Confessions of a Self-Taught Photographer

April 10, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

I lived in a constant state of fear.  As a self-taught and self-practiced photographer, there was always a sense of doubt and anxiety that I would be exposed as a fake. Feeling as if I've shown up to a high society get-together with no invitation.  Its the same feeling I had back in college when I walked into the wrong algebra class.  Completely unprepared and intimidated by those who I viewed as more deserving and more learned.  The fear of not being an "educated" photographer always lurks in the back of my head.

I feel like I should stop here and say that I am not pathologically unconfident or lack self esteem.  This is merely an effort to lend some solidarity to others like myself who have not had a formal photographic education.  I know a few such persons myself but have never openly discussed the topic.

I recall the closest I ever came to attending an actual photography class.  It was some years ago after I had returned to college to obtain my bachelors degree in a completely unrelated field of study.  I needed some extra credit hours and the school luckily enough offered credit for past experience as a substituion for actually taking a class.  Of course, I chose photography.  Sitting in the office of the chairman of the schools entire photography department, clutching my then meager portfolio containing the assignments I had been given a month before.  As I anxiously waited, I found myself surrounded by true works of photographic art.  There were shots from exotic locations worthy of Nat Geo covers, photos of historic places that seemed to be ripped from the walls of museums, even candid shots of Fidel Castro that had been gathered from the well-traveled chairmans years as a photojournalist.  Seeing all this, I felt completely small.  In my mind at the time, having virtually no payed gigs under my belt and no real "legit" recognition of my work, the door looked like a better and better option. 

A few minutes(eternity) passed and finally the man entered and took his seat behind his desk.  We chatted briefly and then he asked to see what I had brought him.  To my amazement, the gentleman flipped through the pages of my work and complimented the overall quality of my images.  You have to understand that at that point in my journey the very acknowledgement of such an accomplished photographer meant so much to me.  I am still unsure if I ever conveyed my gratitude for his approval.  It was then I began to understand that regardless of my background I might have some potential and that understanding opened me up to a whole new way of viewing my place in the photographic world.

Even now, I sometimes sense that old sick feeling of uncertainty creep up from within myself.  Usually it occurs when I am asked technical questions about my images...especially when the person doing the asking sports a degree in photography.  I am usually able to regurgitate at least a ballpark estimation of my techincal factors and my reasoning for selecting them.  Honestly, however, I have no clue exactly what I shot without looking at the EXIF data.  Just as honestly, I believe this to be true of even the most seasoned photographers.  I don't openly encourage the "spray and pray" method of firing off an unreasonable amount of shots at different shutter speeds and apertures.  I do encourage losing yourself in the shot and the process.  I find that what I place the most importance on and I what I most readily remember about my images are the emotions and feelings I had while I was behind the camera.


So, why am I sharing all this with you?  Because you should know that you aren't alone in whatever insecurites you might feel about your work.  Do what makes you happy.  Shoot what makes you happy.  Stay humble.  Be inspired, not intimidated, by those who are more skilled or educated than you might be.  Learn what you can from where you can about the art of making photos.  Accept that you will most likely never be satisfied with most of your images.  If you have the means and the opportunity to attend photography classes, great!  But don't make the mistep of believing the classroom is the only place to gain knowledge.  More importanly, don't think less of yourself or your work for reasons that don't really exist.

I highly recommend you read a great book on this subject by Syl Arena titled "LIDLIPS: Lessons I Didn't Learn in Photo School." 


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