifted my camera, shot this, but I obviously wasn’t happy with it because the positioning is all wrong. Then I saw that the butcher had spotted me. Guess what I did? I carried on walking! I had been totally overtaken by the fear and just left the scene.

To be honest it sort of surprised me how fearful I was. I have a lot of years under my belt of photographing strangers; I teach a workshop about it! It just shows you, though, that fear is not something you overcome and then that’s it, it’s gone. It can come back at any time. And of course we professionals are not immune.

But you know what? That’s OK. For me the best way is to accept that fear is a bit like clouds in the sky or rain in London – it comes and then it goes. The worse thing for me to do is let it stop me from taking the shot – or in this case, going back and taking the shot.

I’ve written about fear a few times on my blog, and I will continue to, because I truly believe that fear in its many forms is the main barrier to improving your photography. It’s not just the thing that will stop you from photographing strangers – it will also stop you pushing yourself further with your creativity. It will stop you from envisioning what is possible to do with your photography – and then getting on with it.

Fear is an insidious and pervasive force that affects us all in different ways across our lives. But in terms of creativity it can severely limit how much you’re prepared to push yourself to experience new things, to work at seeing the world in new and fresh way and to create something that is unique to you.

It’s good to note though that it’s totally natural to feel fear when you are creating.

“We’ve evolved to distrust creative ideas: except in a crisis, there’s little survival benefit to trying something new.” Oliver Burkeman

I see fear all the time with my students, and often they are surprised when I tell them that everyone experiences fear when they are taking photos. They are not unique or alone in this. With them I see fear come up in the form of:

  • Not staying at a scene long enough
  • Self-consciousness when using a camera in groups of people. So instead of being in the moment, connecting to your environment and composing your image, half of your mind is distracted with what people might be thinking or what is happening outside the moment of the photo
  • Not shooting what you really want to photograph because it scares you too much
  • Not getting started! I see this a lot. Worrying about doing it just right, so people don’t even get themselves out the door. (Perfectionism is just another form of fear.)

I agree with Oliver Burkeman (again) in that:

“The real question, then, is not whether creativity provokes fear, but what to do when it does. Far too many authorities urge you to conquer it… but as with any emotion, launching an all-out attack on fear is counterproductive. That just puts it centre stage, and risks reinforcing the notion that creativity must – and should – be one endless, bare-chested struggle.”

So what I encourage in the dealing with fear is:

Be patient with yourself. Fear is just a feeling. Don’t react to it. Let it come up and eventually it with leave you. Probably the worse thing you can do is start adding lots of thoughts and judgements about your fear. Thoughts are like adding fuel to the fire. Let the fire just burn itself out.

Accept that it’s part of being creative: putting yourself out there in terms of showing your work, being out there in the world with your camera, doing something outside of your day to day life is going to provoke feels of discomfort. And really, if you are feeling discomfort you are on the right path – it shows you’ve stepped outside your comfort zone, you are onto to something new and different.

I also like this idea about overcoming fear by distracting your mind and creating habits:

“There’s nothing wrong with fear; the only mistake is to let it stop you in your tracks.

Athletes know the power of triggering a ritual. A pro golfer may walk along the fairway chatting with his caddie, his playing partner, a friendly official or scorekeeper, but when he stands behind the ball and takes a deep breath, he has signaled to himself it’s time to concentrate.

A basketball player comes to the free-throw line, touches his socks, his shorts, receives the ball, bounces it exactly three times, and then he is ready to rise and shoot, exactly as he’s done a hundred times a day in practice. By making the start of the sequence automatic, they replace doubt and fear with comfort and routine.”  Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life.

When I am really struggling with fear I like to remember what Seth Godin advises about starting small:

“What we need to do is say, “What’s the smallest, tiniest thing that I can master and what’s the scariest thing I can do in front of the smallest number of people that can teach me how to dance with the fear?” Once we get good at that, we just realize that it’s not fatal. And it’s not intellectually realize – we’ve lived something that wasn’t fatal. And that idea is what’s so key — because then you can do it a little bit more.”

From 6 Famous Artists Talk About What It’s Like to Overcome Fear and Create Beauty on James Clear’s website.

So I will be heading back to Wapping to get that shot – maybe it’ll be worth it and it’ll make the book, maybe it won’t and it won’t be the shot I want. Ultimately, though, I need to do it for myself. To show that I am doing the best that I can for both myself and for this project – since photography is totally an inner game and loosing confidence in myself is not a path I want to take. And because:

“Can anything be sadder than work left unfinished?
Yes; work never begun.” Christina Rossetti

I’ll be coming out of my creative cloud pretty soon. Which is awesome if you have an email that you’ve sent me and you are waiting for an answer (sorry!). The book is hitting the designers soon and I’ll have a bunch of organising and ‘real work’ to do – working with the printer, launching the book, sorting out my new website etc. Which is all super cool. I love what I do, and I feel so super grateful that I get to live like this – taking photos, working with other photographers, putting my ideas and images out there. Life could actually be no better.

Thank you for being part of this community of photo lovers, it’s so awesome working with you, hearing from you and talking to you about your work.

I’d also like to ask something of you today – Di and I are currently working out the subjects of our next few months of blog posts and we want to make them uber useful. We’d love to know therefore:

“What are you most struggling with photographically right now?”

Just drop me an email. I promise to answer 🙂 We can then write posts that are totally focused on what you need right now on your photo journey.

Have an awesome weekend – and happy photographing!

Anthony and Diana

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