“The most valuable lessons in life are not taught. They’re experienced”
If you accepted my previous invitation to walk with me as I ruminated over the past 12 months, then I’d like to extend this invitation further and invite you to sit and stay a while as I share with you some of the most important lessons I’ve learned in 2018.
Life is about learning and if we’re open and receptive to these lessons, I believe we can grow, mature and go further than we’ve been before.
Although each of these lessons could be an entire blog in itself, I’ll keep them brief and expand on some of these lessons in future posts. But in the meantime, while I have you here, put your feet up while I put the kettle on; we may be here for a while.
Whether you read it in one sitting or choose to read it in parts, that’s up to you, but please do read as you may realise that we have more in common than you think.
LESSON 1: I AM A CREATOR
I’m a firm believer in the idea that what you do comes from who you are. It has often been asked, “Does one create because they are a creator or are they a creator because they create?” Does one sing, dance, draw or teach because they are a singer, dancer, artist or teacher? Or are they a singer, dancer, artist or teacher because they…well, you get the idea. I lead with this head-tripper because for me, understanding this becomes the hook on which everything else hangs.
Though I’ve known that I am a creator for many years, this year has been one where I’ve fully embraced and accepted it. I take photographs and write because fundamentally, I am a creator; it’s written in my DNA. When my Father knit me together in the dark of my mother’s womb (see Psalm 139), one of the strongest threads was creativity and it affects everything. I am creative rather than academic. In school, I excelled in creative subjects (I have a degree in Performing Arts) but struggled in academic ones (the charred remains of my GCSE results a testimony to this).
I am creative in my approach to relationships, solving problems and the way I view the world and photography and creative writing are simply expressions of this. I shoot, write, sing out loud or tap my feet to imaginary music because I have to; not through some outward obligation but because of an urge; an internal compulsion. That which is within me must come out and if I stem it, I find myself often depressed or frustrated.
From an understanding of a core component of my identity comes that which I do. What I do is simply an expression of who I am and how I was created.
LESSON 2: I AM A LOW-KEY (LIGHT) LOVER
It began with Batman.
Someone recently asked me why I favour images which utilise low-key light. Or where my love of it came from and though I often answer, “I just do” or “because I just love it”, I realise my first awareness of it was on the poster for Tim Burton’s 1992 sequel, Batman Returns.
I was 12 years old when my mother gave me £3 (those were the days) to see the film with my little brother and though the film ignited my love for superheroes, it was the poster that really caught my attention. Aside from fuelling my pubescent raging infatuation with Catwoman, I was drawn to the dark colours; the way the blackness of the character’s costumes blended seamlessly into the background and the way the light was used to illuminate their pale features. The contrast was striking and for years, I’d see it everywhere.
Though those subliminal seeds were planted deep inside in the fertile soil of a 12 year old’s mind, they would lay dormant until I discovered photography. As varying circumstances caused these seeds to grow, I realised that I too could recreate that which I saw as a child and create images where my own subjects would blend seamlessly into my own black backgrounds and use my own lights to illuminate their features.
LESSON 3: I GRAVITATE TOWARDS PEOPLE WHO CONTRIBUTE CREATIVELY
The older I get, the more I gravitate towards people who can bring something to the metaphorical table. I have photographed a lot of people this year and particularly enjoy working with people who bring their own ideas; those who use their initiative and add to the creative process so it becomes ‘our’ shoot instead of something they’re helping me out with. James Saunders, Mariola Zelazko, Ellie Taylor and Beth Charles…thank you.
LESSON 4: BEING IN SYNC WITH OTHER CREATIVES IS EXHILARATING
Have you ever me people who just get you? People who get what you want to achieve and run at it with your level of passion and energy? That is a definition of exhilaration. I love it, I’m grateful when I find it and am aware that it’s rare so I treasure it when I find it.
LESSON 5: TRYING NEW THINGS IS SCARY
Though it’s a positive thing that I have discovered and embraced a style that not only appeals to me but one which people identify with me, the downside is that one can become very comfortable with it and leaving this zone can be quite intimidating.
