Josef Koudelka would say, “Look at something and think, this is right.” Unfortunately, it is a constant search and we often doubt if indeed “this is right.” In other words, photography and confidence (or rather lack of it) has much in common.
Wikipedia defines confidence as “a certainty about handling something.” When looking at my own experience and when working with students I’ve noticed that the subject of confidence in photography is crucially important. Not only can it determine success or failure but it can often shape the artistic direction of a photographer.
Of course, some people are naturally confident, others not so much. For me, it has never been an important determinant or characteristic, as today’s society has a tendency to put on a pedestal overconfident, disdainful or even rude individuals, then paint them as confident. I am not going to go there. Let’s stay on the subject of photographic confidence for lack of a better word.
Most people who start in photography lack confidence. This is normal or, I would argue, a highly desirable condition. Too often I come across horribly constructed images presented to the world by the author as “winners.” What’s even worse, those who have zero social breaks often attract a sizable crowd of cheerleaders, who like a magnet, are looking for another loud leader. Usually there is no hope here and no point discussing such cases any further.
When learning and practicing the craft of seeing, most people, including me, are going on an emotional roller-coaster ride. This is a normal and healthy condition. We often hear from photographers: “I don’t know if my work is good enough.”
Unfortunately, the answer they often receive is: “This is great, wonderful,” “Keep doing this.” After all, this industry is all about cheering and clapping. The logic here is to inspire and provide confidence, regardless of results – a noble idea! The problem is that many starting photographers gain what I call “fake confidence.” What many of us cheerleaders don’t even realize is that we are doing a great disservice to a generation of photographers.
Constantly assuring them that their work is great means that many continue along their path to not-seeing, which ultimately leads to huge disappointment and, in many cases, a painful divorce from photography.
There is another way. Yes, confidence in seeing comes after years of struggle, hard falls and successes but confidence should never be consistent! What do you mean, Olaf? It means that even the most successful photographers experience ups and down in their perception of their own work, especially those who have the guts to take visual risks! Josef Koudelka said, “I don’t want to reach the point from where I wouldn’t know how to go further. It’s good to set limits for oneself, but there comes a moment when we must destroy what we have constructed.” Such “destruction” comes with a hit to our confidence!
In other words, our confidence will vary as we go along our photographic journey and IT IS OK! There is no need to artificially buttress it or inject a stream of fake “you can do it” nonsense. The moments of low confidence allow us to pick up where we started and ride those high tides with new ideas. We need to trust in our own ability.
This ability grows from serious visual education. Learning about art, design and aesthetics has been put on the back seat in our productivity – and a low-price-obsessed society. Learning the craft of photography is a slow and tedious process, involving huge effort! Many people lack the time or willingness to learn a new visual language so instead, they fill the void with an “anything goes” scheme.
Interestingly, many aspiring photographers who do marvellous and innovative work lack confidence. In private settings, they often approach me and share their doubts and problems. I say to them, “I wish I could see like you.” I urge them to go out, show their work and own it! However, when you reach the point when you are becoming confident about your success, make sure to take on new visual risks. Make sure you start riding this confidence roller-coaster again.
The worst that can happen when you are riding a roller-coaster is that it could break down – when you are at the top! Then, you have a real problem on your hands. You will need many people to get you down.
I am preparing a series of articles about this subject. Looking forward to your own take on the subject.
Here is my latest work I did for my R-A-I-N project (the X-E3, X-T2 paired with the XF 35mm F1.4 and XF 80mm 2.8 lenses).
2018 © Olafphoto. All rights reserved
7 thoughts on “Confidence – a roller-coaster to seeing (Intro)”
RIght on the money again, Olaf. As you know, I also have my doubts about camera clubs (as mentioned by Anonymous above), because they tend to be over-protective of fragile egos. This does every member a disservice because they are not being pushed to extend themselves. Like anonymous, I grew as a photographer when forced to go it alone and experiment to my heart’s content.
How timely this article is for me today. I went out this morning for a walk around downtown to take some photos. After two hours of walking and seeing absolutely nothing intriguing. I decided to change locations in hopes of better visuals. All in all, four locations spread out over 60 miles and one lonely photo.
I spent the drive home doubting everything. My vision, photography, even my reason for taking photographs. I’d rather have been punched in the stomach. It’s okay though. It wasn’t my vision, it wasn’t my skill or reason. It was just one of those days. Knowing that doesn’t really make me feel any better about my lack of photos today but I’m not blaming myself or doubting my ability.
Sue McLeod; How good someone has had the nerve to say that everyone has periods of confidence and under confidence, and that this is an essential part of the growth of a photographer (or artist, or whatever).
I started to take pictures when I was eight years old, I’m almost seventy now and I’m still learning, still trying to push the envelope. My style has changed dramatically over the years, my biggest period of growth coming when I forsook camera clubs (where I felt stifled and confined by ‘rules’), and did my own thing – I suppose that took a spurt of confidence, but it felt like leaping off a cliff at the time! When I look back on my favourite images from years ago I realise they were just part of the journey leading to where I am now, which is largely contemporary. I would encourage everyone to keep jumping off their photographic cliffs into the unknown – and to beginners I would say ask questions, learn, look at all types of art, take lots of pictures, but most of all, develop your own vision and do your own thing.
Thank you for your perspective. Your note “I would encourage everyone to keep jumping off their photographic cliffs into unknown…” is just brilliant! Love it! THANK YOU!
Good stuff to lift up and look at…Thanks Olaf!
After 40+ years of meditating, I took a meditation course and the teacher noted that when you realize you are not focused on your breath, stop, congratulate yourself, smile and appreciate the fact that you remembered to come back to the breath. For 40 years, I did quite the opposite, would realize I was not noticing my breath and then beat myself up, “bad meditator”. Wow…40 years of beating myself up trying to meditate!!
And so I think it is with many things that we can get hung up a little when we come home empty handed or have a crisis of confidence or whatever….to have courage their must be fear…to have faith, doubt…it is an interesting voyage to be an artist, to become vulnerable and not lose the wonder and passion that is all around us. What I finally came to is to appreciate the hard work I do, embrace failure as really a learning process and just bulldoze on thru. As writers often say, the hardest part of writing a book is sitting down in front of the typewriter…Stephen Pressfield, in The War of Art, says when we do that, we have achieved Pro status…
Thank you so much for sharing this!!! I am sure many readers will enjoy your perspective.
Thank you for sharing your experience and thoughts. You are right – don’t doubt your abilities!!!
All the best,