The Ugly Truth About Photography

Not only did I swim competitively while I was growing up, I was the “stereotypical” middle child, constantly fighting for mom and dad’s attention. So I’d like to think that I know a thing or two about competition. As I’ve gotten older (and hopefully wiser), I’ve learned how to channel this competitive spirit inward – pushing myself artistically and technically if for no other reason than personal self-expression and self-actualization.

Not to sound like an old cliche, I have nobody to compete with but myself – and any fire that burns is directed internally as I seek to become the master of my own photographic domain.

But as a keen observer of human behavior, I’ve also seen the uglier side of photography rear its ugly head on more than one occasion. Undoubtedly, photography can (and should) be a highly contemplative and introspective solo endeavor, best enjoyed on our own as we seek to give a voice to our inner vision while bonding with nature. But make no mistake, there’s also a strong social component to photography. These social interactions typically occur when we’re perusing online forums, attending photo events or club gatherings, or meeting up with fellow photographers in the field.

Unless you’ve locked yourself in a darkroom inhaling the pungent fumes of denial, chances are pretty high that you’ve experienced some form of this ego-driven competition. While ultimately, photography comes down to being an individual sport for most of us, it can be a highly competitive avocation at times – with rivalry often bubbling underneath the calm surface of social pleasantry. Here’s how…

Photographers are Competitive About Their Equipment: My camera is better than yours! Having started out on a Canon AE-1 SLR film camera, I can unequivocally say that both Canon and Nikon make stellar cameras and glass (as do other manufacturers like Sony, Leica, etc.). And truth be told, we all know that what’s behind the camera is infinitely more important than the tool itself. But that doesn’t stop us from comparing our equipment to others. Of course, I am reminded of a photographic buddy who spent years shooting with a low-end consumer Nikon D40, producing brilliant compositions that far exceeded the technology that he was using. Similarly, we all know folks who own thousands of dollars in high-end equipment, yet consistently fail to produce images that transcend beyond the mere snapshot. Of course, these are the same people who won’t hesitate to make us feel like lowly worms in an online photo forum just because we stated an opinion that insulted their technical prowess.

Just showing up with an expensive rig does not a photographer make. I think we’ll all agree that there’s something sexy and seductive about holding that shiny new machine in our hands, but the bottom line is that the camera is nothing more than a paintbrush, albeit an expensive one. As a matter of fact, I’m a strong advocate that you shouldn’t purchase any new equipment that doesn’t serve a creative purpose – whether it be for low light photography or high FPS sports. When the equipment becomes a status symbol, you’re in it for all the wrong reasons. That doesn’t mean you can’t drool over the latest and greatest gadgetry. Just don’t forget what’s important.

Photographers are Competitive About Their Images: Whether we’d like to admit it or not, we tend to judge other people’s photos – even the good ones. While we may not verbalize what we’re thinking, we’re secretly and subjectively breaking these images down in our heads, judging how we feel based on our own set of rules, experiences, expectations, values and preconceived notions. On the surface, this is not such a bad thing. After all, we’re thinking analyzing creatures – and we use our perception of the outside world to help make sense of our internal selves.

But having spent many years actively contributing in photo forums, I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that photographers are an overly critical bunch – often dissecting photos to the point where “they’re missing the point.” In other words, just because a photo doesn’t perfectly follow the rule of thirds doesn’t mean that it’s not a compelling image, especially if it has emotional value. And there’s a lot to be said about personal style and paving your own creative path – even if others may not completely understand your vision. At the end of the day, you need to be aware of who is dishing out this advice in the first place. Is it that seasoned pro who takes joy in helping others, or is it that talentless pixel-peeper who has read a ton of books, but wouldn’t know good composition if it hit him or her squarely in the head?

It’s up to you to filter through the Internet static and seek out advice that will help you constructively grow as an artist – while tuning out self-deflating negativity. It’s up to you to learn from what you see or hear and take it for what it is without letting it get the better of you. Sure, looking at breathtaking images in flashy online galleries or polished coffee table books can make even the best of us feel like we’re creatively spinning our wheels or are invisible, fighting a losing battle to get noticed in a sea of endless talent.

There’s always going to be people out there who are better or worse than us – and sometimes even untalented individuals can achieve prominence because they happened to be in the right place at the right time. And likewise, there are talented folk out there who wholeheartedly deserved the recognition they received – and maybe they just haven’t had their lucky break yet (and maybe never will). Like the lottery, some people will hit the numbers, but you’ve got to play to win, right? Now if you really want to get philosophical about it, the prize is handed to us every time we click the shutter. I’ll let you think about this one on your own.