On several occasions, clients have asked me to shoot on location and as soon as I’ve said yes, I felt a tiny spark of panic as this often involves shooting in conditions that I’m not used to. But, I’ve been intentional about trying new things; feeling the fear and doing it anyway.
LESSON 6: SAYING YES OPENS NEW DOORS AND TEACHES NEW LESSONS
Earlier in the year I saw a quote which read, “If someone offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes then learn how to do it later”. Following this sound advice lead me to photographing the Leicester Medical Student’s Graduation Ball – one of the highlights of my 2018.
Saying ‘yes’ can be scary but I learned that though it may open the way to great challenges, it will always open doors to new opportunities and teach lessons that saying ‘no’ rarely could.
LESSON 7: EXPECT THE ROAD TO BE DIFFICULT AND UNCERTAIN
This may sound simple and perhaps obvious, but I have learned that one of the biggest triggers to frustration is misplaced expectation. Creatively, I often expect things to fall into place far easier than they do; for ideas to flow or clients to book and honour their words, but this is rarely the case.
Often it’s hard, really hard. Creating good images requires work and graft. Organising people and photo sessions is rarely straightforward and over the last 2 years, I’ve been let down more times than I want to admit.
Though I’m fuelled by a creative compulsion, I am learning to be at peace with the oft-difficult and uncertain road. Anything great requires hard work and there will be difficulty…and that’s part of the package.
A quote I once saw read, “A smooth sea never made a skilful sailor”. How true. If I’m to be a successful and skilled photographer, it will happen in the challenges; in the stepping out, in the learning and the saying ‘yes’.
LESSON 8: SELF DOUBT IS NORMAL
There is something uniquely uplifting in discovering that you’re not alone in whatever it is you’re facing. Whatever it is, there are people who have walked that road before you, those who’re walking it and those who inevitably walk that road later. Over the past 12 months I have taken solace in learning that self-doubt is not only normal but a very a common part of the creative’s journey.
Self-doubt doesn’t mean that you’re doing something wrong, or that your work is bad. It just means that you’re human and it’s totally ok. Stepping out of your comfort zone, taking risks and doing something different will always bring feelings of insecurity but the key is learning to not let it consume you or hold you back.
LESSON 9: GROWTH AND PROGRESS TAKES TIME AND INTENTIONALITY
If my time at the gym have taught me anything over the years, it’s that growth and any kind of progress takes time and it takes intentionality. Frustration with a lack of progress has caused me to walk out on more training sessions than I care to admit but that is due to impatience and a limited understanding of what I need to do in order to grow.
In order to grow physically, I cannot expect it to happen overnight. A combination of appropriate and intentional training, diet and rest are vital ingredients but…it takes time; often a long time. Accepting this releases the pressure off wanting to see instant results.
The same principles can be applied to photography. In order to grow and develop, I need to be intentional in my study and practice and rest assured that it will take time.
LESSON 10: PEOPLE WILL LET YOU DOWN (ACCEPT IT)
This is perhaps the most difficult lesson to learn and the hardest fact to accept. People will let you down. People will not always follow through on their promises. People will cancel last minute and disappear without explanation. The reasons may vary but it’s always upsetting – particularly if it means losing out financially.
Though I cannot control other people, putting measures in place such as monetary deposits minimises the effect on me, as does being more discerning with who I work with.
LESSON 11: LIKES AND FOLLOWERS DON’T (REALLY?) MATTER
We’ve all done it. We upload an image onto Facebook or Instagram, then like the schoolgirl waiting for her crush to light up her phone, we watch our devices, waiting for the likes, loves and comments to pour in. Distracted from responsibilities, we keep checking, with every little red heart and tiny blue thumb filling our validation tank. Or the opposite happens. As the minutes turn into hours and those little colourful icon-shaped drugs don’t pour in, little by little our self-esteem drops and we become discouraged, wondering why we posted in the first place.
A little dramatic perhaps? Suffice to say, this is a lesson I am continuously learning. Put simply, LIKES AND NUMBERS OF FOLLOWERS DO NOT AND SHOULD NOT DETERMINE THE QUALITY OF YOUR WORK OR HOW YOU FEEL ABOUT IT!
