My daughter is a competitive swimmer. She’s darned good! In fact, she’s the fastest on her team and competes on the state and regional levels.
Wait a minute…why couldn’t I just say that my daughter has been swimming daily for the past 11 years. It’s a sport about which she is passionate and it brings her great joy and a sense of accomplishment? Why do we need to compare performance in order to celebrate the results?
As photographers, one of the most destructive behaviors in which we all engage is the practice of habitually measuring our work against the work of others. Now don’t get me wrong, I think it’s fine to see how we stack up from time to time as it can give us a target, or inspiration, but it’s dangerous when we let our self-worth be determined by how our work compares to others.
One of my favorite quotes is “Comparison is the thief of joy” and it really sums up the war that’s being waged inside all of us. It’s the agonizing and self-sabotaging process of focusing on how our work is not like someone else’s each time we download our memory card.
Now I’m not suggesting that we don’t look at the work of others. In fact I think that regularly viewing the work of others is a process that helps shape us as artists and is critical to our growth. I am suggesting that when gauging our daily progress, we compare ourselves to the ONLY photographer that matters.
What I learned through watching my daughter swim is that kids aren’t thrown into the pool and compared against each other. How they stack up to the person in the next lane isn’t important. Sure it’s a competition and their progress is measured, but the time they’re trying to beat is their own. Each race is an effort to improve upon their last performance. Sometimes, my kid looks up at then end of a race and see’s that she’s improved by a few tenths of a second and sometimes she sees that she needs to practice harder the next week. Either way she gets out of the pool, towels off and prepares for the next race.
(It’s at this point that I should mention that I’m not one of those new age parents that doesn’t believe in keeping score. In fact, attending soccer games when my daughter was young was like pulling teeth. Not the game itself necessarily but the fact that you couldn’t ask about the score because “we don’t keep score.” I was even discouraged from calling out my child’s name when routing her on and was asked to yell something like go “dragonflies” or whatever ridiculous mascot a group of 6 year old girls could come up with that season.)
I believe that competition is good and comparison is inevitable but we need to be careful that we keep things in perspective. Sure my daughter would like to be the next Missy Franklin (her Olympic Games idol) but she doesn’t get out of the pool everyday and kick herself because she’s not Missy yet.
Your photographic hero is someone to admire and they represent a goal to work toward. Photography is difficult and vision and style are things that are slowly cultivated over time and through hard work. Don’t let your perception of your work be determined by who you’re not but, instead, start from a place of who you are. We are each unique and that’s the beauty of photography.
Keep your heroes in sight but measure your progress against YOUR last performance. Sometimes you’ll improve and often you won’t. Regardless of the outcome, get out of the pool, towel off and prepare for the next race.
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