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Overcoming Impostor Syndrome as a Photographer

Defining impostor syndrome, and a roundup of thoughts from professional photographers on how to conquer it.

Photo by Jen Hooks of Jenny Hooks Photography.

There is an unsettling, nagging worry that accompanies impostor syndrome, that somehow, someday, someone is going to find out that you’re a great big phony.

Impostor syndrome is the pervasive feeling that you’re faking your way through success, and that your achievements are attributable only to good luck. There is an unsettling, nagging worry that accompanies impostor syndrome, that somehow, someday, someone is going to find out that you’re a great big phony. That you’re really not as really good as you’ve cleverly convinced people that you are. That you’re a fraud.

In today’s post, I’ve decided to focus on impostor syndrome in the photography community, but everything herein can be easily extrapolated onto any professional field or any creative pursuit. I’ve collected some thoughts from a few of the I Heart Faces Creative Team; Amandalynn Jones and Julie Rivera, as well as Texas photographer Karyn Kelbaugh, and author, speaker, and photographer Tamara Lackey; all of whom are WordPress bloggers as well.

Photo of colored pencils by Jen Hooks.

Photo by Jen Hooks of Jenny Hooks Photography.

You are the expert on you.

“…you are the boss of your art.” — Karyn Kelbaugh

Karyn Kelbaugh points out, “It all comes back to stopping looking elsewhere for validation, and realizing you are the boss of your art.” She advises that a critical step in overcoming impostor syndrome is realizing that what we’re really working toward is becoming the best version of ourselves. Setting realistic, measurable goals is one way of  achieving this. You can’t deny your own success if you reach a goal that is plainly measurable. Set a goal to master exposure, or shaving time off of your editing workflow, or updating your photoblog daily. If you’re an aspiring professional, set a goal of how many jobs you’d like to book in a specific period of time.

Give yourself room to breathe, but hold yourself accountable. And most importantly, give yourself credit for the wins.

Unique family photography by Karyn Kelbaugh.

Photo by Karyn Kelbaugh of Karyn Kelbaugh Photography, used with permission.

Mind your thoughts.

“I think the simple act of noticing your thoughts can make a genuine dent in your feelings of inadequacy because, over time, you start to change your own mind about yourself.” -Tamara Lackey

An interesting thing about human nature is that we are able to easily evaluate external information and stimuli, but we have to make a conscious, often uncomfortable effort to examine our own thought processes and perceptions. Especially about ourselves.

Tamara Lackey relates, “One of the best practices I ever started was simply the act of watching my thoughts come in and trying to objectively see them for what they were – usually noisy, fear-based opinions that had nothing to do with my talents, my ability or my passion for this work. I think the simple act of noticing your thoughts can make a genuine dent in your feelings of inadequacy because, over time, you start to change your own mind about yourself.”

Most photographers and other creatives would agree; we are our own worst critics, and the ability to filter feelings of inadequacy is not a skill that is easily mastered. Learning to recognize damaging and unfair thoughts from our own inner voice is the first step in quieting them.

A colorful photo of three children by Tamara Lackey.

Photo by Tamara Lackey of Tamara Lackey Photography, used with permission.

Preparation is key.

“I had everything in place that an impartial outsider suggested I would need. Why should my opinion, clouded by self esteem issues and doubt, be more accurate?” – Julie Rivera

Have you dotted all of your i’s and crossed all of your t’s in preparation to share your work, but you’re still feeling like an impostor?

Julie Rivera recalls a pivotal moment for herself as a professional photographer, “My opinion of myself as a self-professed “Professional Photographer” finally changed when, after several years of using that title, I read yet another Steps to Owning a Photography Business article and mentally ticked off each item. Licenses, insurance, taxes, contracts, intentional pricing, solid business practices, a proven workflow and process, and consistent photographic results for clients. I had everything in place that an impartial outsider suggested I would need. Why should my opinion, clouded by self esteem issues and doubt, be more accurate?”

If people love your art, believe them. Give yourself permission to love it too.

