Impostor Syndrome / by Michael Jin

© 2018 Michael Jin

It's a pretty common occurrence for me. I'll come back from shooting, load my photos into Lightroom, look through them, and then a wave of depression will wash over me. As I scroll through photo after photo, I am faced with the realization that I'm just not very good at this. There are so many talented photographers out there and my work pales in comparison, so why am I bothering with any of this? Maybe I should just sell of my equipment and take up a different hobby. After all, I could probably shoot for a lifetime and I will still never approach the level of the greats. It all seems like an exercise in futility.

Does any of this sound familiar to you? Maybe some of you can relate to this constant feeling of inadequacy. I imagine that most have probably felt it at some point or another—at least once you get beyond the initial stage where you think that you're the greatest photographer since Ansel Adams and suddenly you're faced with all of the legitimate talent that's actually out there. I've heard it called many things, but the term that I think is the most descriptive is "Impostor Syndrome". It is this visceral feeling that you're just posing as a photographer, but you know that you don't have the skills and the sinking feeling that comes from knowing that at some point or another, someone is going to call you out on it and the charade will be up.

For some people, it provides the drive to improve. For others such as myself, it can be quite devastating to deal with. I imagine that it's just another extension of the self-esteem issues that I am constantly at war with and my tendency to fall into depression really doesn't help. Beyond drinking some magic potion that turns you into a savant photographer, how do you deal with this feeling?

For one, I try to remind myself that photography is a very subjective thing and there is no universal rule for what constitutes "good" or "bad" photography. Also, my photography is a reflection of myself and my own vision so it makes little sense to compare it to someone like Ansel Adams who lived a different life, had a different system of values, and noticed different things. While there is always a desire to emulate the masters (because they're the masters), it's important to be mindful that our most meaningful work is going to be borne from our own experiences. Another positive to take away is the fact that the ability to sit back, evaluate your photos, and see your weaknesses is, in itself, a skill and strength. It's only the ignorant that believe that their work cannot be improved upon simply because they don't know better. When you notice your weaknesses, it is the first step toward strengthening those aspects of your craft.

Listen, it's not easy. There's a very fine line between being properly critical of your own work and needless self flagellation. Finding that balance where you can identify which criticisms are reasonable and which aren't is perhaps the most difficult part of dealing with Impostor Syndrome. It's also important to keep in mind that as photographer and artists, we have a tendency to be our own worst critics. Because we're so close to our work, we will often notice minute details that even many educated viewers will overlook. While it's always noble to strive for better, don't let it hinder your ability to produce the work that you want, whether it's in the form of discouragement or becoming so obsessed with processing that the work is never "ready" to show others.

There's a saying that "Perfection is the enemy of the good.". Your photography does no good staying on your hard drive or in a negative sleeve with nobody seeing it. The most perfect photograph that reaches nobody might as well not exist while a flawed photograph that reaches an audience is bound to have at least some influence in the world. Don't be afraid to put your work out there because there is likely someone out there that needed to see it. So long as that work is an honest reflection of yourself and your vision, you will never be an "impostor". You will always be an authentic you... and that's all anyone can reasonably ask for.

The masters have come, gone, and left wonderful work for us to enjoy. We don't need people to ape them. We need new voices and new perspectives. Let others be others and you concentrate on being yourself. Don't waste your life away trying to be someone that you're not.