I saw this list as an image recently posted on Facebook by a writer which she explained described her creative processes. I smiled as I knew I could relate.
Everybody’s process is different, and I enjoy hearing about any creative’s processes despite their chosen form of expression. I enjoy listening to actors speaking on how they not only prepare for a role but also of their insecurities and victories too. It makes them relatable. The same is true with film score composers, photographers, musicians and dancers.
For me, it’s rarely as simple as merely physically doing the thing, but rather an emotional journey filled with doubt, insecurity, feeling like a fraud as well as an immense joy and a screaming confidence that can precariously border on arrogance.
So, without further ado, let me break each of these down and explain how they relate to me in my expression as a photographer. There are variables and the degree to which I relate to each point really depends on the shoot. The order can change too.
STAGE 1: THIS IS AWESOME
This is the moment I upload the images from my camera on to my computer for closer inspection. Typically blinded by the excitement of the shoot and pumped full of that post-shoot adrenaline, with a few exceptions, I generally like what I have done.
Generally, I have walked back to my car to the ego-massaging soundtrack of people’s praise and appreciation or, my clients have left my space feeling elated and excited to receive their image samples. I feel great. The images look great. I AM THE FREAKIN’ MAN and how come my name is not being banded around studios in London, Paris and New York? Someone call and book me already. Don’t you know who I am?
I AM FAITHFUL IMAGERY, HERE ME RO-
(Insert record scratch sound effect here)
The problem here is that this soon fades and reality sets in. As I look closer at the work of my hands, doubt creeps in and this is where it gets tricky.
STAGE 2: THIS IS TRICKY
Like most creatives, I am my own biggest critic and am overly harsh on myself. My expectations are so high, and I start to notice the flaws. I notice dirt or scratches on the images, I realise the images are not sharp or the light is to hard. Or I realise that I have not grown creatively and my images are all the same. Where as it’s fine to acknowledge this, I am aware that if my mind keeps playing these thoughts for too long during the editing process, I end up being discouraged.
This was the case when shooting my friend @nico_dee in a red dress. The shoot was great fun and the images were good but the closer I looked, the more I realised I was bored of shooting red dresses. I’d done plenty of red dress shoots not too long ago so all I could see was a lack of creativity and a sense of boredom with the whole thing.
A WORD OF CAUTION: When in this mindset, do not go on Instagram. Seeing what others have done creatively with red dresses will only add to the feelings of inferiority; making me feel like…
STAGE 3: THIS IS SHIT
I have accepted that as long as I am a creative person, I will more than likely walk through this valley again and again. It’s when you look at your work and feel like it’s the worst thing you’ve ever done; like a Redbull-fuelled 6-year-old with a disposable film camera could do better wit their eyes closed. Perhaps I exaggerate, but I have been here so many times with weddings, events or solo shoots with people that I have put the images away and not looked at them for a long time (yes, even with weddings I’ve shot where the client is patiently waiting for their images).
Rest assured…this is no longer the case now. Clients ALWAYS receive their images during the designated span of time.
A more recent example that comes to mind is when I shot my friend Zoe and her beautiful daughter Mia. The shoot was scheduled and when the time came, many factors worked against us. Zoe was late, her daughter was sick, I was tired having been at work for 9 hours and women take a long time to get ready.
It was late, I was frustrated, I was tired and no longer felt like doing it. Because they were there, I shot for an hour, managing to navigate Mia’s sudden and explosive burst of energy. After I’d driven them home (this took over an hour) I uploaded the images and decided that I never wanted to pick up my camera again.
STAGE 4: I AM SHIT
This is a little strong, but I’ll roll with it because it communicates what I want to say. Also, lest it look like I’m an emotionally unstable and morose person, let me point out that I am not. I am generally very upbeat, but I just want to be real about my process and a process that I am encouraged to hear, is faced by many others.
