As photographers, we are often encouraged to “swallow our fears.” But the phrase suggests we ignore our fears in order to simply move on with our lives. But when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he acknowledged not just how crippling fear can be, but also implied that it could be a catalyst for change. That’s why as photographers, we should use fear in a positive way.
But in the context of photography, encountering fear isn’t something that goes away. At least it hasn’t for me, and I’ve come to believe that’s a good thing. Because when you feel fearful, it’s a sign that you might be encountering a pivotal moment in your work, career or life. It can even provide insight into your relationship with photography and what you need to do next to transform your fears into a positive next step.
We live in a world ruled by cause and effect, and fear is an effect, a reaction. So when it arises, it’s up to you to determine what caused it.
In many cases, fear is the result of one of three circumstances:
Most often, fear is a pessimistic emotion. It’s the assumption that things won’t go well, without even letting said events transpire first. My grandmother used to call it “borrowing trouble.” Preparing for the worst case scenario wouldn’t be such a bad thing if it didn’t affect what came next. But the truth is just spending a little time in the headspace of presumed failure can cause you to fail. By embracing this negative perspective, you are, in effect, starting a chain reaction that may very well play out in real life. This fear is a nonsensical, albeit quite common form of self-sabotage.
But fear can a tool for understanding yourself, helping you explore where your inspiration lies. At the very least, it’s a sign that you care. So, when you feel aimless and can’t figure out what, who or where to photograph, assessing where your fear lies can unveil important subjects. Moreover, fear can help expose where your fertile territory is and, more importantly—especially during image selection and sequencing—why it’s such teeming ground for you.
Of course, fear can also be a very important signal from our heart to our head that the conditions we are photographing in are unsafe. Since many pro photographers deal with the public or public spaces, our primary concern always has to be our safety.
This might be the most obvious thing we could say about fear—that it’s a sign of danger. But I know, as someone who is in the business of confronting fear, as many photographers are, sometimes the message of fear doesn’t get through to us because we’re in the habit of challenging fear, of handling it. But when fear is a sign of danger and we don’t acknowledge it, it’s oftentimes an ego problem. We don’t want to think we can’t handle something; we want to rise above and show danger who is boss. But that can be a serious mistake. And it’s certainly not worth the gamble just to get a picture.
By analyzing what your fears are telling you and how they might creep into your process as a street or other type of photographer, you can surmount your fears and use them to your advantage instead of just ignoring them. In fact, your goal should be just the opposite: You should acknowledge and, to a degree, embrace their essential role in your process. Do this by figuring out if you’re feeling fear because:
- you’re deciding to doubt yourself
- you care so much about the outcome
- you’re being foolish by putting yourself in harm’s way
Then, act on your assessment: Either get to work (inspiration), stop sabotaging yourself (insecurity) or figure out how to get out of there quickly (danger).
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