Granted, they may impress your friends and make you look like a superstar on social media, but as a creator, ONE’S IDENTITY MUST NOT REST IN NUMBERS OR LIKES. Or to simplify it even further, if you live and thrive by the like, you will shrivel and die by it.
LESSON 12: SOCIAL MEDIA IS BOTH A BLESSING AND A CURSE
Many times I have sat, phone in hand deliberating the decision to delete my social accounts. You see, on one hand, I love it and I am incredibly grateful for the friends I have made and the models I have had the pleasure of have photographing. I am grateful for the exposure, the encouragement from other photographers who’re well ahead of me and the ability to share my work to a wider pool of viewers. But…
I hate the other garbage. I hate the ‘game’, the feeling that one has to stay on this never ending superficial treadmill in order to not lose ‘followers’; even writing that word makes me cringe. I hate the hidden motivations behind posting my images – the want to be seen to be active and doing well. I hate the race and the rush, the competing, the ‘look at me and my life’ mentality and the meticulously crafted and carefully selected portrayals of perfection. I hate the amount of time that can be wasted wading mindlessly through a sea of stuff – not always anything specific; just…stuff; people’s stuff. And to what end? To feel inadequate? To feel like I’m not doing enough or simply…not being enough? I have learned that this is unhealthy and that I need to limit my time on it, even if it means losing ‘followers’ (shudder)
The more I log on, the more irritated I feel. I love being inspired by people and their work. As a visual person, I love seeing the work of other creators but I have learned that this doesn’t always do a lot of good for my soul.
LESSON 13: COMPARISON IS THE ROBBER OF JOY
Though it isn’t healthy, it’s human nature to compare ourselves to other people and their achievements. We all do it; whether we’re at the gym, walking down the street or generally living life, we all look at others and then look at ourselves and wonder why we aren’t (insert need here) like that other person.
As social media continues to occupy more and more of our time and attention, comparison is even greater. Facebook and especially Instagram are full of people ‘living their best lives’, while the rest of us are struggling to make ends meet. Beautifully manicured humans with tanned faces, “amazing fiancés” and cute puppies beam at us from exotic foreign locations, spouting banal motivational quotes about self-love and smashing your goals, while a lot of us get discouraged because we can’t measure up. We look at them then look at ourselves and feel like we’re doing something wrong. Perhaps therein lies the problem; we look at others instead of focusing on our own journey and in doing so, we rob ourselves of the joy in our own progress and development. This is something I am keen to do less of, even if that means lessening my time scrolling aimlessly on social media and ridding my accounts of people who don’t help.
LESSON 14: DESTROY THAT PEDESTAL
The Pedestal – that towering obelisk built from the bricks and mortar of respect and admiration and if we’re honest, held together by envy and insecurity. No more. It’s more than OK to admire and respect other artists and their work but for me, I need to destroy the pedestal on which they stand; particularly if they’re up there because I’ve put my own work down.
LESSON 15: MY WORK IS GOOD ENOUGH
There must come a time when you just have to decide that your work is good enough; not because enough people have said so, not because you’ve got enough likes or amassed enough followers, but because you know it is good and getting better. Yes, there are bad days; days where you’re uninspired and not firing on all cylinders but enough with the doubting and wondering. My work is good enough and will continue to improve.
LESSON 16: MOOD AFFECTS PERSPECTIVE
Simply put, the way I feel and what’s going on in my head greatly affects how I see my images, and when I’m in a negative headspace, my images, no matter how well received by clients, always look bad. Knowing this stops me being overly critical of my work when I really don’t need to be.
LESSON 17: JUST KEEP GOING
It’s a simple lesson but in all of this, it’s one of the most important. Just keep going; keep walking, keep grafting, keep creating and keep taking photographs in spite of doubt, and a lack of likes. Keep honing your craft and do it for the love of it.