So…here we are at Stage 4, in the valley of the smelly brown stuff wondering why anyone would want to hire me to take pictures. Much of this is based on a warped perspective of course – tiredness and comparison are often the cause but it’s an important stage to acknowledge. Every creative I know has faced or faces this at some stage during their exploration, but it really is about what you do from there that makes the difference.
For me it’s when my images don’t turn out as I’d like, or I ignore the voice of caution and go onto Instagram and see what others have done. This only feeds my feelings of inferiority and can be paralysing. I felt this during Zoe’s shoot.
As I said before, all of this is based on a warped perspective caused by lies which are based on a few minor truths. The fact is, I’m not shit. If this were true, I would not get bookings or receive encouragement from friends and peers. Sure, I have a lot to learn and I need and want to develop and push myself creatively, but this is the case with everyone doing something creative.
When I feel like this, it’s important to acknowledge it but I cannot make my bed here as this is not my destination. It’s here that I make the most crucial decision of all; to keep moving and creating despite how I may be feeling. My feelings – ever so prone to change – do not necessarily dictate the truth of my work. It’s time to leave the valley.
STAGE 5: THIS MIGHT BE OK
Using Zoe’s shoot as an example really matters here. Finding myself with nothing to edit one Sunday afternoon, I decided to revisit the shoot and take another look at it. The images were ok. I wasn’t tired or stressed so I decided to edit a few and you know what? I really liked them and the more I edited (cropping / adjusting colours and changing perspectives), the more I liked them. I then sent a sample of them to Zoe and she really liked them then she shared them on Facebook and her friends and family really liked them too.
I have learned that creativity rarely just happens but is something that is built and worked at intentionally. A house is never just built. Think about that for a moment. A house never just happens. It is planned, materials are carefully selected, tools are chosen and the master builder, through sweat, grit and often tears, carefully constructs it.
They build to a plan or a vision. It takes time and there are many times when what they are building looks nothing like the plan. It looks messy, people may question it, it is time consuming and can be a deeply frustrating process. But in time, it all comes together and when the family come to view it, they are amazed at what has been achieved, usually giving little thought to the process.
The same is true with writers, dancers, directors or photographers. They plan then select their tools and materials and begin to create according to their plan. The process can be long, frustrating and fraught with challenges. There will be joy, there may be tears and even times when what they are creating looks nothing like the plan but stopping there won’t solve the problem.
Like the builder, they must keep going, creating according to a plan known to few until the finished product is realised and the viewer / audience / client is amazed at the result, thinking very little of the process.
During this process, it is a thrilling thing to realise that this might just be ok. That this might just turn out to be awesome.
STAGE 6: THIS IS AWESOME
So, we’re back here again. The same place but something has changed. Gone is the boastful arrogance and the wondering why people aren’t hiring me but rather, it is a humbled and more refined sense of awesome.
Years ago, I went on a walking holiday with my mother and on the third day, me and a few strangers decided to do what was then referred to as a ‘level 5 climb’ – a mountain trail reserved for more experienced climbers.
We packed our gear and carefully made our way up. The higher we got, the more challenging the terrain and the less we spoke. It was like the mountain decided to strip us of our arrogance with each step we took towards our goal. When the summit was in sight, we stumbled and crawled forward until, as though on cue, we all started laughing – ragged, raspy laughs of relief. Once we got to the top and took in the spectacular view, it was awesome. But it was not boastful. The journey was not easy. The journey humbled us and our awesome was one that we worked for.
I feel this once I have completed a project. The feeling of awesome is not a boastful one but often a humbled one, one where my pride has been stripped by the journey and lessons have been learned. One which does not cause me to arrogantly demand why I’m not getting paid a lot more money, but one which makes me appreciate what I do, the people I work with and the tools I have to do it.
All of which makes the praise and encouragement from clients not an ego-massaging soundtrack but rather a sweet refresher – a bottle of ice water after a tough climb.
Until the next time ?