The Secret Strength of Imposter Syndrome

I know Scott Kelby and Brad Moore from the bygone days of journalism school, when I would attend photojournalism conferences as a college newspaper editor and wannabe photographer. Digital photography and smart phones were really becoming mainstream at the time and it felt like everyone wanted to be a photographer, especially in my circle of coffeehouse junkies and art nerds.

Here I am working that light in a kitchen designed by Mary Welch Fox in the summer of 2020.

In those days, I was an okay photographer with no specific niche or direction, and there were a lot of kids who were a lot better than me. I took as many photojournalism classes as I could get my hands on, but kept my focus on my journalism major and working my way up the newspaper ranks, where I felt more confident and a lot less competition. I never even considered a career in photography, not because I didn’t love it, but because it felt a lot less safe, and I was pretty deeply insecure. I was creative, sure, but I had only ever had one art class, in 5th grade. I felt like an imposter.

The old college newspaper staff at Union University proud to be named Best in the South at Southeastern Journalism Conference.

Ah, The Post Grad Days Of Juggling Jobs And Trying To Find Your Footing

After graduation, I got hired on as a freelancer for the local paper who, because of dwindling profit margins and much to my benefit, was happy to hire someone who could write and take the pictures, too! A great deal for us both. To pay the bills, I also got some very glamorous jobs as a school portrait photographer and sales gal at Pier 1 Imports. If you’re not juggling three jobs and eating a diet of exclusively BLTs, are you even in your 20s?

One of the best perks of the job is meeting hundreds of dogs and, when I’m lucky, getting them to pose for me. Design by Guest House Studio and Sea Island Builders.

None of these jobs felt cool to me. But I didn’t feel like I deserved cool, either. I had imposter syndrome and a hardcore drive to get to something exciting, but I didn’t go into the workforce feeling like I had earned anything yet. I was ready to work hard and climb my way to my dreams.

As an interior photographer, I often find myself stuffed in the corner of a room or, surprisingly often, in bath tubs. Design by JLV Creative.

Inexplicably, the newspaper allowed me to pitch and go after pretty much anything I wanted, and I ended up with several regular series, including a food column that introduced me to the person that got me my next job: as a product photographer for Kirkland’s home decor. I started as a temporary assistant, shooting product on white in a closet in the back of a warehouse in the middle of nowhere, Tennessee. Still not glamorous, but a step in the right direction.

This kitchen shot with JLV Creative in 2019 is still one of my all time favorites.

Taking Risks

I took a risk and quit all three jobs to pursue a temporary gig that had much more interesting possibilities, and decided I was going to work so hard that there was no way they could let me go. And they didn’t. 

They had a larger, much nicer photography studio at their corporate offices in Nashville where they shot styled images in a faux “home” setting, and I made it clear that’s where I wanted to be. Then I worked hard enough to get there. It didn’t happen overnight, but over my three years there I eventually went from being a temporary assistant to just an assistant, and eventually, simply, photographer. We spent all day shooting and styling and set designing and painting and laying floors and hanging art and it was amazing, even if it wasn’t 100% my personal style. 

I loved shooting this maximalist staircase designed by Lindsey Harper for the Traditional Home Showhouse in 2018.

I loved the creativity and teamwork and immersing myself in the world of design. And it reminded me of something: the reason I worked at Pier 1 after college was because I had experience working there in high school, when I thought for a year I might want to be an interior designer. (Feel free to laugh here, because at 17 taking that job in retail felt like relevant job experience to becoming an interior designer. But hey, it funded my shoe addiction and that was enough for me at the time.)

The dominant design trend has been all white everything for the past several years, so I always relish a moody moment like this one designed by Sea Island Builders.

My point is, I remembered something about myself that I had let go of in order to pursue a career that felt more safe and logical. I traded my interest in design to go down the path of journalism, and here fate had brought me back to it.

In 2016, my husband and I decided to move to my hometown of Charleston, SC, where there weren’t any large corporations hiring staff product photographers, and starting my own photography business was pretty much my only option if I wanted to continue down this path. So I did.

