A Loose Collection Of Thoughts From An Emerging Photographer
I’ll be honest, I spent way too much time trying to pull all of these thoughts together into a semi-cohesive blog post. I’ve revised the whole thing about seven times now. I was going to write something practical and easy to read, something that might show off my work or my process, but after a while I just felt like I needed to get some things off my chest. The following is a loose collection of thoughts I have put together about my last few years spent trying to break into the photography industry.
Being a creative comes with its own unique set of challenges and obstacles, many of them tangible and plain to see, many of them deeply personal and harder to overcome. I think one of the most pervasive things artists have to wrestle with is self doubt and self defeatism. As creatives, we are all intrinsically and emotionally tied to our work. Our work is a direct representation of who we are. It’s a piece of ourselves that we willingly give to the world to admire, or rip apart.
David Bayles writes in his book Art and Fear:
“To the artist, all problems of art appear uniquely personal. Well, that’s understandable enough, given that not many other activities routinely call one’s basic self-worth into question.”
This is one of my all time favorite reads. It’s informed much of my worldview as a creative. The rest of the quotes in this blog post are from the same source. Consider the above quote my guideline for this write up. I want to talk about the ridiculous mental gymnastics young and emerging photographers in particular have to attempt just to survive. I want to open up about what goes on inside a young photographer’s head, and hopefully show some of you out there that you’re not alone in your struggle to find your place in this amazing industry.
Before I jump into things, a little background on me. My name is Matthew Simmons, and I’m a photographer based out of Nashville, Tennessee. I work primarily with the music and entertainment industries. As I said already, I am in fact young… ish. I’m 27 years old, and I’ve been a photographer for 8 years. I spent the first few years of my career as a lighting assistant, working for some of the biggest names in the photography world.
Right now though I’m smack in the middle of trying to make a name for myself. I haven’t “made it” yet or done anything sensational or worth mentioning. I’ve never photographed Taylor Swift or traveled the world. I am completely unremarkable. One thing I do have though is experience fighting tooth and nail to keep my head above water in this industry. I’ve been through the highs and lows of being a professional creative full time, and I’d like to open up about those experiences and lay bare what it takes to survive as a young photographer.
Comparison Kills The Artist
I originally entitled this blog “Don’t Listen to Successful People.” I wanted to make a whole list of points about why it’s dangerous to blindly follow those that preceded you, and why making your own path is important. I also wanted to drive home the point that comparing yourself and your work to the work of others is one of the most vicious and malignant tumors that can grow on a young creative. Seeking out the wisdom of those who are better and further along than you is one of the very first things young creatives do, but so often we can get entangled and trapped by the fear that we will never be as good as those we look up to.
However, after writing for a few hours I realized that my overall subject here is bigger than just this one facet, so I’ve just made it one of the main pieces of the greater whole that is this blog post.
So, prologue and introductions out of the way… Don’t listen to successful people?
Ok, that might have been a bit of a sensationalist title if I’d followed through on it, but I do stand by it to some degree. The internet and social media has allowed us to connect with successful artists in a way we never used to be able to. We see success stories daily. We see photographers get big features in online magazines, we see behind the scenes videos of photographers shooting big celebrities, we see creatives offering e-books and workshops and tutorials on how to be successful just like them. Social media has elevated some artists to the status of celebrity, and many of us yearn for that success, we want to be just like them and live their lifestyle. The problem is, you can’t live someone else’s life. You can’t use their career as a roadmap for your own, but so often that’s what young photographers buy into.
I fully comprehend the irony of me telling you not to listen to people who say they know what’s best for your career, while I sit here and tell you I think I know what’s best for your career. All I know is, I’ve seen behind the curtain. I’ve worked closely with many of these hyper famous photographers. I spent years behind the scenes soaking up all that knowledge and I know their real secret: Work hard, get lucky.
There’s simply no substitute for those two things. Every big talk/speech, every workshop, every video tutorial about how to “make it” as a photographer should boil down to those two ideas. The problem is, everything young and emerging photographers hear from their elders is often the opposite. Everyone seems to have a 5 step plan for success that they want to sell you. Buy my presets, buy my workshop, buy my e-book that’ll show you how to shoot just like me. Those are the things we see on a daily basis.
The truth is, all of those photographers worked their damn butts off to get to where they are. Most of them weren’t handed anything, and absolutely NONE of them blew up overnight. That’s something I hear all the time, that one artist or another just “blew up” all of the sudden. No, they did not. You missed the years of hard work and suffering they put in to get to where they are. It’s no surprise then how it makes my blood boil when I see those same creatives that worked so hard to achieve their goals try to package their life experience into a neat and tidy step-by-step process and try to make money off of it.
I don’t want to make it sound like anyone selling a workshop is a bad person. Don’t hear me say that. The practical lessons you can learn from tutorials and workshops are invaluable. I’m merely cautioning you away from anyone who claims to own the road map to your career path. Only by working as hard as you possibly can, and by giving yourself as many opportunities as possible to be noticed (aka get a little lucky) can you achieve your goals. You have to make it happen for yourself. You have to put in the hours. There are no shortcuts.
“But the important point here is not that you have — or don’t have — what other artists have, but rather that it doesn’t matter. Whatever they have is something needed to do their work — it wouldn’t help you in your work even if you had it. Their magic is theirs. You don’t lack it. You don’t need it. It has nothing to do with you. Period.”
The reason I think these things are dangerous for young photographers is because we are often extremely susceptible to comparing ourselves to others. Comparison is the thief of joy. I’ve heard that old proverb many, many times, and it’s true. I’ve seen close friends with similar or equal experience get better work, better opportunities and bigger paychecks than me. I’ve seen photographers who I (wrongly) consider worse than me get handed huge gigs that I’ve been dreaming of for years.
