The Long Lens blog: Photography with added snaps, art and culture

The photography site for sore eyes. Featuring: Art, photography, performance and theatre. With extra writing because I'm also a writer.

The self-doubt of artists

(unedited version)

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:

2926 blackpool aug10

kevin haynes, dave watson, cotton and steel, salford museum and art gallery113 derelict zuppagarry cook smoking 0072012 nov palestine 968 day 3italy, trentino, dolomites, five fingers, mountains, garry cooksearch party, derelict live, preston, garry cookSt George is cross in Preston – England flags as Germany beat us 4-13683_blackpool_syndicate_sept10-scaled5003393_blackpool_sept10-scaled500krissi musiol, dance collector, garry cook, preston, market, the birley, pr1 gallery, mmu crewe, uclanDSC_0029Women and Alcohol goes to London PhotomonthWomen and Alcohol goes to London Photomonth

Trying to choose some of my favourite images has gone and got me full of self-doubt again. Can someone recommend a therapist?


One comment on “The self-doubt of artists

  1. Pingback: Top 10 best tips for being brilliant (for artists, writers, photographers and creatives) | The Long Lens blog: Photography with added snaps

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This entry was posted on October 21, 2016 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , .
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