low self-esteem

Low Self-Esteem and Defending Your Value as a Creative by Michael Jin

©2019 Michael Jin.

I have made no secret of my struggles with depression and low self-esteem. While I take medication to mitigate the effects, they are insidious forces that have a tendency to creep up when least expected. As a creative, there is an extremely fine line that we consistently walk the edge of. This is the line between realistic self-evaluation and destructive pessimism. In order to grow, one needs to examine his work and identify the weaknesses that require improvement. Doing so, however, can cause one to focus on the constant inadequacy that comes with not being perfect. This is a basic inner struggle that many creatives contend with and one that I have spoken about previously.

The struggle is enhanced, however, when it is removed from the realm of personal thoughts to the realm of business. As a creative working within a creative field, we are tasked with not only creating work, but attributing value to it in the form of our pricing. This is a tricky process and one which many books have been written about. Certainly, you can look at pricing across the market and place yourself somewhere that you deem reasonable based upon factors such as experience, brand recognition, quality of work, etc. and it would be a decent solution to the problem, but what happens when you run into a situation where the market is saturated with hobbyists who are willing to work for a credit or some paltry sum that is not viable to build an income from? Do you value your time and work the same way they do? Do you stick to your guns and charge based on what you need in order for all of this to be worth it to you? Do you pack up and find another line of work?

This is not a polemic against people willing to work for free or people who are taking side gigs just to pay for their own hobby. While many of them are genuinely talented and are underselling themselves, they are not responsible for thinking about others. As long as they are meeting their own goals, they are justified in pricing themselves however they choose. For anyone who tries to make a primary income from photography, however, it is a reality that needs to be accounted for. How do you defend your value to the potential clients to whom you are quoting a price for work?

The simple answer is to be better. You need to provide better consultation. You need to provide a better product. You need to provide better service. You need to provide a better customer experience. Above all, you need to be better at simply turning people down. It’s that last part that is probably the most difficult. The notion of the “starving artist” is a real thing and particularly when we are beginning, it is so easy to try to grab any little payday that we can. If someone is willing to pay you $50 and it’s $50 that you didn’t have before, how do you send them away? You can even rationalize it away to some extent. After all, it might just be an hour of work so theoretically you’re making $50/hour, right?

The adversarial nature of negotiations only makes it more difficult. As the service provider, you clearly want to make the most money that you possibly can. The client who has to pay wants to pay the least that they possibly can. So while you are defending your value, it is likely that the client is going to do their best to devalue you and your work. Whether it is attacking your experience (or lack thereof), pointing out problems with your product, dismissing the nature of your job as simply pressing a button, etc. If you get into this business, expect people to diminish your profession to try to work your price down.

On the one hand, every barb that a client levels at me hurts me at my core due to my natural low self-esteem. When these conversations occur, it is no longer an inner monologue beating me up—it is a real person on the other side of the conversation pointing out my weaknesses. It often becomes a spiral where, by extension of the worthlessness of my work, I feel worthless as a human being. This leads me down a very dark emotional path. On the other hand, it angers me to no end when these discussions inevitably occur because I tend to take it all very personally for the reasons I just described. For those that may not suffer from mental health issues in the way that I do, this might all seem the height of irrationality, but depression is not a rational thing. Like I said, it’s an insidious thing that can creep up on you and grip you before you realize what’s happening.

Why am I bringing all of this up and what’s the point? Even though it’s something that I continue to struggle with and something for which I’ve found no infallible solution, I want to let others like me know that they are not alone. Creative industries can be difficult for people who do not suffer from depression or low self-esteem, but for those who do, the nature of the business can lead one down some ugly emotional paths. One thing that I started doing in the morning is looking in the mirror and reminding myself that I have value and that my work has value. When I engage in negotiations, I keep my temper and remind myself that the client is not personally attacking me (usually), but that they have a legitimate concern about how their money is spent and expect me to provide assurances for them in the form of my own defense of my product. Above all, deal with people courteously even when it comes to turning work down. Simply saying that, “Unfortunately, I simply can’t do this at that price.” or “I don’t think that this arrangement is going to make sense for me.” and providing some alternatives in the form of references to cheaper photographers or potential solutions to make their project more reasonably priced is always better than “Go fuck off.”.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the most professional person in the world by a long stretch. I’m crass, I’m prone to severe mood swings, and I prefer to be very informal. I am not the right photographer for every client, but I’m honest about that. I didn’t get into this to be rich (although it would be nice if it ended that way). I got into this because I love photography and I want to help people with my skill set. Regardless of how I may think of myself, I can help people solve their creative problems (within the limits of my own ability) and that extends beyond simply taking on jobs. My value as a creative is to be able to create for you when I can and to lead you to others who can do for you what I cannot. Essentially, my value as a creative is that I actually give a fuck about you (whether you deserve it or not) and that’s more than can be said about a lot of people.