Photo of two girls enjoying popsicles, by Julie Rivera.

Photo by Julie Rivera of Julie Rivera Photography, used with permission.

“Comparison is the death of joy.” – Mark Twain

It is important to not compare our learning phase to another artist’s pinnacle.

Comparison is at the heart of impostor syndrome, and it is especially damaging to creatives that are just beginning to explore their craft. The Internet is awash with stunning portfolios of professional artists that have already mastered their technique. Karyn shared a wonderful quote by Ira Glass, about “The Gap” between a person’s ambition and the quality of their work. Initially, that gap is pretty wide. With time and hard work, the gap begins to close, and skill more closely reflects the artist’s passion.

It is important to not compare our learning phase to another artist’s pinnacle.

A photo of two sisters, by Jen Hooks.

Photo by Jen Hooks of Jenny Hooks Photography and lightcandy.

You can’t be brave unless you’re afraid.

One of the things that I tell my children is that they can’t be brave unless they’re afraid. Fear gives us an opportunity to rise up and be brave in the face of it. Impostor syndrome is largely born out of fear, and we are conditioned to fear fear.

Acknowledging fear gives us an opportunity to be brave.

Acknowledging the fear gives us an opportunity to be brave. Amandalynn Jones shares, “Somewhere into my third year as a professional photographer I realized that after every shoot, I bounced back and forth between eagerness to share the images as fast as I possibly could, and the sinking fear that when I showed what I’d made to others that someone would point out the obvious; that I had no actual talent or skill to celebrate. I have since found that when I am finally able to recognize and appreciate my own accomplishments, it’s only when I stop looking at what others are thinking or producing and focus on actively believing that what I am doing is worthwhile. Because it is.”

A photo of the Aurora Borealis, by Amandalynn Jones.

Photo by Amandalynn Jones of Amandalynn Jones Photography, used with permission.

Share your experiences.

“I still believe that at any time the no-talent police will come and arrest me.” – Actor Mike Myers

Do you see yourself as an impostor? Have you figured out how to defeat the feeling? Share your experience with us. Whether you are a photographer, writer, educator, or other creative type, your story may help someone else overcome impostor syndrome.

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  1. I couldn’t believe what I was reading when I opened this article in my email. It is… what I was discussing in a way with my dad a while ago, and thinking about since so long. Yes, I am that. What’s the word? Impostor.

    I fear. Much. And I love the things you have shared. And you know, some times what gives encouragement is knowing you are not alone.
    I am going to try fight that, and I do too, but I am going to read this again until it just helps.

    So, thank you. Also guess what? I have just now found a lot of inspiration to try photography. I think if I start that seriously, it could be my new love. ❤

    Liked by 12 people

  2. I shared this post via Facebook, along with this comment: “I feel like a fraud.” These are the exact words I spoke to Eric​ just a few days ago, in speaking with him about some of my creative endeavors. He, being my biggest supporter, scoffed and told me he never wanted to hear me say that about myself again. And then I ran across this blog post this morning, and the author so eloquently spoke about all the same feelings I have been considering. I guess this is characteristic of creative types, the self-doubt, the nagging feeling that somehow we are kids playing dress-up in an adult world, that our “art” is simply fake, waiting to be found out. If this is where you find yourself, take a few minutes to read this post and take heart. Most of all, never stop creating!

    Thank you for your encouragement and best of luck with all your creativity in the future!

    Liked by 5 people

  3. I feel the same lately, my pictures are not THAT special, I am not THAT good with my camera, I don’t know THAT much… It all comes to my mind and until today I’ve always measured it as true… Well… ‘If other people love your work, believe them and give you permission to do also…’ Maybe this is my message from this article… Allowing myself to stop comparing and just being myself. With a camera.
    Thanks a lot,
    Mary

    Liked by 7 people

  4. I’m not a professional photographer, but I hesitate to even call myself a “photographer” at all (or even describe what I do as “photography” as I feel like I’m being pretentious!

