Lens Envy. Lamenting the moment another photographer got at an event you covered. Pining over a portfolio of a veteran photographer and going, “God. I’ll never get there, his/her stuff is just so good.” The trifecta of equipment, coverage, and body of work. But really, it’s three symptoms of the same disease: Comparison
Since my early days shooting at the CdA Press and being shown the work of some greats in the Pacific Northwest (Brian + Kathy Plonka, Joshua Trujillo, Shawn Gust, just to name a few) How did they shoot that? How did they find that story? And How did they put it all together into this incredible body of work? Now before you get all Caddyshack on me…
Yes, I know there is value in staying educated on other photographers (and visual artists in general) both past and present. There is nothing wrong with creative inspiration or simply taking the pulse of our field and seeing what work is produced on what subjects, with what style, on what platforms.
But where this awareness turns into the disease of comparison is when it goes from the objective (this work is out there, it intrigues me) to the subjects (this is better than my work, it upsets me). And once that switch flips into the subjective, the floodgates open and the Four Horsemen of creative work arrive – Doubt, Pain, Self-Worth, and Shame. “I don’t know if I’ll make it as a creative.” “It hurts to be passed up for an assignment and see someone else kill it.” “I suck.” and “My portfolio is shit compared to them.”
You might be wondering “Where is all of this coming from, Ben? You seem to be doing okay in your career?” The Four Horsemen of Comparison don’t care how many gigs you’ve booked, how many Instagram followers you have, or how good, objectively, your portfolio actually is.
I’m sitting down to write this post because I got paid an unexpected vision from those four bastards not long ago.
I was assigned to go shoot a Division I NCAA Cross Country meet here in Madison for the University of Michigan. When I got the call, I was pretty pumped; I hadn’t shot a great deal of sports since my time in Salt Lake City in 2013, and I’d been getting the itch to get back into it (Thanks, Universe!) As a freelancer, I’m very much in the unenviable position of making my great last as long as possible, while not being hampered by it to the point of losing opportunities — the photographer’s Catch-22. [My gear of a 5D Mark III, 1D Mark IV, 16-35mm, 50mm, and 70-200mm is by no means unusable, but it’s hard to argue it isn’t getting a little long in the tooth.] Hello, Doubt.
Soon after I arrived at the meet, I ran into a friend of mine who’s recently started as the Sports Photographer for UW-Madison Athletic Department … and his 1DX’s, 400mm 2.8 lens and array of gear. *gulp* Not to mention his student assistant helping to schlep gear and golf cart around access to get around the 8K course.
It was a hell of a long day of shooting and I was pretty damn happy with what I was able to produce while walking/running 8 miles of my own to catch all of the action. (If I’m being honest...On top of being a little out of practice shooting that level and pace of sports!)
But as I looked through the Instagram post of the other photographer’s work and top selects from the day… Oh man, did my stomach drop. Perfect peak action/jubilation shots, tack-sharp focus, perfect composition. Wow. And in come the Horsemen of Creative work...But hold on fellas. You stay outside for now. I checked myself. Wait a second, those feelings of doubt, pain, questioning self-worth and shame? Those aren’t real. Those are just my monkey brain trying to defend itself in a fight or flight response to comparison. Once you realize the Four Horsemen are just brain chemistry (ego) wearing a scary mask, it becomes so much easier to look at your own work objectively. Compare and Despair.
If transported myself back to when these veteran photographers were my age, I bet they doubted whether they’d “make it” just as profoundly as I’m feeling today. You think they never felt that pain of missing a critical shot or completely botching an assignment for a big publication? You think these talented full-time freelancers never questioned their self-worth when they hit a drought of incoming work? And just as real, don’t you think these vets have seen young upstart photographers edge into their territory and feel that shame that they aren’t always on the top of the photographic food chain?
A key tenet of mindfulness and meditation practices is that our thoughts are just thoughts. Not only that, thoughts don’t inherently have value or objectivity — they can be acknowledged or ignored. Thoughts and feelings arise in our body-mind out of nowhere. When they arise and we identify with them, we feel like they’re ours, like we came up with them. But we didn’t. They aren’t personal. They aren’t ours. – Our brains attempt to create meaning out of the confusion of human existence and we can create our own reality.
Because these are thoughts that EVERY photographer has experienced at some point in their career, I don’t HAVE TO listen to them. I can focus on practicing my craft, growing my own body of work, and learning from my own mistakes along the way. Comparing my work to anyone one else is nothing but an exercise in ego management. Put simply – The only person you should compare yourself to is you, yesterday.
Stay strong, creators – It’s always darkest right before the dawn.