I want to talk to you about confidence and depression.
Let’s be real - those two things don’t tend to hang out together. When you’re depressed, finding confidence is a bit like trying to lift up your head above water that Just. Keeps. Rising. You’re stuck at the bottom of the Titanic, the door to the upper level is closed, but the audience is screaming at you to just figure it out. It’s not that hard to open a locked steel door, right?
It’s a lot easier to sit in a comfy chair and shout at someone on screen, telling them what to do, rather than to do the hard work yourself. I regularly hear from people that I’m great at what I do, that they love my work, that they want to shoot with me. Despite all that, I struggle with feeling confident in my photography. I stare at the same photos you’re seeing, the ones you seem to love, but I see trash. I see a myriad of mistakes. I see every minute detail I wish I could go back and change. I see something I wish I hadn’t shared.
In the last few months, I’ve been cataloging every folder of photos I’ve shot since high school. With over 15 portable hard drives and a network drive, it can be really difficult to keep track of where every photo lives. I’ve always worked alone, barely making it from job to job, so a lot of shoots have been shoved aside and gotten lost through the years. This project has helped me double check that images are backed up properly, which is quite a relief.
The largest upside to indexing my work, however, has been discovering photos I forgot I’d shot. Even whole projects that I thought I’d lost. I’ve been delving deep into the last decade of images and I’m realizing something really important:
Many of these photos are ones that I didn’t want to post or use for content, because I thought they sucked. There are entire photo shoots that I never even bothered to edit. There are sessions where I sent them to a client, but didn’t feel proud enough to post online. There are even jobs where I was so ashamed of my work that I relabeled the folders to end with “do-not-show.”
I’ve always been a sucker to comparison. It kills my confidence about as fast as a frat boy can chug a beer. One moment, I feel proud of what I’ve made - the next, it dribbles down my throat and all I’m left with is the slimy aftertaste of shame. Could I have shot that with better lighting? Why didn’t I remember to bring my reflector? Should I have a newer, shinier camera? Why did I pose my model that way? What the hell was I thinking?
It’s a huge reason why I never mastered social media. As my self esteem sank, looking at all the photographers who are better than me, so did the amount of confidence I had to post new work. Rather than fighting it, I sat on really great images and didn’t bother to show them to the world. The water kept rising, and even as people yelled in my face that I needed to fight back, I just left the waves wash over me.
I’ve talked a lot about my struggles with mental health on Instagram this last year, so it’s not shocking how much my confidence is tangled up with all my depression and anxiety. It’s a haunting cycle; the moment I feel a jolt of pride about something I’ve created, my depression dampens it. While in the thick of a bad bout of melancholy, my confidence about a new project helps pull me out. Yet the moment it starts to feel real, my depression finds a new way to punch it back down. It’s a never-ending cycle I haven’t escaped since I was a teenager.
Trying to claw out isn’t something that happens over night. Yet revisiting old work has been a great way to remind myself that I am not the pile of garbage my depression screams I am. Seeing it all from a new perspective - with years worth of retouching under my belt, with my work appearing in national magazines, with clients who have asked for private training session - all helps keep my head bobbing above water. I got to where I am today, planning my next 2 years of photography work and the potential of a new business, because of all the photos I’ve produced before. All those years, all those projects, all those photos lost to shame, came together to create me.
The photo at the top of this post is a representation of all this mental mumbo jumbo. It involved a lot of water, a lot of towels and a low of smeared mascara, but it was an absolute blast. Creating can almost always pull me out of a deep funk, but I have to remember that it’s important to push the work OUT, not punch it down. This photo has mistakes, my retouching isn’t perfect, and there are about 80 things I wish I could go back and change. Yet I can’t keep hiding, especially when I have work I want to produce that means something to me.
Coming up, I have three large scale projects I’ll be gearing up for, one of which is already shot. My creative brain is thrilled to share what I’ve been working on, ideas I’ve obsessed over for years, but my depression still tries to shove my head underwater. It’s a constant battle between two sides of myself, but for the first time in my life, I’m recognizing the part of me that is holding back my creativity. For the first time, I get to be part of my own audience and I am shouting at the top of my lungs to open the damn door.
It’ll never be easy, but perspective counts.