How to kill yourself creatively.
I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who is trekking through the process. I’m not sitting on a high horse. I can’t even afford a horse.
It is often said that you have to be partially insane to be a creative. I’m not sure if that idea is influenced by the odd forms of modern art, or if someone recognized the risk of choosing fields with high unemployment rates.
By dealing with the emotional roller coaster of being a creative, I have in fact, gone a bit crazy.
As a photographer, sociologist, journalist, and student, I’ve place myself into a fast paced, highly competitive, quickly changing world. I knew it would be this way going in and I accepted that.
What I didn’t expect was my own personal fragility and how developing the wrong outlook on being a creative would push me into a trench. An immature mindset I thought was necessary for ‘making it’, almost killed me.
If I didn’t feel I was going to execute something the way I envisioned, I would psych myself out and try to run the other direction. Why bother, I would tell myself. I took my work so personally, that I linked being a great photographer with being great human being. I feared failure so much that I was willing to sacrifice my relationships in order to obtain success. I compared myself to others periodically. It didn’t matter if I was progressing, all I focused on was that I wasn’t there yet. Anytime I made an achievement, I would tell myself I didn’t deserve it. Anytime I screwed up, I would hate myself and my work. I have perfectionist tendencies, you see.
These thoughts, what I call monsters, are what have almost killed my ability to create and produce. I previously thought that these monsters were friends. They were just trying to push me past my limits. It was normal to have these thoughts continuously. As long as it got me to my goal, self deprecation was a good motivator. It was okay to be depressed through the process because one day when I was successful I could finally be happy.
I changed. I was once an excited freshman ready to conquer and create. I had ideas flowing out of me and everything was a new adventure. I shot because I wanted to. I was a photojournalist because I was a dreamer. I dreamed of telling stories and meeting the amazing people that give the world character. I chose photojournalism because I wanted to give others a voice. I wanted to serve.
Then the monsters started camping out in my head. I woke up one day. I realized I was bitter and angry at the industry and at the lay offs I had personally witnessed. I only wanted to shoot when I thought I would get something out of it. I stopped taking risks. I stopped listening to critiques because I hated feeling like a failure. I wasn’t as interested in my subjects as I was in creating beautiful photos. I started following a path that I knew wasn’t for me, because everyone else defined it as success. It became about getting ahead rather than being happy and to top it off I almost quit because I thought my depression had to do something with my career rather than recognizing that I was creating my own depression.
I woke up with the personality of a bitter old photographer who had been shooting for 40 years. I’ve only been shooting for two. Two freaking years and I had already gotten to that point.
For a while now, I have slowly but surely been digging myself out of the trench. I guess you could say you get sick of yourself after a certain point. It’s been through this journey of bouncing back, that I’ve recognized some truths about myself as a creative and about the creative process in general. I’ve recognized the things I have to change in order to truly grow.
We should not only accept failure, but welcome it.
If you’re not learning, you’re dead. Here is a contact sheet of all the photographs I’m not particularly proud of from this summer. Every single photograph represents a lesson learned. I was once in a place where I would hide these from everyone. I’m currently getting out of a place of fear. A fear that holds me back from pursuing any project because I don’t want to disappoint myself.
When Atlanta freelancer Chris Stanford spoke at WKU, he told our class to go photograph man holes if we had to because every moment spent behind the camera was a learning opportunity. I haven’t photographed man holes yet, but I’m making a promise to myself that I’ll value my “crappy” frames as much as I value the winners. The time spent behind the camera is essentially the only thing that will make me move forward. While it’s okay to have big goals, we should focus on our current victories.
Side-note, someone is always going to hate your work. Get over it.
We should pursue what we actually want, not what we’ve been told we should want.
When selecting an internship, or a job opportunity, or project, many of us are taught to go for the most prestigious. Doing so signifies achievement, so we are taught. We’re given this pre-planned trajectory of what the ladder to success is supposed to look like. In photojournalism, it goes from small newspaper to medium newspaper to major newspaper. I’ve seen people achieve the big time, and I’ve seen them left with nothing.
Make it known that I find nothing wrong with the traditional path if that is what someone truly wants. If that makes you happy, more power to you. If it doesn’t, let someone else have the opportunity. If we remain apart of a cookie cutter system, we will become exactly that, cookie cutter. I don’t care if you want to become a professional pet photographer. If photographing kittens and puppies all day makes you happy and you’re passionate about it, there will be a way to make that dream happen. Our time is valuable and much of it should be spent chasing what we love. We should seek out the things that thrill us and leave us fulfilled. Let go of the things that make you feel secure. Let go of the standardized success ruler. You will not create your best work that way and you will find yourself smothered in a comfort bubble.
Be honest with yourself.
We should achieve balance.
One time my best friends had to set me down for an intervention because they said I was too obsessed with my work. I talked about it too much and I let my work stress influence how I treated them. I let it push away the people who had been there before I even started my career. I didn’t listen to them at first.
