Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Why You Should Stop Comparing Yourself to Other People

I hear a lot of photographers say “you shouldn’t compare yourself to other photographers.” And in a lot of ways, it’s true; you shouldn’t compare yourself to someone else, no matter what the circumstances are. It’s like comparing a couch to a cat; I mean really, what’s the point? One is an inanimate object, the other is a living thing. One is used for sleeping on and the other sleeps on your face. One lives out its entire existence doing nothing of consequence and the other is a couch.

The real reason we shouldn’t compare ourselves to other people is because we’re nothing like them. Every person has their own experiences, priorities, dreams, bank accounts, families – and guess what? They are nothing like yours. People outside of you have their own lives, and you have no idea what it’s like to be them. Which is why you shouldn’t compare yourself to them, professionally or otherwise.

That’s all totally true and great and self-empowering…But the problem with it is that it’s a great response to the wrong issue. When you compare yourself to someone, do you really compare yourself to them?

I’ll use myself as an example. When I “compare myself to others” it usually goes something like this in my brain:

“Natalie Portman is so awesome and so beautiful. I wish I were a talented actress like Natalie Portman. She makes so much money and she’s famous and I just want her life and her looks. And maybe her babies. Damnit. I’ll never be like her.”

Or it goes something like this:

“UGH, Joey Lawrence is so talented and young and successful. He’s way ahead of me in life, does portraits of celebrities at a super young age and probably makes bank. He uses such nice camera equipment and lighting and travels the world to do photography and I just want all of that and I don’t have any of it. There’s no way I’ll ever get to where he is.”

NEWSFLASH: I won’t ever be where Joey Lawrence is in his life. Want to know why? Because I’m not him. Even if I had all his lighting equipment and received the same opportunities in life I would only be able to do what a Cindy Yetman would do in those situations and take photos like a Cindy Yetman would take photos because that’s it. That’s the limit. When you strip the noise away, it comes down to you being who you are and you can’t change that.

So here’s the problem with those types of comparisons: not only is it completely unproductive, but you start to assume there are all sorts of things wrong with you. The goal was never to truly draw comparisons from the start – “comparing ourselves to other people” is actually code for “using someone else to find my flaws (real or imagined) and bitch about my life.” Because when I compared myself to Natalie Portman a second ago, I suddenly wanted to have a full body transplant and be a famous actress and everything I had in my life just wasn’t good enough. I used her as a convenient symbol to represent things I want in life; a higher income, good looks, recognition. But that’s just it – when I “compared myself” to her, I didn’t at all. I know nothing about her as a person. And maybe if I did I wouldn’t be so quick to want to trade places; everyone has issues, and everyone has joys. Why are hers suddenly better than mine?

Here’s my proposal: we throw away the “comparing ourselves to others” bullshit. Just toss it out the window and be done with it altogether. Comparing yourself to another person is unhelpful and often negative. But it’s important to realize, however, that comparing your work to the work of other artists is imperative for growth. It’s the sort of thing required in an art graduate’s thesis/defense. It’s important because you place yourself in the world of the artists around you; you enter into the “discussion” about art. You appear on the spectrum of the art scene, and have to analyze where you fit in and why your work is important. Doing so doesn’t defeat you like “comparing yourself to others” does – it takes you out of isolation. We need to actually critique our own work and the work of other photographers. And when I say “critique,” I really mean it. Like legit art class sit-your-ass-down-with-a-friend-in-front-of-your-portfolios style and critique. Because critiques are structured and specific and designed to be helpful – and because I do think it’s important to compare our work to the work of other artists. We are our work.

There are rules to critiquing, there are questions you should ask; and there is research to be done before critiquing the work of someone not in the room with you. If you’re up for the challenge, here are some critiquing do’s and don’ts:

  • DON’T ever use the words “I like” or “I don’t like”. This isn’t the time to share your personal preferences. If you like the color pink in that photograph, that’s great, really. Should we talk about your favorite flavor of ice cream too or are we gonna critique some art?
  • DO state formal facts about the work of art being critiqued. Maybe the artist used the color pink – is it significant? Is it a monochrome pink? Would you say pink is used as an accent or as a primary color of the composition? What does it convey?
  • DON’T change the topic or make the critique about something it’s not. Try not to bring in your opinions of what the artist should have or shouldn’t have done if you don’t know what their goal was.
  • DO read the photograph and make logical inferences. How does the photograph make you feel? Does it portray any specific emotion? If so, how? What does the photo lead you to believe the artist is trying to say?
  • DON’T ever call something “bad”. If you think a photograph is bad, WHY do you think it’s bad? Is everything about it bad? Also, remember that “bad” is an opinion word and we don’t use that here. Feel free to hate a photograph and have your opinions; in fact I think those opinions are important. But you need to separate those emotions from a critique, because those are negative and unhelpful to the artist whose work you’re critiquing.
  • DO point out things that are confusing, inconsistent, or could use improvement. Instead of saying “yeah this photo’s print quality is horrendous” maybe you can say “The photograph appears to have a pretty consistent grain – like the film speed was really high or the resolution is really low. Is the graininess intentional? You might want to consider resizing for a crisper look.”
  •  DON’T ever have nothing to say. THERE IS ALWAYS SOMETHING TO SAY.
  • DO describe the photograph in detail.
  •  DON’T come unprepared. Have specific questions ready to ask your critique partners about your work. Give a short “artist’s statement” about your series before your partners start to critique it, but NEVER interrupt people or join in when they are critiquing you. That is your time to absorb and think of more questions.
  • DO ask the artist questions about their work, and take into consideration what their intentions are so you can make helpful observations and suggestions. Did the artist complete their goal? Why or why not? What do you think their goal is?

You can of course use these tips to critique your own work and practice your critiquing on work you find on the internet; but the most useful critiques are the ones where you invite a couple of your artist friends over and all print out 5-15 of your best photos for a specific series. You should find a blank clean wall, pin the photos up, and go around to each series and critique.

If you're still reading (I know, I know, TL;DR) check out some photographs from a shoot I did with my bombshell lady friend Taylor! She's the hair and makeup artist for the vintage fashion blog I photograph for. I took these photos to submit to the annual Crossroads Trading Company photography contest - which I didn't win. But hey, I got some cool photos out of it. They'll regret it when I'm famous.

Thanks for reading,

Model: Taylor Stender
Hair and Makeup: Taylor Stender