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I recently started coaching my eldest son’s flag football team. Being a Mom, as opposed to a Dad, this was a rare situation. As the league’s only “Lady Coach”, I was not taken very seriously by anyone, including myself. I stepped up because no other parent volunteered, but once everyone saw that a woman was going to be coaching these young boys to fifth grade flag football success, Dads came out of the woodwork. Some to kindly assist me because ten 11 year old boys is a lot no matter who you are; yet others insisted on their services, because what could I possibly know about football and a bunch of boys? Certainly not enough to coach a youth sports team to uncertain victory.
My turning point came at our weekly game last Sunday. Down more than a couple points in a season that has yet to provide a win, one of the kinder dads came up to me to suggest a play for the offense. When I didn’t understand he said, “Do you want me to draw it out for you?” and I said, “No. I want you to just run it with them.”
Another dad would have taken over and done exactly that. This Dad didn’t. Instead of letting me give away my role—the one that I had rightly came by and earned, he went and found my clipboard from my very well-prepped coaches bag and drew it out for me to take to the field. I would love to tell you that it worked and it was the winning touchdown, but it didn’t, and it wasn’t. Instead, I got an extremely valuable life lesson out of it: It’s one thing to have someone—ANYONE try to take away your earned authority, but it’s an entirely other thing to hand it to them on a silver platter.
As I reflected on this, I realized how often I do this with photography. The way I dread shoots, you would think that I was being called on to singlehandedly perform heart surgery on the President, with my only (actual) medical training being retrieving splinters and applying Band-Aids. The way I take feedback on my images, it would be easy to assume I had zero confidence in myself. The way I’ve dismissed my own skills, you would begin to question if I had any.
You know that moment when your portrait clients show-up, dressed all perfect and looking adoringly at you, ready for whatever direction you give them? My first instinct is ALWAYS to run – away – fast. From these people who think I know what I am doing and want to give me money to do it.
In actuality, I am a good photographer. I, more often than not, grant my client’s every wish and provide them with more than a questionable response to the always asked, “Do you think you got anything good?”
Truthfully, I am actually quite confident in many things—overly confident in some I bet. It’s when I am considered to be an expert that I lose my footing. It’s when I feel pressure to do something specific and challenging that I want to quit. It’s when there is an expectation from another than I mentally run through my getaway options.
For most of us, it’s uncomfortable to be considered an expert at anything. Especially if what you have to back it up is basically just other scenarios where it worked out in your favor. I am around kids all the time; I work with them, I volunteer for them, I actually parent five of them. I’m pretty comfortable talking to and instructing a younger age group on just about anything – including a sport that is considered the most important American game by beer-drinking middle-aged men everywhere.
Why would I give away my power and not allow myself to be respected as the expert I am? For the same reasons I worry before every shoot, certain that I’ve finally reached the moment where my luck has run out and I, in fact, will not get anything good this time. And there will be the President of the United States, laying on the operating table while I stand over his open chest cavity with shaking tweezers and a flashlight.
Just like I had never played flag football before a few months ago, I did not go to a formal photography school. In fact, I didn’t even study photography. I studied people and art, but the only true darkroom I have ever been in was when I wandered into my Grandfather’s in the basement once before, being knocked over by the chemical smell and never making that mistake again. I didn’t take pictures for my high school yearbook. I’ve never worked for a college newspaper. I don’t carry my camera with me everywhere (it’s heavy and really gets in the way). All of that said and when someone asks me what I do for a living, I say, “I’m a photographer.” (Cue the excited statements about the glamour and the questions about celebrities.)
I got here differently than you did. You got here differently than every other photographer you know. Probably the only thing we all have in common is occasionally (or maybe more often) doubting ourselves, and disliking aspects of our job—just like most everyone else on the planet. We are so quick to move negative thoughts aside because: how lucky are we? That has to be our first, last, and only thought, right? That we do something so fun. So glamorous. So creative. So special. And should we ever change our minds or fall flat on our face, there is a line of people a mile long behind us, happy to trample over our humbled bodies to get to the front of The Photographer Line.
In that moment on the football field when I wasn’t allowed to give my expertise and authority away to someone else, I vowed to make some changes in other parts of my life as well. Well not in that exact moment, but later that day when I was icing my entire body because walking back and forth, stiffly because you’re terrified someone will get something hurt – pride or otherwise – is more of a workout than you would assume.
I decided I’m not going to sugarcoat photography as easy, and more than that, I’m not going to dismiss myself anymore. Photography isn’t just some random skill I picked up at a party somewhere, like opening a champagne bottle with a knife. Photography is hard. It’s exhausting and full of pressure, and sometimes…….I don’t like it at all. The need to stay relevant and at the top of my game is more tiring than pacing 50 yards over and over again in the hot sun. The idea that sometimes people don’t like my work, don’t know I tried my best, don’t realize how hard I have worked to get here, or really want me to perform Photoshop plastic surgery is often frustrating and sad. The nervousness I feel before any shoot is enough energy to power my camera without batteries, if I could figure out how to convert it.
But I’m really good at it, and so are you.
And, it turns out, that you all feel the same. Or at least some of you do. I know that because when I posted this on my photography Facebook page this morning: I don’t like editing or emailing or scheduling. I hate the pressure to make sure I “got something good” at every shoot and I hate being out in the hot sun or the bitter cold when I’m shooting. I get nervous meeting new people and I dread trying to get to know them and be on their good side in a matter of minutes. – Within an hour, it was liked by many and commented on in appreciation for “being honest” and showing how much mental and emotional work photography often is.
I’ve been doing this for 10 years and I’ve seen a lot of portrait photographers start their own businesses. Some are still around, and some quickly faded. In the past, I have viewed them as competition, but the truth is that they aren’t. Not only is there enough business for all of us, but the more choice a client has, the more business is created and generated. I’m not the portrait photographer for everyone. You aren’t either.
But you are an expert. You possess an ability that few have and a vision all your own. Your skill level may be at the beginning stages, or it may be very advanced. You get to choose to be nervous before shoots. You get to despise pieces of your job as a photographer. But quit giving away your power. Stop being so humble that your expertise is up for grabs. Don’t reduce your authority on a subject you’ve been marinating in for however long.
Be confident in your piece of the photographer pie, no matter how small that piece is.
You’re going to fail at some point. Brilliantly, brilliantly fail. You’re going to show up without your memory cards, or you’re going to shoot absolute garbage, or you’re going to ask someone to pose in a way that puts them in the emergency room (it’s my greatest fear). But just like there are 10 boys that don’t know any better than to think that I can led them to a certain flag football victory, there is a handful of people in this world that think of you first as an expert in photography – and that’s something you should never, ever, give away.
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