LESSON 18: WORK WITH WHAT YOU HAVE; NOT WITH WHAT YOU WANT
There’s a lot to be said about working within your means, whether they’re financial, physical or otherwise. I do not have a large and expensive studio but I do have a spare bedroom which has been the biggest blessing that has enabled me to accomplish so much. I do not have the latest light modifiers, wide variety of backdrops or elaborate props, but I have what I have and for it all, I am grateful. Until finances or opportunities arise that enable me to expand and grow, I will do the very best with the little that’s in my hands.
LESSON 19: DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE MONEY CHAT
Money. I don’t know why we find this topic difficult to talk about but I have learned to face it. In my experience in recent times, people always want something until they have to pay for it. Pricing my work has always been a tricky area for me, but I’ve managed to solve this with the help of people far more intelligent than me.
The lesson learned going forward is simple…talk about it. Set your prices and let clients decide if they want to buy; after all, you’re building a business, not a charity.
LESSON 20: DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF IMAGES
It always amazes me (and it really shouldn’t) how clients respond to my images. Because I’m used to seeing them during the editing process, one becomes so familiar with every detail and pixel of the photograph that much of the potency is lost; until you show the client.
Whether they’re a bride looking through her wedding album, a mother looking at photographs of her children or an unlikely young man looking over photographs from his head-shot session, there’s something special about watching the client looking at the their images for the first time. That’s the ultimate payoff.
For some clients, good photographs are a reminder of a very special day, for others they’re a beautiful representation of loved ones and for others, they provide a welcome injection of confidence. No matter how many images I shoot or how familiar I become with my images, I must never forget that photographs are incredibly powerful and possess the ability to leave a large and lasting impact on the client, far greater than I can imagine.
LESSON 21: INSPIRATION COMES IN THE MOST UNLIKELY PLACES
Inspiration is everywhere as long as I’m willing to live with my eyes and my heart open. The more I learn to be open to colours, tones, textures, lines, spacing and shapes in my surroundings, the more I inspired I will be to take photographs and make interesting the seemingly mundane .
A white feather caught among dewy dark green leaves, the muddy textures on my wellies, the laughter lines on my beautiful friend’s face or my nephew’s Lego strewn all over the dining room table are small things that have caught my attention over the Christmas period and caused me to reach for my camera.
It’s all there; we just need to learn to see it.
LESSON 22: FIND YOUR CHAMPIONS
Over the last year, the strength to keep moving forward in the face of crippling self-doubt, discouragement and creative dry spells has come from my champions; a small group of people I trust who’ve become the wind in my sails over the course of my creative journey.
These people not only sit with me in the dark and point me towards hope, but know me well enough to do more than satisfy my ego with flattering compliments. These people speak the truth when it’s hard to hear, give me critical feedback that improves the quality of my work and encourage me to reach beyond my self-imposed boundaries. As a creative, I have learned that it is imperative to surround yourself with such people and I am eternally grateful for mine.
To my parents and immediate family, to James Saunders, Raine Simpson, Christian Zamore, Ellie Taylor and Tyler Fixman. Thanks for your input and your company. I appreciate you more than I can express.
LESSON 23: ENJOY THE JOURNEY
Having fun should be what photography is all about. In the challenges and the stress, in the lack and the uncertainty, in the disappointments and slow progress, I’ve learned to enjoy it. To enjoy creating and experimenting and taking risks and getting it wrong and learning and doing it all over again. I’m enjoying myself a lot.
LESSON 24: BE GRATEFUL
I have learned that there is immense power in gratitude, especially for the small things. Gratitude is an antidote to frustration, wistful longing and resentment as it reminds you of the things you do have. It reminds you of the opportunities that have come your way, the progress you’ve made and the people you’ve met along the way. It keeps the heart tender and keeps one humble.
As I close this longer than planned blog in readiness to see in the New Year with some friends, I will end with this.
“Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance.”
― Eckhart Tolle,
We’re rich if we see and be grateful for what we already have instead of hungering for that which we don’t.
Thanks for reading, thanks for learning and whatever you do and whoever you do it with, have a great time seeing in the New Year.
Until the next time