As photographers, we all have a challenge. There is no absolute measurement for our work. Is it good? Is it bad? We have a tendency to compare our work, and ultimately ourselves, to others for comparison. This isn't like a 100-meter dash where clearly Usiah Bolt is the winner of a particular race. Photography is not a track meet.
But sometimes we try to make it like it is such a competition. This comparison can cause us problems. I can tell you that for sure it has affected me, and often not in a good way. So often we compare ourselves to others who we think are "better" than we are. Do we measure up in terms of what we know about photography? About nature? Do we compare favorably in terms of our "art"? How well we photograph?
I often hear folks say, "I have a good eye", but this particular statement seems to be rarely said in a way that connotes pride. It is frequently said in a way that is tentative, almost like a question hoping to be confirmed, or even combative, like a shield to keep someone from knowing how we really feel (insecure). And what the heck does that mean anyway?
Comparison of your photography can take you places mentally that you really don't want to be. If your photography is true to you and comes from your heart, then your photography is also about you. When we are true to ourselves, that makes us very vulnerable. Now we compare not just our photography but also ourselves. And we can be transported back to unresolved times of our youth when we were constantly compared: What grade did you get? Your brother/sister did better/worse than you. How do you compare with the "cool" kids? Do you want to be compared to the "geeks"? Maybe you were a bit counter-culture (I tended to be that), but then you compared yourself in a negative way, "against" something, but still a comparison.
I think comparison can get in the way of our growth as photographers. The "wrong" results from our comparison can make us feel inferior, incapable, and so on. Even the "right" results can make us self-righteous and smug. None of these things help us better find our heart as a photographer. Comparison can make us feel we can never achieve what we want and it can make us even stop trying.
I recently read a terrific book by Brene Brown, Daring Greatly, that gave me some great insight on how I can "dare greatly" to be a better photographer (and much more than that). She also discusses comparison and why this can be such a trap. Brown talks about how our culture can put an emphasis on comparison that can be very harmful: "Healthy competition can be beneficial, but is there constant overt or covert comparing and ranking? Has creativity suffocated? Are people held to one narrow standard rather than acknowledged for their unique gifts and contributions?" (Those of you in camera clubs – do you have leadership that encourages these things? I have seen that and it can be stifling to people's growth as photographers.)
That really fits photography and photographers. How often have you made covert comparisons of your work to other photographers and not felt good about the results? Has your creativity suffered because of a comparison you made? Mine has at times. As soon as I start thinking too much about some "competitor", my work starts in the wrong direction, away from my heart, away from what I truly care about ... because through that comparison, I am allowing that "competitor" to take charge, even if he or she has no idea this is happening.
I love that last thought of Brown's quote. Are we standing tall within our own unique gifts? Can we believe in our ability to make a unique contribution as a photographer? I believe that is possible, though it can take some work. I believe everyone of us sees the world uniquely, and with practice (it doesn't always come automatically even if our cameras are all automatic), we can hone our ability to communicate that unique vision with our photography.
Brown also says, "What we know matters, but who we are matters more." I can tell you from experience that one challenge I have long had is in feeling I had to "know it all" so that I might be "enough." Yet that is such a hollow approach to photography. What we know about photography can matter, but who we are and how we express that in our photography matters more. I am still working on that, and probably always will be. It takes practice.
But I think it is worth it. Honoring our uniqueness in our photography and our vision of nature is important. I know that I feel better about my work and myself when I am willing to do that rather than try to make a comparison with someone else. It can be hard to do. Our society wants us to be competitive, to compare, to feel that we are not "enough" in our uniqueness.
If you think about it, every time we go out in nature, there is always something different, something unique. Nature is constantly changing, and nothing in nature tries to compare itself to anything else except us. No flower worries that it is not as beautiful as some other species. It simply is itself. No bird worries that it cannot sing as well as another bird. It simply sings.
Brown says, "Being rather than knowing requires showing up and letting ourselves be seen." Can we simply be photographers who love nature and want to share that with others in our own unique and special ways? Without comparisons? I don't think that is possible all the time. We all fall back into comparisons. But I sure am going to try.