How Top Photographers Conquer Self-Doubt, Part 1

October 17, 2016

© Chris Buck

"Pavel Sfera isn't Bono,” from Chris Buck’s 2008 series “Isn’t,” which features celebrity impersonators.

Self-doubt and fear of failure haunt most photographers, especially when they’re starting out. Successful photographers share their own doubts and fears, and strategies for taming them. Here, we present part one of this four part series. Click here to read part 2.

Chris Buck

“There’ve definitely been times when I’ve dealt with [self-doubt]…. One thing [former agent] Julian [Richards] said to us photographers many years ago when I was first starting with him is, ‘Look, your number one job when you’re not working is to not go crazy,’ and I still think of it often. If you’re not shooting or you’re not actively working on an upcoming assignment, your number one job really is to not go crazy, and obviously the best thing is to be shooting personal work that will go into the portfolio or the website or something you can promote. But even writing blog posts or doing Instagram posts or meetings, or even just making a personal photo album for your family. Anything to not be going crazy is important to do, because people often leave the business because they can’t handle it mentally more than because they can’t meet the bottom line.”

© Deanne Fitzmaurice for the <i>San Francisco Chronicle</i>

Deanne Fitzmaurice captured Barry Bonds during his last Major League appearance. Approaching Bonds directly when she felt intimidated by him led to greater access and better pictures, she says. © Deanne Fitzmaurice for the San Francisco Chronicle

Deanne Fitzmaurice

“I have lots of self-doubt. I even have those photographer dreams where there’s this major thing happening that you need to photograph, and you can’t get into the trunk of your car, where your cameras are.

“There’s always this apprehension that I get before a shoot. I’m thinking about how many things can go wrong. But that really motivates me to be prepared, to think things out, and to have my back-up plan. So it gives me a bit of an edge. I never feel complacent.

“I always felt like portraits were my weakest area. I go in as prepared as possible. I research the person, and find out what they’re passionate about” in search of something to connect over at the shoot, she explains.

Around 2003, before she left the San Francisco Chronicle, Fitzmaurice had an instructive encounter with San Francisco Giants baseball star Barry Bonds. “I was frustrated by the way he intimidated media…When he arrived at spring training, I went to photograph him and got a terrible feeling he was glaring at me. I asked myself, ‘Am I going to go all season feeling intimidated?’ So I just walked up to him—my heart was beating like crazy—and I said, ‘Hey Barry, do you have a problem with me photographing you, and are there some boundaries I should know about?’ He paused, thought about it, said, ‘No I don’t have a problem with it. What’s your name and who are you shooting for?’ I said ‘My name is Deanne and I’m shooting for the Chronicle.’ he said, ‘OK, I’ll call you Dee.’”

Her exclusive behind-the-scenes photographs helped pave the way to her successful career as a freelance sports photographer. “I learned not to be intimidated, and I learned to just say what I think.”

© Richard Misrach

Richard Misrach’s “Untitled (Hawaii IX),” 1978. His early work received harsh reviews. “The only reason I kept going was my passion for photography,” Misrach says. “As miserable as I was—and I was miserable—I just needed to make pictures.” © Richard Misrach

Richard Misrach

“I recently discovered some old journals from the 1970s when I was in my twenties. I found them so embarrassing I considered tossing them… The crux of a number of my entries was how difficult it was to follow my dream. I applied to graduate school in photography, but was turned away and told that I really should look for a different career. That was a blow but I continued working on my own and was surrounded by a group of peers who were pursuing photography seriously. That made a huge difference, but…I didn’t know how I was going to make a living and was wondering if I should drop the whole thing.

“At the age of 25, I produced my first (self-published) book, Telegraph 3AM (Cornucopia Press, 1974) and it was savaged in a review in Modern Photography magazine. A few years later, I did a series of large-scale color photographs (“Twenty American Photographers,” Corcoran Gallery, 1978) and that also got a nasty review in the Village Voice. During that time, I was very fortunate to start getting some recognition and grants, which helped provide some much needed moral as well as financial support.

“But looking back on those early years, there were a lot of moments where I was struggling to get my footing. It was not pleasant. In hindsight, I know that the only reason I kept going was my passion for photography. As miserable as I was—and I was miserable—I just needed to make pictures.

“When I view portfolios of younger artists there is one thing that I look for…. It’s the need to make the work. If a young artist asks me (and this I have been asked), should they go to law school or pursue a graduate program in photography, I know the answer is law school, no matter the quality of the portfolio. Simply by asking the question, simply by implying that both careers would be satisfactory options, it is answered.”

© Jake Stangel

Jake Stangel’s personal work in Ireland. When faced with self-doubt, his advice is to just shoot more. “It’s the least expensive way to do marketing, it’s the healthiest thing you can do for your mind, it’s the best thing you can do to continue becoming a better photographer,” he says. © Jake Stangel

Jake Stangel

“[As a young photographer] I would go do a ton of meetings in New York and come back [home] and my phone wouldn’t ring. And instead of taking that as negative reaction, it was just a signal to me to shoot more. It was a clear illustration that my work wasn’t where it needed to be.

“So I picked up my camera and I shot more work, focused on photo essays and narrative, since this was the type of work I hoped to be assigned. That gave me a reason to go back to New York in six months or a year and meet with the same photo editors. I would put these new projects on my website and say ‘Hey, this is a new project I shot.’ And more and more, photo editors would take meetings with me, I started to get assignments…. The biggest thing people can do if they have self-doubt is just to remain active. Just continue to shoot. It’s the least expensive way to do marketing, it’s the healthiest thing you can do for your mind, it’s the best thing you can do to continue becoming a better photographer. People are constantly trying to make do with the portfolio they have, rather than building …their portfolio with the type of work they want to be assigned. Get away from your computer, get off your chair, and go out in the world and make photos.

“We all have super slow points. When things are slow, that’s time that I take for my business to maybe set up new systems or catch up on a backlog of things. [But] you need to have faith in yourself and your work, and if you don’t have that it’s a sign that you need to keep shooting.”

Related Links:

Veteran Fashion Photographer Pamela Hanson On Her Long Evolving Career

How Mark Peterson Stays Inspired and How He’s Fueled His Long Career

Facebook Comments