Every few days, I’ll scroll through my Instagram feed and study my work.
It’s not something I do intentionally, but something prompts me to review my own feed and question my work. Have I grown? What am I happy with? What am I unhappy with? I take pride in being self-aware of my personal, professional, and creative growth, but I’ve realized that Instagram is not the best context for this type of assessment. Besides a small format and unusual dimensions that are not always ideal for photography, the worst thing about assessing your work on social media is the social component: it’s hard to accurately gauge your work when it’s in the context of comments and likes.
One day recently, while I was doing my usual social media self-lashing, feeling down on myself and thinking of other work I’d seen just that day that impressed me much more than my own work did. Catching myself in this envious and frustrated state, I stopped, shut off my phone, and decided I needed some clarity.
I grabbed my notebook and began to define myself as a photographer. I wrote down what I liked to shoot, what my strengths are, and what kind of work I would like to do more of. I love to work with people--one of my strengths is capturing genuine expression and character--, and I would love to create more images with narrative elements to them (lifestyle photos with a story to them and not just props that suggest narrative).
And as I wrote, I remembered a quote from Alex Kapranos, singer/songwriter of the band Franz Ferdinand, that has always stuck with me. He said in an interview once that “often times we are defined as much by what we are not than by what we are.” So, I wrote down the things that I am not. As much as I love high fashion photography, for example, I am not interested in regularly making that kind of work. I’ll see it, appreciate, maybe even wish I could be a part of that kind of production team more often, but when I seriously analyze my tendencies, I can’t see myself being fully invested in that type of process. The same goes for other kinds of photography that I appreciate and love to see, but do not want to create myself. And that was the moment of clarity: Why should I stress myself out when I don’t feel that my work compares to other work that I’m not even interested in making in the first place?
We all have those moments of weakness with social media. By nature we compare and judge. This doesn’t mean that social media is evil (although taking breaks from it and being aware of your time spent scrolling are both great things to do), but rather it’s a call for self-awareness. The best way you can grow is by knowing what your weaknesses actually are and having clearly defined goals that you can use to measure your progress. By writing down what I actually want to accomplish as a photographer and what my strengths and preferences are--and contrasting that with what I am not and what I don’t care to achieve--, I was able to liberate myself from the comparison trap of social media. I decided to praise those whose work I admire, whether it was similar to mine or not because, ultimately, someone else’s great photo does not have to signal a judgment on my own work.
I’ve been practicing this for a while now and it’s helping me to not only help make the merry go round, but also to let my viewing of other people’s work be centered on appreciating it, learning from it, or gaining inspiration from it instead of focusing on comparison. Personal growth should be personal and not defined by someone else’s success. So next time you’re on social media and feel tempted to compare your work and put yourself down, just smash that “like” button, leave a positive comment, and keep scrolling. You’ll feel much better about your own work and actually be able to enjoy theirs.