By Craft & Vision David duChemin
Three days of travel to return home from the little private island that was home for nine days while we followed humpback whales on choppy seas, hoping for a chance to get in the water with them and make photographs. But we were dogged by rough weather and poor visibility and the photographs— without mincing words— suck. If you’ve read much of what I write, you know I tend to be really positive and prefer to look at the images that don’t work as “sketch images.” Nope. Not this time. They just stink. You know how they say something or some place is so beautiful you just can’t take a bad picture? Not true. I just made plenty of them. And this isn’t the first time. It happens. I have hard drives full of terabytes of suck.
So what do you do when the photographs don’t turn out the way you hoped?
Well, first, here’s what I don’t do. I don’t pretend they’re better than they are. All the wishing in the world isn’t going to make them better. And before you get that crazed look in your eye, opening Photoshop to frantically polish your turds isn’t going to help, either. Own it. Call that stinker (or a memory card full of stinkers) what it is: a stinker. That’s life. Photography is a wonderful craft, but it relies on so many things going right—many of them out of our control. Take a moment to acknowledge that these particular images just don’t work. Have a stiff drink. Salt the rim of the glass with your tears. Then move on.
Here’s where I move on to:
One. I don’t believe many things with unwavering faith but with all my heart, I believe that gratitude is the secret to a life well lived. So I start there. I mean, for the love of Jacques-frigging-Cousteau, I just got back from swimming with whales! And baby whales! In Tonga! It was an incredible adventure and to let a handful of crappy photographs get in the way of being grateful for that and replaying those memories would be tragic. It’s the experiences that matter, not the images. When they work out, the photographs are their own wonderful thing, but the magic is in the experience. Or it can be, if we allow it. It’s our choice.
Two. I learn from them. My job is not to make masterpieces; my job is to master my craft. Only then will I make the better photographs I long for. So I take a little time and honestly ask myself, “What could I have done better? What was within my control, and what was out of my control, and how can I redeem this? Can I go back? Can I change my approach? Can I change my expectations?” A younger me used to get pretty frustrated and blame circumstances when it was me that didn’t perform well, and I’d beat myself up when I’d failed simply because circumstances were bad. Neither of those comes from seeing clearly, nor do they leave us open to learning. Failing is bad enough, but failing to learn just guarantees it’ll happen again. Always, always be learning.
Three. Give it time. I don’t know if it’ll happen this time because I’ve just returned, but I always look at my work—even the junk—when some weeks have passed and the emotional baggage from the trip has been unpacked. I look at the images and give them a chance to surprise me. Sometimes what doesn’t work at first glance only fails because it doesn’t meet some very specific expectations. And sometimes a little distance between those expectations and a second look at the work gives us new eyes. And with those new eyes, we sometimes see magic where we didn’t see it before. Maybe you were looking for perfection when it was poetry that was there instead. Give your work that chance. And if it still doesn’t work, then that more relaxed viewing of the images—now unburdened by the immediate frustration—can be a great place in which to learn from them and start hatching plans to try again. I’m already planning to go back to Tonga next year for two weeks instead of one, now having learned valuable lessons about both my approach and my expectations.
We are saddled with ridiculous expectations as photographers. Nothing is instant. Your three years practicing this craft don’t entitle you to make brilliant images any more than my 30 years do for me. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself. Love the process! Enjoy the adventure! Calibrate those few images that shine, but don’t fail to learn from the ones that don’t. And whatever you do, don’t let the failures—our most faithful teachers—steal your joy.
One last thing: Find someone who can help you celebrate your successes and learn from the failures. Someone who can help you look critically at your work and help you keep your sense of humor about it. None of us sees objectively, so having another set of eyes to help you avoid self-delusion about work that falls short of your potential (and to aid in seeing the diamonds you didn’t recognize) is so valuable. I think making photographs on our own is the strongest way to pursue our craft, but having others off whom we can bounce our work, and with whom we can trust our creative journeys, is invaluable.
What David just writes down is exactly what I feel so many times and it is so true.
Who is David duChemin:
Is a humanitarian assignment photographer, best-selling author, digital publisher, and international workshop leader whose nomadic and adventurous life fuels his fire to create and share. Based in Victoria, Canada, when he’s home, David leads a nomadic life chasing compelling images on all 7 continents.
David is my teacher and inspirator to become a good photographer with his books and stories that not only inspires me but also share our experiences.
source: Newsletter from David duChemin