The Stories We Tell Ourselves

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Outtake from my new series, Fourth Wall, opening in NYC in January.
Outtake from my new series, Fourth Wall, opening in NYC in January.

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!

20 thoughts on “The Stories We Tell Ourselves

  1. What a beautiful post – thank you for being vulnerable and sharing this with the world.

    I have also frequently told myself that I’m not the type who finds success, etc., and have been working on changing that story through yoga and meditation, as well as persistence! As you said, ‘good enough for who?’ is an important question and if the answer is ‘good enough for me,’ then, well, that’s usually good enough for me!

    1. Thank you Natasha for being here and sharing with me. I am also doing a fair amount of yoga and it is so helpful to have a little mantra to repeat while gently exercising. I love it. I haven’t been doing as much meditation lately but I need to! Thank you for the reminder.

  2. Brooke you are such an inspiration! Your ability to be honest and open with everyone is such a wonderful gift. Many times over the past few years that I have been following your FB posts, there are moments that what you publish and share are like reflections of what I am silently experiencing. Thank you for continuously helping to remind me, and so many others, that we do have meaning and our Art aka Our Voice is in fact important.

    On that note, it is absolutely FANTASTIC to hear of your recent recognition. Congrats! I know so many of us think that you are an amazing & creative artist. I am just glad that you are being more widely recognized now. Just wonderful!

    1. I hope you know just how thankful I am to hear those words from you. I strive to be as honest as possible and to tear down whatever wall someone perceives there to be. Your kindness is incredibly appreciated today!

  3. Oh Brooke this post really hit home with me. I’ve been asking myself the Am I good enough question far too often. Sometimes when I’m down on myself it seems like it’s good enough for the peanut gallery which means that I’m in comparison mode. I love how you were able to channel the comments from the review and think about your own growth.

    I was thrilled to see your images on the ND Awards site. I felt like each image had it’s own distant chapter while the whole series fit together like a story.

    1. Comparison mode…the worst! Sometimes I find myself in it when it’s too late and the damage has been done. Don’t we all sometimes. All my love Marcy!

  4. Congratulations with an ND Awards 2016! I was very glad to know that you’re a winner. It’s always good when hard work is appreciated. The story you shared with us here, is very motivating for all photographers and artists. Wish you all the best!

  5. First congratulations on your award! You certainly deserve it! I’ve been an admirer of you and your work for a few years now and you have helped inspire me in my own fine art work. But I want to thank you for this post today because I needed to hear this today. For almost seven years, my husband and I have been trying to grow our family. Long story short we are in the midst of the waiting for a potential birth mother to choose us. It’s been incredibly difficult watching so many others be blessed with children while our arms remain empty. After a birth mom scam last month, I’ve been left questioning if it will ever happen. And yesterday a family member informed us that now that I’m “prettier” (I’ve lost about 60 lbs) if my husband would just cut his hair and shave – maybe someone would actually consider choosing us as adoptive parents. I’ve been struggling with this, weighing the importance of it for over the past 24 hours and I think your words have now convinced me that we are enough as we are. We shouldn’t try to fit some mold – we should be true to ourselves. Thank you for always sharing your story and your heart Brooke. Much love from Illinois!

    1. WOW! That made me want to cry, I am so sorry you have such a scumball family member. You will find a birth mother, one will pick you.
      I have some family members that are like that, you just have to ignore them. (Hug)

      1. Well I certainly didn’t mean to make you cry Fit BMX! This adoption journey has been an interesting experience because for the past several years I had finally reached a point where I truly didn’t care what other people thought of me. But this process has really forced me to begin to care again. Because the way you look can leave a huge first impression. But we’re certainly doing our best to remain hopeful. We’re a year into being a waiting adoptive family so hopefully soon we’ll have a little one to love in our arms 🙂 Hugs right back to you!

    2. Stephanie, I am so sorry to hear all that you’ve been through. I know that when you stand strong you will inspire others, and that is exactly what you are doing with this candid comment. I really appreciate that you are sharing yourself and your truth, it means the world. You’ve inspired me today to live in my truth and to rise above. You will be an amazing mother <3

      1. Aww Brooke! I can’t tell you enough how much your words mean to me! I felt called to begin sharing our story publicly on my blog about two and a half years ago, which has been simultaneously wonderful and terrible. But I know that from vulnerability comes strength and I’ve seen many women helped by reading my story because they now feel a little less alone. Also – you inspired me to really allow myself to visually explore my feelings and emotions through this long process and I’ve been working on a self portrait series that portrays the journey. None of that would have happened if I hadn’t found you. So thank you for always being a beacon of light and passion for all of us! You are truly a gift! <3

  6. When I saw you post that you won ND photographer of the year, this is what I thought Yesterday was kinda lousy (I got into with some racist on a forum) then I saw this post and the world made sense again.
    This is so wonderful and long overdue, and I mean that. You have been my favorite artist since I first found your work.
    To me this series is outstanding, I love it! But I think your previous work was just as good, but just not the same. However that stitched hand looks incredible! I have been wanting to know where you were going to it since you first showed it months ago. And the same with the bathtub. LOL The four walls idea was an incredible one, and you pulled it off perfectly. Plus you built all of this set up with your own two hands, that always feels good!
    Beautiful series and post, I can wait to see what you come up with next. Congratulations! (Hug)

    1. Oh my goodness that Kermit clip made me laugh so hard! My husband thought it was a dying cat from the other room though 😀 You are so kind, always, and I want you to know how much it means to me. I am thankful for your openness and your willingness to lift others up.

      1. Someone else posted the Kermit video on a forum years ago, and I always loved it.
        Thanks for the kind words,

  7. “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.”

    That is so f***in true!

    Congrats on the series and the awards, but also, on a great blog post here.

    My support always 😉


    1. Thank you Nat, that means the world to me. Always sending you so much love and hoping our paths cross again soon!

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