Struggling with Depression, Anxiety, and Low Self-Esteem as a Photographer by Michael Jin

© 2018 Michael Jin — Ilford HP5+ 35mm Developed in Rodinal 1+50

A while back, my wife asked me why I never submit any of my images to gallery exhibits at my school. I certainly believe that while my work may not "wow" anyone, it doesn't really fall short when compared to the peers that I've had in my photo classes so far. My response was to put on a bit of an arrogant act and say that I felt that it would be a waste of my time (I do actually believe this, but for different reasons.) because I don't care what anyone in school thinks of my work anyway. In truth, however, the bigger reason is that I seriously struggle with low self-esteem and I tend to be my own harshest critic. Couple this with fear of failure or fear of rejection, and the thought of displaying my work for others to see fills me with complete dread. This dread and anxiety is one of the reasons that it took me this long to even create this website for myself and if I'm honest, I feel that it helps to know that nobody is really visiting it.

A while back, I wrote an entry about Impostor Syndrome and it's something that I do suffer from a lot. The fact that I suffer from clinical depression probably doesn't help the cause either because I have a tendency to get stuck in some deep ruts that either hinder or outright derail my efforts at consistently producing work. These are the times I tend to spend on the web endlessly reading articles or tutorials about this or that—all the while lying to myself that I'm just looking for new techniques or inspiration.

© 2018 Michael Jin

For those that suffer from these issues, the grind to be productive is very real. Once I get into the swing of things, it tends to be fine, but building that initial momentum up is incredibly difficult. One thing that I think helps this somewhat is picking up my Nikon FM2n.

I know tons of people talk about how shooting film forces them to slow down or some shit like that. For me, shooting film is not about slowing down so much as it's about being able to shoot and avoid the instant feedback loop. I can shoot a roll of film and develop it a month later. I'm not constantly looking at the back of my LCD screen and scolding myself for producing shit photos while I'm out there. It lets me just enjoy the process without worrying too much about the results. Yeah, the vast majority of them do suck, but I can deal with that when I'm in a better state of mind. For me, it's just building up the routine of going out and pushing frames.

 

© 2018 Michael Jin | Adox CHS 100 II Developed in XTOL 1+0

It could just be shooting random scenes on my commute or walking around my block or something. Regardless of what ends up on the negative, I can definitely say that it helps. Of course while I'm shooting I try to take it seriously, whether it's people standing around waiting for a subway or a random flower in someone's garden. I'm not saying that a person should just go out and waste film just for the sake of wasting it, but just loosen up a little and allow yourself to enjoy the craft without the burden of results. If you can do it with digital, then great. For me, the temptation to look at the back of that LCD is just too great so I turn to film. Besides, the development process really is it's own therapy for me as well.

This was a bit of a ramble on my part, but if there is anyone out there who suffers from depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem, I do encourage you to find a way to change the mentality with which you go out to shoot. It's not like you have to show anyone the results anyway.

For me, I think the next hurdle really will be to create some prints and put them out for people to see—not just people that I know, but complete strangers. I enrolled for Advanced Photography this coming semester and it seems like at least some of the students' work ends up on the bulletin boards in the hallways so it's entirely possible that I might just not have a choice in the matter. Regardless, it would be a nice step to be able to do something like this of my own volition. Maybe I'll enter a photo or two when I see the flyers asking for submissions... How bad can it be, right?

© 2018 Michael Jin | Adox CHS 100 II Developed in XTOL 1+0