When I moved to the Los Angeles Times from the Long Beach Press-Telegram, I felt an insane amount of pressure. Once happy doing my thing in the relative quiet of a community paper, I was thrust into a hyper-competitive international paper where weaknesses were scrutinized and failure was banned. Any complaints? The director of photography had a mock grenade with a number tag on the pin.
We were in a war with the Orange County Register but without the pipe bombs. I found myself shooting against photojournalists who would delight in cleaning your clock. It messes with your head, and can knock you off your game.
Yet in the current clime of photojournalism, who doesn’t feel as if they have to perform at their peak, and defend their paycheck? Smart photojournalists realize they are brands and need to aggressively manage perceptions of that brand.
It’s an incredibly competitive world. Legendary photojournalists have been laid off or bought out. Oh, and there are a lot of young people deep in school debt wanting your job.
Feeling fear? Don’t.
Fear is the worst and greatest enemy of photographers. Why?
Physiologically, fear triggers the fight or flight complex. You can’t think creatively, imaginatively and proactively when your entire body is pumping blood and adrenaline to the parts of your body necessary to fight barbarians at the gate. It pushes your body into a reactive-about-to-become-a-victim state of mind.
The very creativity that is your unique selling proposition as a photographer is crippled. Your body becomes your mind’s worst enemy.
Feeling short of breath and tunnel vision? A little desperate, panicked and impatient? It’s part of the dynamic.
Don’t go there.
Fear also triggers a mindset of scarcity - the feeling that there are an insufficient amount of moments to capture, pictures to make, and opportunities to explore. ("Grab yours now before it's too late!") Others have written about this well, especially as it applies to photography. When you are in a situation with scarcity as your guide, you aren’t optimistic, expectant or positively creative.
You’re more likely to second-guess yourself and flutter around in a reactive frenzy. Or cover your *ss. Or withdraw in prideful self-protection. None of this is very helpful.
It’s also hard to effectively strategize when you are under the gun. You determine the vantage point of your camera based on a cost-benefit analysis that takes into the fact that you can't be in two spots at the same time. That decision alone can determine the success of your assignment.
But how can you think rationally about choices when your mind is racing with the costs instead of the benefits? Of getting smoked by the guy on the other side of you? Of looking like a fool when you come back empty-handed?
Fear is a useful emotion but a dangerous one unchecked. To escape the spiraling nature of fear in your creative life, I have two suggestions – two that I wish I could have told myself earlier on in my career:
1) Prepare for the worst but expect the best.
You want to be ready in case things pivot quickly and you weren’t ready. But you don’t want to dwell on either the worst things that could happen or the careful contingency plans you’ve made. Once covered, toggle back to the amazing picture you expect to walk away with. Be prepared to leave your contingency plans behind. The best place to focus is on a positive outcome. The people who walk into a situation smiling are generally the ones who walk out the same way.
2) If it doesn’t happen the way you expected, learn and move on.
You’ve done your best. It’s not about your perfection but about your excellence. It may not have meant to be. The last thing you want is for the pernicious voice of doubt and fear to diminish your enthusiasm and growth. If you're not in environment where failure is seen as a natural part of trying new things, you may need a better environment.
With a mindset of abundance, instead of scarcity, opportunities are around every corner. Good things will happen. There is enough to share.
If you miss it, you will find another opportunity.
If you blow it, you will learn and move on.
If you fail, you will succeed another day.
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