The photography site for sore eyes. With extra writing because I'm also a writer.
Do you suffer from the debilitating and terminal disease called self-doubt? Yep, me too.
It is an aggressive cancer which constantly attempts to redefine who I am as a photographer, it’s an artist’s very own black dog.
NOTE: This is written from the point of view of me as a photographer. Similar feelings of self-doubt are available to other artists.
Self-doubt is not something I am happy to admit exists within me. In every other part of my life (or normal life, as I like to call it) there is no self-doubt in any form. I don’t suffer from it I never have. Do I sound like an arrogant f*****?
What I mean is, I’m confident, relaxed and not flustered too often. I like pressure (though increasingly less so compared to my early 20s) and like experiencing things (except roller-coasters and stuff like that).
But within photography pressure often transforms itself into self-doubt and I bloody hate it.
I’ve always had a sense of regret with photography. Missed photographs, missed opportunities. Thinking about the image I didn’t take during a project rather than the (sometimes quite good) ones I did take. I think this feeling is exclusive to photography.
Self-doubt, however, is applicable to the wider world of artistry. Painters, writers, actors, performers – anyone involved in artistic endeavours.
I read an interview recently in the British Journal of Photography in which Giles Duley stated that (and I’m paraphrasing wildly here) ‘like most artists, I suffer from self-doubt’. It was as if he was talking directly to me.
As a photographer self-doubt comes at me from all angles. No matter what the project, assignment or commission is, the self-doubt permeates my thinking.
Did I do a good job? Am I good enough to do this work? Have I failed in fulfilling my assignment?
But it doesn’t stop there.
My internal conversation then answers these questions: You didn’t do a good job. You’re not good enough for this. You’ve produced a load of crap this time.
These are statements of fact in my brain. They keep repeating: That was f***ng sh*t. Those photos a P*ss*ng b*ll*cks. I don’t know how to stop this naught part of my brain talking. It keeps me awake in the middle of the night.
Do you feel the same way? Some artists I know do, some don’t. I think the ones who say they don’t are psychopaths. But don’t tell them I said that.
I consider myself to be able to make informed, balanced judgements in all aspects of my life, including photography. So I know when I’ve taken a good photograph (often at the time of clicking) and I can conclude that a set of images could have been better if they, upon review, they are lacking aesthetically or technically.
Yet beyond this form of self-evaluation comes the self-doubt.
I spent six weeks on a commission earlier this year, repeatedly trying to improve and capture a street scene. I hated what I was producing. The deadline came and I submitted the images. I wasn’t happy. Self-doubt was consuming me. It was an agonising month of hearing nothing back from the people who commissioned me. Then I got feedback, saying that they were brilliant. Rather than joy and happiness I only felt relief. And I had wasted a month thinking dark thoughts.
Yesterday, I got an email of a performer I photographed at a festival. I felt I did fairly averagely for the festival as a whole. Some of the images I took looked flat and uninspiring. The performer said of the images I sent him: ‘There are some really excellent ones… in fact a couple of them are some of my favourite photos that I’ve had in recent years’.
At the time I felt that I had not quite captured him as I wanted to.
My former photography MA course leader once described me as being hyper-critical of my own work. I had described an assignment brief I did as failing to fulfil every point of the (admittedly difficult) brief. I just felt I was being honest.
And it’s not like I am a perfectionist. I never have been. I put far more importance on getting work done rather than perfecting it. I don’t do Photoshop manipulation in any of my images. Ever. And I have what I consider to be a high percentage rate in ideas/completing projects. I’m running at about 40per cent completion rate for photography ideas which, for an artist, is phenomenally high.
It is possible that this self-doubt drives me as a photographer and inspires me to producing greater images. But, to be honest, I put myself under so much pressure during a photo shoot that this pressure should be enough on its own to produce great images. By the end of a big job, my body temperature is maxed out and it feels like I’ve had a two-hour gym session. I get home and it’s like I’m drunk.
I’ve tried to overcome the self-doubt in various ways. Photographing non-commissioned projects, photographing my own kids, myself, taking advice on the technical aspects of photography I sometimes pay little attention to. I’m good at taking advice. Photographer Andy Ford is a kind of mentor to me. He’s brilliant technically with equipment and lighting set ups.
But the doubting goes on.
So I want to say to self-doubting artists out there: You are not alone. I haven’t a clue how to solve this problem, but you are not alone.
Here are some photographs I quite like:
Trying to choose some of my favourite images has gone and got me full of self-doubt again. Can someone recommend a therapist?