Be Courageous In Your Photography, and Life
Doing good photography is risky. Living a full life is risky. But can you really be happy doing anything less?
The Oxford dictionary defines courage as “the ability to do something that frightens one; bravery” and as “strength in the face of pain or grief”. If you think about it, both these definitions apply when it comes to making great images.
We have all had the realisation of a new direction we wanted to take, whether in life or photographically, and yet been scared to move in that direction. It is natural. The familiar feels safe and comforting, even when in reality it is far from it, whilst the new seems unsettled, risky and scary. Our fears may be one or many, tied up with whether we are good enough, whether we can pull it off, what others will think and a myriad more. In fact fear is a many-headed hydra – cut one head off and two grow back in its place.
As we have seen above, courage is feeling the fear and doing it anyway. That is really all courage is. It is not anything miraculous, nor supernatural. It is not something that some have and others can never have. It is simply a state of mind. It is simply being able to say to yourself ‘ok, I’m scared, but I’m going to fucking do it anyway’.
Some of our fears are internal and some are developed by people around us as ways to control us. In other places I have written on the importance of being very careful who you listen to. The reality is that there are people out there, in your lives, who will try to hold you back. Some will have the best of intentions, but be misguided. Others will do it with purpose and intent – their own lives are so weak that they can’t stand to see others actually doing something.
I started thinking about this yesterday when having a conversation with a second cousin by marriage. She is nearing the end of high school and is very close to my daughter. We were discussing what she wanted to do at university. My advice was to find a course she could be passionate about and to do that. Choosing a ‘safe’ or conservative course would destroy her, I advised. She has a very outward personality and certain career directions you can just see would suit her. Yet she found others telling her to be conservative, to play it safe. The world really is divided into two groups of people – the risk takers and the risk averse. She is what I would call a studied risk taker – one who needs to be on the edge but does her homework and weighs things before taking the risk. Doing something safe would strangle the passion in her.
Natural chronically risk averse people are unlikely to be reading this. Those who are reading this are far more likely to be suppressed risk takers or risk takers who are fairly comfortable with what we are. A suppressed risk taker is someone who either through upbringing or life experience has pushed their risk-taking nature down and tried to ignore it. Abusive parents or well meaning but fearful parents may have caused this. It can be caused by an inappropriate choice of life partner or friends. And it can be caused by being so beaten down by bad life experiences that one withdraws into a virtual foetal position.
For those of us severely traumatised, we may benefit from professional support. Counselling or group-based therapy can be extremely helpful in working through our blocks. Note that you can get great therapy by being the member of a supportive creative group – it doesn’t have to be a psychological one. My wife is a member of two such wonderful groups – one an artist group for mothers who are very supportive and nurturing of each other, and the other a tight knit artist run gallery that is similarly supportive of its members. The former was very supportive of my wife when she was going through grieving for her parents and brother. I’ve also seen the same thing with some of my class groups in creative disciplines, such as writing or photography. So there are lots of ways to find such support. You just have to be prepared to shop around and do not be afraid to leave a group that is not working for you.
It can also be very important who your life partner is, if you have one in your life at present. I am fortunate that my wife and I share a passion for creativity and growth, and we also share a strong commitment to compensate for each other’s weaknesses and to help each other forward. Sadly, I’ve seen many people where their life partner actively holds them back, often subconsciously out of fear that they will be outgrown. I’ve also seen partners who, rather than play to a person’s better traits, has instead developed a person’s worst traits, to very sad consequences.
For many of us the blocks will not be as major as those we’ve been discussing above. It is normal to have some fear of the unknown – it is a basic survival instinct after all. But being ruled by our fears can not only hurt us, but those we hold dear. So how do we work through some of these issues and move forward?
Here are some ways to overcome fear and try something new:
- Break a big step down into a whole series of small steps that individually are not so scary, then start doing the little steps
- Consider the worst possible real consequence of what we want to do. Think about how likely this is to happen and how you might deal with it if it did. You will usually find that when coldly analysed the worst possible outcome is not really so bad anyway and is very unlikely to happen
- Brainstorm some alternative paths that might get you to the same point but don’t seem quite so risky. Now that you have choice your fears about your original idea may seem to have less power over you
- Talk about your fears out loud with a trusted friend. Fears actually voiced often have less power
- Decide to take the risk and do it anyway
Mistakes are, in fact, good
I am amazed at how we tie ourselves in knots over creative directions. A lot has to do with our programming about failure. Many have come out of childhood with a deep fear of making mistakes. This can be from parents and their reaction to red marks on our schoolwork, or be caused by teachers who do not understand the value of mistakes. The truth is that we have to make mistakes to grow and develop in any area of our lives. Mistakes are, in fact, good. They show that we are working outside of our comfort zone, pushing boundaries. The only problem with mistakes is that we can get so caught up in negative internal dialogue about ourselves that we forget to learn what we can from the mistake. If that happens we often end up repeating the same mistake over and over again. Better to stop the internal sabotage, learn what we can from the mistake and move on to make new and different ones.
One thing that we ‘creative types’ cannot ignore is the strong linkage between our creativity and our general wellbeing. We are often only really happy when being creative. I know I am. I am lucky because I can express my creativity in many ways: my teaching, my photography, writing, parenting and life with my partner. But all that has taken work. Being blocked creatively often means we are blocked in other aspects of our life. Unblocking one thing can create a cascade effect. It is easy to be fearful of this, fearing that our lives will unravel in a cascade of cause and effect. Such cascades can unveil blocked aspects we have been trying to ignore. But rather than be fearful of this we should see this as an opportunity to examine and finally deal with our blocks so that we can move on from them. I know, my first marriage ended in divorce because of this effect. But in reality I am far better off now than I was then, stuck and constipated creatively. Unhappy at a deep soul level, it was not really me.
Life moves on.
This is a key aspect too – life moves on whether we want it to or not. Sure, we can hold back the waters by sticking fingers in the dam. But eventually we run out of toes and fingers and the whole thing falls apart worst than if we had not resisted change in the first place.
So how do I know if I am blocked creatively? If I’m happily producing similar work for too long then I know it is time to shake something up. And that, my friends, is a topic for another essay.