One year ago I attended my very first portfolio review event so that I could have my portfolio critiqued by five different professionals in the photography and art world. I had no idea what to expect, no pre-conceived notions of how it would go or how it should go. I was looking for unbiased answers to the question of how my art is perceived. I can’t say that I got unbiased answers, but I did get some advice that stuck with me in a big way. I heard everything from “never change what you do” and “trust your gut” to “if you want to be a professional in this industry, you have to change almost everything”. It was a confusing day to say the least.
What I left with was a few amazing, albeit hard to hear, tips about the fine art world. I was told that if I wanted to climb my way up I would need to produce a series, focus on concept, and revamp my style. A couple of weeks later I spoke with one of my gallery reps and she echoed those sentiments. It started me thinking in a new way and triggered the conception of a new series that I would go on to produce from December 2015 until September 2016. I worked in a drastically different way to how I had before. I used my hands, got dirty, took hundreds of hours total to make sets, and thought about the concept like an onion with lots of moving parts.
When I was in that portfolio review, I remember this overwhelming sense of defeat. The words that one woman told me were vibrantly negative – that I had a slim chance of showing in NYC, that my work is meaningless, and so on. I don’t say that so you feel bad for me; quite the opposite. I have grown a thick skin to words like those. I tell you this because it sparked something in me to do better, to be more, and to strive for what I could not yet see. I didn’t take most of the advice from those portfolio reviews, but what I did take has been instrumental in my growth this past year.
Like many people, I often view myself as the underdog. I never expect good things. I am constantly surprised by success, which is why I am able to see the smallest good moments as big boons. I grew up never being the best at anything I attempted. I was below average in school, always made the “B” sports teams, and every time I tried art my sister was overwhelmingly better. My career thus far and the last week has taught me so many lessons in what it means to try and fail. The biggest lesson is this: if you try and fail so many times, you are bound to finally succeed. The biggest reason most people ultimately do not succeed in their desires is because they put an arbitrary timeline on when they can achieve success.
I finished my new series and my gallery really liked it. They agreed to give me a solo show in Chelsea in NYC in January. I entered it into some award competitions, and today I was told that the series took 1st place in the Fine Art category and was the Grand Prize winner overall at the ND Awards.
These things don’t happen to me. That is the narrative I’ve had in my head my whole life. I’m not good at anything. I lack natural talent. I’m unlucky. This is what I tell myself so that I don’t feel as bad for not achieving what others around me have achieved. Today I stop that narrative. Today I stop telling myself that story and start telling myself a new one. And that story is this.
I am successful at what I do not because of accolades but because I wake up every day and show up to work.
I am successful at what I do because I have a message and I create to help others.
I am successful at what I do because I try so damn hard.
I am successful at what I do because I do it with passion.
That is my story. And I hope you will adopt it as your story, too. This year has taught me a lot about the importance of trust. I came out of my portfolio reviews with self-hatred twisting through my body. I was angry at myself. I felt I hadn’t tried hard enough. I let a reviewer tear me down and I felt myself believing every word she said. But after a few hours of sitting with the idea that what I love to do might not be good enough, I finally asked myself an all-important question: Good enough for who?
I got to work creating images that were good enough for me. Concepts that were good enough for me. A new way of creating that fit in with what I wanted to do. And this time, life saw fit to smile upon the effort. I know it won’t always turn out like that. I won’t always get that coveted solo show or a big prize. But today I hope that it is proof to you that if you stick with your dreams, you might just find yourself where you want to be. It won’t happen every time. Never expect it to. But it might happen when you least expect it.
If you are reading this and thinking that I’m different from you somehow, please don’t. I don’t come from money to create my images, I don’t cultivate contacts in the industry and I stubbornly refuse to mill about social gatherings to make impressions with “important people”. I create and I hope that it impacts as many people as possible. Take your unique gift and keep working at it. Work hard at it. Show up to do the work. Chances are, it will pay off.
What stories do you tell yourself, and how are you changing them?
Thank you to ND Awards for granting me the honor of Photographer of the Year 2016, it is a true honor that has taken me entirely by surprise. (I’m not the type that wins things…but I’m trying to change that story.) Check out the other winners and entries!
Thank you to JoAnne Artman Gallery, who will have my new series, Fourth Wall, on display in NYC next year. More details to come.
Finally, I will be sharing the series that won the award with you in the next month or so!