Tell me you haven’t thought to yourself that you deserve a particular gig more than one of your peers. You’ve worked harder, your work is stronger, your personality is more effective and your client relations skills are out of this world, right? Well… Yeah, maybe that’s true. But brooding on those thoughts won’t make that art director call you and give you the job instead. You have to stop comparing yourself to your peers, and especially your heroes, if you’re going to maintain a healthy head space.
So again, “don’t listen to successful people” was probably too much of a simplification. Rather, I’ll say this: If a hero of yours is trying to sell you advice or information, and that advice neglects to tell you that the price of success is anything other than hard work and determination, tread with caution.
I don’t know about you, but waking up in the morning is the hardest part of my day. I’m not a morning person. I need three or four cups of coffee before I can even think about getting started. My bed is my sanctuary. I’ve specifically built it in such a way that it is so remarkably comfortable that the thought of leaving it pains me. I’ve got a memory foam mattress, high thread count sheets and more pillows than I actually need. It takes me about an hour every morning to drag myself out of my happy place.
But that’s not why waking up every morning is so difficult. My mornings are difficult because I open my eyes every day and immediately feel the crushing weight of anxiety in my heart. It feels like someone is standing on my chest, trying to crush the will right out of me. Immediately my head floods with worries and lies.
You’ll never make it…
You’ll never be as good as XYZ photographer…
You’ll try and try every day but you’ll still fail…
Being an artist truly is unlike any other occupation. No other profession demands such a high toll on one’s self worth quite like being a creative. As I said in the intro, we sell ourselves in a way. Our art is a piece of ourselves that we willingly sacrifice for the world to partake in. When you also tie your livelihood and your ability to feed yourself to your art, that high toll on your self worth only grows.
So, what gets me up in the morning? Well, I have to. That’s it. I simply cannot NOT continue my work. Not because I need a paycheck, or because I need the affirmation that comes from creating good work, but because I am incapable of not creating. It’s one of the only things in this world that truly gives my life purpose and meaning. It’s what I’ve been gifted with and by the grace of God I will use the gift I’ve been given.
“What separates artists from ex-artists is that those who challenge their fears, continue; those who don’t, quit. Each step in the art making process puts that issue to the test.”
My graduating class in college had 28 photography majors. Of those 28 young and emerging photographers, only four of us are still currently working in this field, last I checked. What I’ve always found interesting about that statistic is, it wasn’t the grind of breaking into the industry that broke the other 24 photographers. No, they never even made it that far. They took their degree in photography and ran to safer, more sure territory. The remainder of us, well, we were stupid enough to take the leap into this industry and have struggled and fought every day just to keep our heads above water.
I don’t ever wonder what my life would be like if I’d taken a different path, like my friends from college. I don’t ever wonder, because that was never an option for me, and I truly don’t believe it’s an option for any artist. Those of us that wake up every morning not knowing where our next paycheck is coming from, those of us who wake up wondering how long we can even keep this up… We chose these bitter mornings, and we attack them willingly, because we don’t know anything else.
For a long time I thought I was just a tightly wound person. I thought I was alone in my anxiety and genuine skepticism about my own career. After years of sharing my struggles with other artists, and hearing their stories I learned that I’m not alone, not alone at all.
“Fears about yourself prevent you from doing your best work, while fears about your reception by others prevent you from doing your own work.”
What do you fear? Do you fear ridicule and criticism from the masses? Do you fear that you won’t ever be as good as someone else? Do you fear failure? How about success? I fear success, very much so. Every step I take, I know I have to take one more. Every photo I take, I know the next photo HAS to be better. My clients expect greatness from me, meanwhile I expect perfection. None of these fears can break us though. None of them can stop us from doing our best work. We have to wrestle these fears into submission, if only for a time, and say “not today.”
I believe that it’s critical for us as creatives to stop hiding behind the tough facades we put up for the outside world to see. Our lives aren’t perfect, and neither are our careers, much less the art we make. It’s invaluable for us as a community to be honest and transparent about this: Art is hard. Making art is a career belittled by many, and completely written off by others.
What we do is often very much unappreciated, and much more often completely misunderstood. Unlike most of the rest of the world, our careers are more than just a job, and even more than just a passion. Our art-making is intrinsically part of who we are, and that takes a toll on us, and that’s okay.
My question for you, reader, is this: Is your art part of who you are, or is it just something you do? Do you wake up every morning and buck the doubt and self defeating tendencies that tell you you can’t? When you fall, do you stay on the ground or do you get back up, time after time?
I hope you do. If you don’t, I hope you learn to. I hope this rambling essay lets you know that you’re not alone, I hope it helps you. We’re all in this together, we have to build each other up and be honest and transparent about our struggles. We need to share our trials and hardships with younger, greener artists so they know that what they’re in for is a tough, painful road, but one that yields so much joy. Because that’s the reward; true and meaningful joy.
There’s nothing quite like creating something you’re proud of. There’s no better feeling than making something beautiful out of nothing. The best feeling in the world to me is showing someone a portrait I’ve taken of them and see their eyes light up. Everything melts away for me in that moment, and I’m reminded that what I do is important, not just to me but to others. All the pain, all the self doubt is worth fighting through if the reward is being able to make a career out of doing the one thing that makes you happy.
Matthew Simmons is a music and entertainment portrait photographer based in Nashville, Tennessee. See more of his work at MatthewSimmonsPhoto.com and follow him on Instagram.