    Liked by 4 people

      1. This is such a simple statement but it’s so true! People say, “I wish I could be an author.” I ask how much they write every day and I get a blank stare. WRITE! Authors write, so if you want to be an author, write until something gets published. It sounds so simple but you can BE whatever you want just by BEING it.

        Liked by 9 people

  5. Thanks for writing something that so many need to hear. I dabble in photography but I enjoy writing…which ends up basically the same way your photos do. I end up reading over what I have written and thinking ‘who would really want to read this?’ I am going to go back to this article again and again..:)

    Liked by 5 people

  6. This is such a great post. Someone asked me recently what I wish I had known when I “first started” my business…and I laughed because in my mind I still was “starting.” I think the quote, “fake it ’til you make it” should really be, “fake it until you learn to fake it better.” No one really knows what they’re doing. They just know a little better than they used to.

    Liked by 7 people

  7. Very nice post! I think almost anyone has that fear of someone finding out and publicizing that they are a phony. This is true even if you’re not one! I really like that your post is fully of personal insight and insight from others. Thank you!

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Hi Jen,
    Great post! This is something that would resonate with many people here particularly how we compare ourselves to others. As an amateur photographer I enjoy looking at other people’s photographs but that “gap” is hard to take sometimes. I take comfort from a quote by a famous photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson who is considered among other things to be one of the fathers of street photography, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst”.

    Liked by 5 people

  9. This article has totally changed the way I look at hobbies that can turn people into professionals.
    I’ve always had an interest in photography, and once I bought a top of the line camera I thought “yeah, I’m gonna be really good at this” but I was disappointed in myself – I didn’t know what I was doing, and I was comparing myself to other photographers I know who are making a living off of it. I then became unmotivated and almost gave up. I came to realize eventually what I actually bought the camera for, because I loved taking photos, and that was the most important thing.

    Thank you for this post, I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who thought like this.
    x

    Liked by 8 people

  10. Thanks for helping me see that my desire to write and learning to expose my limited writing skills should not hamper my desire to continue to express my thoughts. Practice putting words down and expressing my thoughts even without excessive editing, helps me to think “outloud” Negative and positive comments are greatly expected..so I can learn at this new craft I desire. Loving this blog

    Liked by 6 people

  11. Funnily enough, my ‘about’ page says that I don’t call myself a poet or a photographer. But I’ve never felt the need to and I don’t think the fact that I don’t invalidates any of my work. I guess I’m just not a fan of labels or something?!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Great article, thank you. I never thought of myself as an artist until I was talking to my Mum about it. She told me she always refers to me as “Anne, my daughter the artist….” If my Mum thinks I am an artist, then I probably am!

    Liked by 6 people

  13. Thanks so much for your thoughts, Jen. I know the feelings you describe well … and one more variation of them: The feeling of insignificance. As long as I am able to convince (not: persuade!) myself that there is some sense to what I do, things go just fine. At best, I would feel I photograph “’cause a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.”
    But then there are those long stretches of self doubt: Why am I doing this? Where am I going? During those times, it might help to have a plan (or to participate in a photo challenge, for that matter). Cheers!

    Liked by 4 people

  14. This is an amazingly encouraging piece of writing, and just what those of us who often need to be affirmed, need to hear right now. I have found too, that you wise up who to ask for input or opinions. Not everyone will see your creativity or appreciate what you are trying to do – and that does not matter. “You are the expert on you” … are liberating words. I write, and I would love to try photography to compliment my writing. This I will one day, all thanks to WordPress.

    Liked by 6 people

  15. I’d rather shoot a good thing and miss it than shoot a bad thing and Repent why I din’t shoot it….Thanks for sharing this.

    Liked by 4 people

  16. So relevant for all of us – not just photography. Words of affirmation are certainly helpful when they come from the right direction. As a teacher, I always tried to remember that parents’ and students’ opinions of what they had learned from my classes were infinitely more important than those of an administrator who spent less than an hour each year in my class. The students were my customers.

    Liked by 3 people