There is nothing romantic or ideal about the lone wolf workaholic. In creative culture, we worship the industry leaders for their work but we don’t want to believe that some of them are lonely, or alcoholics, or miserable. Dedication to your work has a threshold. Who cares if you land a client or get a promotion or get the internship of your dreams if no one is there to hug you. I want my version of success to include the ones I love. I don’t want to roll over at the age of 35 and only see my camera equipment. I don’t want to be on my death bed and all I have is hard drives of photographs. Photographs of other peoples families and moments because I didn’t take the time to have my own.
I have been taught the opposite but I am going to put my mom’s birthday over shooting an assignment. I am going to put the same effort into photographing my family and friends.
My mom and my cat.
We should never settle.
By never settling, I mean don’t settle for half-ass work. While my main point of this is to avoid obsession, I also feel it’s important to utilize every learning opportunity. I am extremely guilty of settling for decent when I know I could have produced great. Whether it’s a camera, a paint brush, or design software, we hold the tools, therefore we hold our potential. Push yourself. Don’t be lazy, don’t be safe.
You don’t like what you’ve just created? Do something about it. Trust me, I have been the spokesperson for self deprecation with no action to fix it. Yet, the majority of my best work was created when I decided to stay longer, push harder, and try something different.
The shot I sat around for 45 minutes trying to make and could have waited around longer for versus the shot I was sent to make.
We should look at other people’s work as inspiration, not comparison.
I look at the work of photographers I admire and all of a sudden become overwhelmed. Rather than appreciating the work itself, rather than viewing the work as a source of motivation, I start comparing. I start taking my work up against theirs and I pick mine apart. Ignorantly, I take the work of people who have been shooting for over 10 years and I compare it with the 2 years experience that is backing my own. It’s done nothing but halt my own growth. It has ripped me of my own vision.
Context matters. The people we admire, they’ve been where we are. They have paid their dues. Some of them, just have pure talent. Envy is one of the seven deadly sins for a reason.
It is okay to like your own work. It is okay to like one of your own photographs despite what an editor tells you. It is okay to get excited when you’ve seen progress in yourself. Hating everything you produce is poison. It keeps you from recognizing what you do right. It will silently kill your motivation to create in the first place. If you must compare to push forward, compare your current work to your old.
For the love of god stop worrying about contests and social media.
Yes, by all means go ahead and submit your work. There is nothing wrong with creative competitions and much of the work selected deserves to be recognized. I did an award thing and it was an amazing opportunity and experience. However, what is wrong with competitions is obsession. When we place our self worth under the outcomes of those competitions we are essentially gambling. At it’s core, competitions are nothing more than a panel of judges selecting what they think is the strongest work. There are so many great creatives whose work has not been recognized and that has nothing to do with the status of their careers.
If winning awards is what you are chasing you are going to be left feeling empty inside. Social media functions the same way. “Likes” do not signify success. Having 1,000+ Instagram followers does not determine the value of your work nor does it determine your capabilities. You will become a slave to a panel of judges and a website and your work will be stale, predictable, and will not represent who you are as a creative. If you develop arrogance, it will keep you in a comfort zone and you will not progress outside of it.
We should practice gratitude.
All career initiative aside, gratitude is the most important thing we can have. It doesn’t matter where we are in our careers if we cannot practice this simple concept.
As creatives, we have been given a gift. We have the ability to take our ideas, our vision, our feelings, and share them with the world. In that, we also have the ability to influence the world.
Becoming a photojournalist has made my life anything but boring. My life instead has become enriched.
I have sat across the table from a former career drug dealer and I listened to him tell me how he got his life together. I have watched the passion of a french chef prepare a perfect meal. I have been given the opportunity to tell the story of a father struggling to raise his two kids in the rural hills of Kentucky. I have witnessed the unwavering love of a elderly woman caring for her dying husband. In a month, photography is taking me halfway across the world. I get to take reality and make art from it. I am making a living from experiencing life while many people feel stuck inside a cubicle. That is a gift that shouldn’t be taken for granted.
We as creatives owe the world gratitude. The best way of showing our gratitude is through humility and the knowledge that what we do, while still valuable, is just a tiny part of a complex system.
The photograph I’m most grateful for from "A Father at 60."
So that’s my two cents. I’m still trekking. I’m still lifting up my feet one by one through the mud because I fight my monsters on a daily basis.
While I could regret getting to such a low point, I would rather think it’s made me stronger. I appreciate the journey because I know, one day, I’ll look back and laugh at myself.
If we want our careers for the longterm, we must be in it for the longterm. As a very dear friends constantly reminds me, there are no shortcuts.
*This is all advice I am working on following myself. I couldn’t be writing this had I not heard the advice from others time and time again. I couldn’t be at this point without encouragement from my professors, the wise words of my close friends, the mentors I’ve had the privilege of knowing, and the support of the photo staff at The Roanoke Times. You know who you are.
A 30-pound self image wrecking ball.
It was two years ago this summer that I made the life changing decision to drop the donut for the carrot. Figuratively, of course. I never fancied donuts anyways.
It started out as an eating overhaul. I replaced processed for nutrient rich. I traded the sofa for the bicycle.
