I’ve spent a fair amount of time during the last few days going through past photos, trying to organize the tens of thousands I’ve taken to a degree that I can actually find stuff later, and also so that I can begin to delete some of the stuff that I will not ever have any use for in the future. I’ve had days — and you probably have, too, if you have any standards to speak of — when I’ve come back from a day of shooting, looked over it, and decided that the whole lot of it was crap from start to finish.
Now that I’ve had the chance to go back to some of these shots — in some cases, a few years after taking the photos — I realize that there are times I was right. The shots were every bit as bad as I’d thought or feared at the time. More often than not, though, there’ve been shots even from those bad days that have been worth keeping, even if I didn’t think so at the time.
As I’ve written about previously, we need to approach our own work with the same critical eye with which we’d approach anyone else’s. We also need to be realistic about it, though. For starters, we’re not always going to be shooting in ideal, controlled environments. It’s easy, when we have the luxury of freezing moments in time, to forget that neither that moment nor the “artifact” that resulted from it were in some way immutable, and just as easy to be frustrated when the results weren’t what we expected or wanted.
Try a little mental exercise. Pick something, anything, random in your field of vision. It could be anything… a cloud, a cat, your breakfast, a road sign. Now, let’s think about this a second. How’d that thing come to be and acquire its thingness? It wasn’t always what it is now. Whatever it is — thunderhead, Fluffy, jelly donut — it had to be brought into being. Over time, it will change, whether it’s your kitten going gray (get your mind out of the gutter), the cloud letting out its rain, the jelly donut going stale if it’s left to sit for too long. With even more time, it will cease to be. The cloud will dissapate, the sign will rust away, and you’ll scarf down that jelly donut (not necessarily in that order).
Now think about your frustrations in shooting. If everything else changes, that will too. Count on it. It wasn’t always what it is now; you probably weren’t frustrated when you picked up your camera this morning; something gave rise to your frustration, whether it’s your photos not turning out like you expected, or a silly mistake you’ve made. That’s okay; like your subject, your lighting, and everything else, it will also fade, change, and slip into nothingness. Nothing lasts. Everything changes. That can be a bit scary at first, in life as in photography. But really, that’s the single best bit of news you’ve gotten all day. Sure, some good things will pass (some experiences, like some shots, really are only once in a lifetime), but that also means that the bad stuff, all the negative feelings, all our halting attempts at learning, all the clumsy results, and nearly everything else, has not always been nor will it remain what it is.
When all else fails, remember that a bad day of photography is still better than a good day at the office. And if photography is your day at the office, it’s time to rethink your approach, and attitude, toward your craft. In any case, cut yourself, and your work, some slack, lest you talk yourself out of keeping it up and always getting better.
We should not complain about impermanence, because without impermanence, nothing is possible. — Thich Nhat Hanh