Just remember that toxic emotions like jealousy and envy are destructive to the artistic spirit, and only serve to create resentment and bitterness. Be proud of what you’ve accomplished according to your own set of standards, and never stop aspiring to better your skills. Be in it for you and nobody else, and never make popularity or success your goal. As long as you’re happy about your images and find enrichment in the joy of just getting out and taking pictures, that’s all that really matters. If you can do this, everything else will fall in line and serendipity and success will seek you out.

Photographers are Competitive About Their Knowledge: Some photographers walk around with a sense of entitlement and even arrogance. This is the dude you meet on the backcountry trail who seeks to impress you with his deep knowledge on a wide wealth of photographic subjects. If you run into a person who throws out big phrases like “hyperfocal distance” or “the golden ratio” – it probably means that you are in the presence of such an individual – the self-professed guru. Yes, we get it – it has taken you many years to hone your skills and you feel like you’ve earned your stripes.

But this doesn’t mean that you should talk down to people with less photographic knowledge than yourself, nor make unfounded assumptions. After all, you weren’t born with Ansel Adams skills right out of the womb. This is where the road diverges into two paths. Either you’re the kind of photographer who takes pride in “paying it forward” by being there as a coach, mentor or teacher, or you’re the kind of photographer who compensates for his own insecurity by projecting an image of superiority.

To paraphrase a wise Zen saying, “once one finds photographic success, one has to be careful not to get stuck in the achievement, which is confirmed with success and magnified by renown. In other words, behaving as if the artistic existence were a form of life that bore witness to its own vitality.” The moral of the story is, surround yourself by people who are humble about their own achievements and are willing to give back. We can learn a lot from these selfless artisans.

Photographers are Competitive About Their Locations: Some tripod holes (as they are affectionately known) can be downright venomous. Places like Schwabacher’s Landing in the Tetons, Arches National Park and Antelope Canyon immediately come to mind. Playing out like a scene from the movie “Highlander,” we wield our tripods like bloody battle swords, claiming that little piece of real estate that we’ve patiently staked out since 5am to be ours and ours alone. And when a van-load of “Intro to Whatever” photo workshop attendees descend upon our spot like enthusiastic schoolchildren on a field trip, we become angry and resentful (imagine how the casual tourist must feel about us).

Of course, those who know better avoid these spots altogether and seek out places that are “off the beaten path.” Taking the road less traveled will not only help you uncover fresh new perspectives, you’ll be able to focus on your own creativity without the distraction that comes from photographing in a stressful location.

Photographers are Competitive About Recognition: Yes, these are the people who live to enter into photo contests – but more importantly, make it a point to let us know about every single award or recognition they’ve received since birth (or every gallery they are showing in). Again, we need to ask ourselves why we’re in it. Is it to win that blue ribbon, or is it to find enrichment in the artistic process of self-expression or visual storytelling? Don’t get me wrong, I think there is a lot to be said about entering our prized landscape or candid portrait photo into a contest (or showing off our images at a show), and often the ego stroke that comes from winning the coveted gold medal can be highly inspirational. I would never want to discourage anyone from entering into a contest, because there are a lot of positives.

But when the contest becomes more important than trying to create something meaningful through your art, then it might be time to shift your priorities. We should all toot our own horns and be proud of our accomplishments (if we don’t do it, who will?). And there’s nothing wrong with wearing this badge of distinction proudly on our sleeves. But don’t let it go to your head.

The Final Word…

Competition is a naturally occurring behavior between two or more rivals that can’t be avoided. It’s hardwired into our DNA from the time we were cavemen and had to fight against others for survival. As humans have evolved, our priorities have shifted, and we are now focused on attributes like fame, wealth, prestige and attention. Even today’s youth are more concerned about becoming affluent rock stars – and talent and the hard work ethic have all but taken a back seat to this narcissism. This is no doubt the result of the materialistic and hedonism-driven media and online culture we now find ourselves in (along with some lack of family values, family attention and parental guidance) – although this polarizing subject is a different blog posting altogether, so I won’t go there.

But competition can be a strong personal motivator, as it provides incentives for self-improvement. This is especially true when the competitive focus is directed internally. In many ways, the ideas I have presented above are not exclusive to photography alone, but are inherent in any human activity or social interaction. As artists (whether in photography or in life), we should respect the competitive nature of what we do, while accepting the fact that sometimes these behaviors will rear their ugly head depending upon the situations we are thrust into. Competition will always be part of photography. But it should never define us.

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