Real home or photo studio in Nashville, Tenn.? Looking back on it now it definitely looks staged, but you better believe I put it in my interior portfolio. And hey, it did the trick.

Fake It Til You Make It — Cliche But True

I started Margaret Wright Photography five years ago with a dream of shooting for interior designers and absolutely zero connections in town.  The design world can feel a bit elitist and like it’s all about who you know, and it’s intimidating to jump right in. When I first started, I would take any photography gig I could get: photographing babies, weddings, food, dogs, and pretty much anything to make a buck.

Meanwhile, I looked through my portfolio of images from Kirkland’s and made a collection of photos that looked like they might have been taken at a real home and weren’t too jam full of product. I was able to get a gig shooting for Houzz, an online design publication, and started reaching out to people with cool houses I found on Instagram and asking to shoot their houses for the site. It was free for them and a little money for me, but mostly it got me a lot of experience shooting interiors and bolstered my portfolio and social media content.

Photographing homes can also be dangerous, because you realize all the things you never knew you needed. Like this brass backsplash. Designed by Sea Island Builders.

Once I had the content to show what I could do, the design jobs started to come in and I could start dropping the gigs that didn’t interest me or pay enough to be worth my while, until the day I was shooting interiors exclusively. Today, I shoot for designers, builders, architects, and magazines, and my work has been featured in publications such as HGTV Magazine, Domino, Dwell, MyDomaine, Apartment Therapy, and (shoutout to journalism Margaret!) The New York Times.

A highlight of 2019 was shooting this modern build for a feature in the New York Times. Design by IOLA Modern.

If You Feel Like An Imposter, Congratulations. You’re Human.

I still feel like an imposter sometimes. What I’ve learned is that everyone does. The trick is to remember you’re not alone, and to channel it into productive energy. Use it to work hard and become better.

There’s another side to imposter syndrome that will stifle you. It’s the voice in your head that tells you that you shouldn’t even try; you’ve already failed. That other people’s success is directly related to your lack of success. Do everything you can to banish that voice.

If following your peers or local photographers in your industry leaves you feeling crummy about jobs you didn’t get, you need to unfollow those people. Follow accounts that inspire you to do better but aren’t your direct competition, like someone at the top of your field in another city. Any time that little voice starts putting you down as you scroll, that should be a flashing neon sign that you need to unfollow some accounts.

I connected with textile designer Erin Barrett of Sunwoven Studio on Instagram and asked to shoot her home (for free!) for submission to an online design publication. That shoot led to so many other jobs, including being hired by Dwell, West Elm and HGTV Magazine to go back and shoot it again.
Two of my favorite tools of the trade: a gigantic screen and statement shoes. Kitchen design by Alyssa Demilio.

Imposter syndrome is tough. I’ve dealt with social anxiety and insecurity my entire life, but looking back on it, I think it was my greatest weapon. Because I never felt like I deserved anything, working hard, staying humble and learning from others was a given, and those can be tough tools to teach. 

There are so many other stories I could share, like how I took the world’s crappiest internship at a magazine that shall not be named the summer of my freshman year, working 20 unpaid hours a week (then running to serve hush puppies at night for minimum wage), in exchange for one byline in their sister publication. It was an article titled Feeling the Burn for the hospital’s free monthly mailer, and it was about hemorrhoids.

Today, the same magazine hires me regularly to shoot their monthly home feature, not because of that internship (they definitely don’t remember me), but because I’m good at what I do. I like to keep this secret to myself, and tell that girl who felt worthless changing in the back of her car between thankless jobs that one day it’ll all be worth it. Instead of calling them for a job, they’ll be calling you. Just keep pushing through.

This eye catching hallway has been shared so many times, and I have to say it’s one of my favorites, too. Interior design by Christyn Dunning of the Guest House Studio.
This bright bedroom was shot for Alyssa Demilio of Demilio Design.

Margaret Wright is an interior photographer based in Charleston, SC. When she’s not shooting for designers, architects and builders you can find her designing and renovating her midcentury fixer upper or hanging out with her husband and goldendoodle. Check out more of her work at Margaret-Wright.com. To view recent work and follow along as she designs her own home, keep up with her on Instagram.

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