Over the course of a few months, I watched the needle on the scale roll from 170 to 140. I dropped 4 dress sizes and with that the positive feedback via social media rolled in. “You’re such an inspiration!”, “You look great!” they said.
This sounds like an inspirational success story so far, right?
Although, I know the intentions were pure, what I hid from most of you was that this feedback was feeding a monster in my head. The comments and attention normalized the unhealthy behavior that was going on behind closed doors.
Yes, dropping the weight was great in the search for health, but over the course of time it developed into a sense of self worth. To be in a healthy weight range I was only supposed to drop 10 pounds. However, I kept going in pursuit of a false image. Once I got to 160, I wanted to be at 150. Once I got to 150, I wanted to be at 140. There was never a point of satisfaction. I dropped the weight through obsession. Obsessing over eating exactly 1200 calories a day, obsessing over my thighs and stomach, and obsessing over whether 30 pounds was actually enough.
My main point is that although I think weight loss can be a great thing. I am not a weight loss advocate.
I didn’t have body insecurities until I started losing weight.
This is a photo when I felt beautiful. I didn’t care about the number of calories in a slice of bread. I just lived my life. I was 173 pounds.
This is a photo of me I used for my weight loss blog. This was when I felt like I wasn’t good enough, attractive enough, thin enough. This was when my self worth was measured in how much I could restrict myself. I was 134 pounds.
Many people would still say I look better in the latter. I sometimes still tell myself that. I sometimes get those urges gain to start back my obsessive behavior. I had this false account of what being thinner actually meant and when I gained 15 pounds back I felt self hatred and guilt.
After 2 years of battling with my self image, what I’ve learned is that it didn’t mean more happiness, or more success, or that people would be like me more. All it meant was that I was thinner and that my body mass had decreased. There were those who actually noticed I existed after I dropped the weight. To those people- your loss. The people I deserve in my life are unfazed by what size I am.
It has been through this experience that I recognize three major problems and trends:
 We assign morality and emotion to weight loss and weight gain.
Weight loss is paired and identified with success, self control, happiness, and sexual attractiveness. We imagine a smiling tan blonde girl in a bikini surrounded by men drooling over her. While I fully agree that weight loss, when pursued in a healthy matter, is a wonderful accomplishment. I think that we need to realign our intentions. If you are losing weight to appease a partner, to feel more beautiful, or to solve any emotional baggage, you shouldn’t be doing it until you get to a better mental state. If your partner doesn’t love you at your current weight, they don’t deserve you. Period. If you don’t feel beautiful, you have a self esteem issue, not a weight issue. Don’t let society’s screwed up version of beauty determine how to react when you look in the mirror. If you think losing weight will make you happier and that ideal happiness is associated with anything other than overall health, your weight is more than likely not the source of misery.
 We assign morality and emotion to food.
You know that guilt you feel when you eat a slice of cheesecake? Yeah, that’s not normal and that’s not okay. We’ve normalized phrases like “I’m being bad to day so I’m going to eat a cookie.” or “So and so eats like this, they have so much self control.” As if eating a cookie or eating french fries has anything to do with who you are as a person. It’s food that goes into your body and is converted to energy or stored as fat cells. There should be no negative or positive connotation to a chemical process. Food is essential to life. Food is wonderful and brings people together. Rejecting “bad” food shouldn’t be a measure of self control. As cliche as it may sounds, everything in moderation. Believe it or not, you can be the person who takes shots of wheat grass and eats a nutrient rich salad everyday. You can be that person as well as the person that makes huge banana splits at 1 AM with the person you love. Balance, my friend. Balance is key.
 Our definition of health is disgustingly skewed.
Let’s get a few things straight. A person who is thin is not necessarily healthy. A person who has more fat on their body is not necessarily unhealthy. There is something called a healthy weight range and I’m a firm believer that while being fit and seeking out good nutrition is important, mental health is just as important. Try to seek out exercise and nutrition for it’s health benefits that aren’t associated with just the way you look. Elevated mood, cardiovascular health, muscle health, energy levels, and mental clarity are all perfectly good reasons to change your exercise and eating habits other than fitting into a certain size.
So, after all that I’ve learned, I’ve finally reached stability. I fear what would have happened to me had I never woken up. Had I not had the loving friends around me who pointed out that I was obsessed. While I have no regrets, I do wish that would have been my goal in the first place. I should have focused on developing healthy habits. I should have put my mental health first. My hope is that if you’re reading this, you learn from my mistake. I hope you pursue health over a number.
Today, I’m 21, 150 pounds, I wear a size 8 and when I sit down I have like two big fat rolls. We get along, me and my fat rolls. I love to cycle, hike, run, and lift weights just as much as I like to sit on the couch and binge on Grey’s Anatomy. I eat a well rounded diet of whole foods and sometimes I get my damn cheesecake. Not every day is perfect, but I’ve made progress. The most important thing is that I’m finally becoming comfortable in my own skin. I have placed my own opinion of my body over the opinion of others.
A sense of peace when we look in the mirror is the goal we should strive for.
*Disclaimer* I am not a physician. I am not an expert. This is my personal account of my journey and what I have learned from it.