The Growth In A Challenge
The greatest growth I have experienced as a photographer was when I faced a challenge. I benefited from my willingness to feel the discomfort of taking on something new.
Since my early years, I loved photographing people, especially in public. It held an incredible fascination for me. The majority of such imagery took the shape of candid photographs while traveling or practicing street photography. I rarely approached people to make a portrait. I felt incredible anxiety at the thought of approaching someone.
However, my desire to make such photographs finally led me to approaching strangers and asking to make their image. The initial results were lackluster, but what was important was that I moved through my fear to make those photographs happen.
As I grew more comfortable with that approach, I found myself focused on a new desire. Next, I wanted to make portraits in a more formal situation. I wanted more than just capturing a few frames of a subject I encountered on the street. Instead, I wanted to spend an hour with them and work on creating a more substantive photograph.
I had never done something like this before and the thought terrified me. I felt confident concerning my picture-taking skills. However, I wasn’t sure how I would engage my subject for an extended period. Though my desire to create such images were strong, I frequently talked myself out of it by focusing on my perceived weaknesses and lack of experience.
Then came a day when my desire to make the photographs supplanted my fear and self-doubt. I asked six people who were in a writing fellowship with me if I could make their portraits. I felt significantly less fear about approaching them because I had worked so intimately with them over the year. However, I had to muster all of my courage to ask them. I was surprised by the enthusiasm with which they met my request.
For these portraits, I went to their respective homes and hung out with them while I made photographs. I had nothing more than a Nikon DSLR, a 50mm lens, and a reflector. I found a space where there was good light and a nice setting, and I would get to work. Because we knew each other, I was immediately able to build rapport and engage with them as I made their photographs. Whatever anxiety I felt quickly fell.
During our final group dinner, I displayed the 24×30 prints of each of them. They were happy and excited with the results. The husband of one of the writers was singularly impressed by the images and asked me if I would like to exhibit this work at a new gallery he was opening in the South Bay.
I explained that I only had these few prints and said that I would need to photograph more. I asked him when he would need them, and he told me the following month.
My initial impulse was to say no or delay the effort for later on in the year. But something told me that I shouldn’t put off this opportunity. So, I said yes.
For the next month, I took on the challenge of photographing a host of writers and poets in Southern California. Soliciting the help of the many writers, I had met through the fellowship, I started calling and e-mailing people to ask them to participate in this series. I was amazed how easily so many of them said yes. Some included well-known artist including Hubert Selby (Last Exit to Brooklyn), Janet Fitch (White Oleander), and Carolyn See (Golden Days).
Next was the challenge of making all of those images. I put together a list and a schedule that allowed me to photograph people during the weekends. Because of my limited window of time, I multiple sittings multiple each day. My busiest day included a total of 5 subjects.
All the subjects were new to me. So, I not only had to build rapport with them from the moment that I met them, but I also had to find locations in their homes where I could produce the best photographs possible.
It was an intense month of photography. I was so busy and so intent on pulling it off, that the fear, anxiety, and self-doubt that had held me back for years disappeared. I was singularly focused on succeeding and making this exhibit happen.
When I walked into the gallery on the official opening and saw my 24×30 prints on display on its walls, I was filled with so much pride. Despite the many obstacles that I had stood in my way, I had succeeded in doing something that a few years before I would have considered impossible.
It’s been one of my greatest lessons as a photographer, When I am tempted to succumb to feelings of insecurity and self-doubt, I remember that feeling of satisfaction that came from facing my fear. I remember that I can have such a feeling again if I just believe in myself, put in the work, and see it to the end.
Ibarionex Perello is a photographer, writer, and educator. He is also the host and producer of The Candid Frame photography podcast which he has been producing since 2006. The show features the world’s best established and emerging photographers and has featured conversations with Mary Ellen Mark, Dan Winters, Douglas Kirkland, Eli Reed, Maggie Steber, Elliot Erwitt, and hundreds of others.
He has also written hundreds of articles and has authored have a dozen books on the subject of photography. His latest is Making Photographs: Developing a Personal Visual Workflow.
You can find out more about Ibarionex and his work by visiting TheCandidFrame.com.