Andrea Wise

On Failure & Rejection

Andrea WiseComment

Surprise! Photography is hard. It's psychologically, emotionally, and often physically demanding to engage with people on a deep level and to carry the responsibility of making photographs that will translate their stories to others. 

There's a ton of pressure when you know that real people's lives are on the line. If you have an off day, you're not just letting yourself down, you're letting down the people you photograph, and the people you're photographing for. Compound that difficulty with the state of the industry and the challenges of running a small business (for all you freelancers out there) and it's easy to feel overwhelmed.

Then add to that the culture of urgency created in part by our current economy and you've got a whole set of circumstances whose manifestation in the photo industry risks seriously stifling the creativity and growth of this next generation of photographers.

Now what do I mean by a culture of urgency? I'm guessing most of you are living in it, at least partially so I probably don't even need to explain but it's this feeling that the stakes are epically high and everything has to happen for me right now, or else I don't stand a chance. It's thinking to yourself, "If I don't get this internship, or this job, or get into this workshop right now then I've lost my chance, forever." If I haven't won any awards, I never will. If this doesn't happen now, then that never will.

It's very real, and it can be very hard to deal with because the stakes are high. We work with real people's lives so there is no practice round. Plus, there's a ton of really talented, qualified photographers competing for the same few positions and for many of us, not getting an internship or job in our field means having to look outside the field to make rent or afford groceries. And energy spent elsewhere is energy not spent honing your craft, which can further the gap between you and those who get the jobs and internships, and keeps you from telling people's stories as well as you could with more experience. 

Yikes! That kind of pressure isn't exactly conducive to the maturation of a photographer, which -- not unlike a roll of film -- requires precision, patience, and time to develop. 

I remember when I was first applying for internships at newspapers and it took several rounds of rejections from about 15 papers before someone finally gave me a chance. So I know that no matter how many times people tell you that it's not personal, or that your chance will come along, or to keep your chin up, there's only so many times you can be shut down before it feels personal and before you start wondering if maybe you just don't have mystical thing that the successful photographers have. It can be incredibly discouraging and I know plenty of photographers for whom it's too much, so they quit.

Now I don't mean to suggest that photography is the right profession for everyone. If you truly think you'd be happier doing something else, I am all for that. Hell, I’ve realized that shooting professionally isn’t for me. It’s like I was stuck in a riptide and I didn’t even realize I was trying to swim against the current. Now that I’ve decided to edit, I feel so much less resistance. I’m happier. I feel so much more balanced. So if there’s something else out there for you that will make you also feel happier and more balanced, go for it! 

But I hate the idea of anyone giving up on something they really love before giving themselves a chance to develop into the photographer they could be. Even worse, I fear for the state of journalism if the only voices we allow to flourish are either from those affluent enough to self-sustain in the absence of jobs or (paid) internships or those willing to selflessly sacrifice the luxury of living above the poverty line. 

What photographers offer the world is a different perspective on ideas and issues, but as an industry, we can't offer many different perspectives if we weed out all those who can't afford to stand from the same vantage point.

So how do we combat that? It's complicated and I won't pretend to have all the answers. Maybe part of it is to encourage educators and those in hiring positions to consider potential over prestige and to realize the power they hold to mentor the next generation. Maybe it's supporting editors so they can be fierce advocates for the photographers they hire, especially freelancers who generally work for less pay, no benefits, and with less support (if any) than those on staff. I recognize editors are often in just as vulnerable a position as the photographers but someone has to stand up and take that risk, right?

I think sometimes we forget that we're artists, not tradesmen. The difference? Through practice and experience, a tradesman can master his craft. But -- to borrow a phrase from my yoga teacher -- yoga [/photography/art], can never be mastered, only practiced. I know that’s hard to swallow when we’re working with real people’s lives but no good storyteller has learned to make anything good without the sum of all of their preceding triumphs AND failures. You’ve got to make the mistakes in order to learn from them.

As for rejections on the job front, remember that every time you try, every time you put yourself out there, you're taking a risk but you've given yourself a chance at success (however you define it). Every rejection is a risk you boldly took because you haven't given up on yourself. My mother always told me growing up that "you don't take yourself out of the game." You go for it (whatever it is) no matter whether or not you think you stand a chance.

Or else you'll never know.