“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are” –e.e. Cummings
Each week we share a piece of us on our photographic journey. We have titled this series, “Courage to Grow”. We hope that our own soul searching will inspire similar introspection in our readers and that together we can make our best art and live our best lives.
My daughter is currently taking swimming lessons. She is doing great. Within less than a month, she has gone from never wanting to put her face in the water to constantly being underwater and almost swimming on her own. This all being said, she is not what one might call a natural swimmer. Trying to coordinate quick close kicks with long slow arms is a bit out of reach for her at the moment and we either have flailing quick arms with little kicks or long and wide scooping arms with long and flailing kicks. There is only one other child in her class this session and it is another little girl and this little girl can swim. She’s got the kicks, the arms…she’s figured it out. As I watch from the sidelines, something I’ve noticed in my daughter has really been pleasing to me. Even when she isn’t being asked to try, she keeps throwing herself forward and trying with all her might to swim. When the teachers are carrying her across the water, she has a smile on her face, the whole time she is scooping her arms. When I told her I was so impressed that she’s almost swimming on her own and next time maybe she won’t go all the way underwater when trying she happily responded, “Sometimes I like going all the way underwater”. When the little girl in her class succeeds far beyond my daughter’s current level of skill, she jumps and claps on the sideline, then gives it her all when it is her turn. She amazes me. As I thought about this blog post I was sure I was going to write about this. About how I see more success in her future because of her dedication and continuation, regardless of success.
What I noticed for the first time in this little girl who is a success, is fear.
Today, however, my thoughts on this post changed because instead of just watching my daughter, I watched the other little girl more closely. I noticed for the first time, that this little girl does exactly what she is told, but is always initially hesitant. I noticed that after they practiced swimming alone, where this girl effortlessly glides across the water as my daughter sinks lower and lower with each stroke attempt, this little girl clung to the teacher to not let her go and shook her head no. I saw that this little girl never smiles in class and that the joy I see so readily in my daughter as she consistently fails is matched by no such enjoyment from this little girl. What I noticed for the first time in this little girl who is a success, is fear. She is swimming because she is so terrified of sinking, refusing to jump in the water in case the teacher isn’t close enough and she touches the bottom. For this sweet little girl, swim lessons are not fun. She has her whole heart and soul wrapped up in them, just like my daughter, but it is fear and adrenaline that powers her through. For the moment, this is proving to be very successful. She is succeeding amazingly at swimming, but what does she get out of that success? I completely agree swimming is a necessary skill for safety reasons, so am in no way advocating that she shouldn’t do it, but it made me sit and think about how she feels after each lesson. While I don’t know for sure, I imagine it is a feeling of relief rather than a sense of immense accomplishment.
Fear is a powerful motivator. Fear of predators keeps us safe, fear for our children keeps us cautious, fear of disease makes us wash our hands…there are many powerful things in our lives, behind which fear is a driving force. My question today: can fear drive our artistic journey? Can the fear of failure, like this little girl’s fear of sinking, be our motivation for success?
I think the answer is definitely that it can, but as I’m sure you already know, it shouldn’t be. Success brought about by fear doesn’t bring about a positive other than relief. Relief that I didn’t get eaten by a bear, that my child didn’t stick their finger in a socket, that we didn’t get malaria and what in the case of art? Relief that I didn’t fail this month in producing some work that is of worth? To me, that seems like a hellish reason to produce art. It may very well bring about great success as fear is incredibly strong, but it takes away so much that is important in the process.
When we create art, we share a piece of our souls. I would argue that if fear is your prime mover, that fear will overpower everything else that your soul wants to express. The catharsis of releasing your sadness into your work will elude you, the connection you want to capture between two subjects will be just out of grasp because fear is clouding everything.
I am fortunate enough that I don’t have to rely on my photography to feed our family, so that does automatically take away a lot of the anxiety and possibility for fear of failure. Still, sometimes, I find myself being driven by fear. Thoughts like, “I did so well last month, what if that’s the best there is?” start to create a vicious cycle that refuses to stop. Whether met with success or failure, the thoughts continue to be steeped in fear, only causing more and anxiety. It is absolutely possible to succeed in this cycle of fear, but why would you want to?
When we create art, we share a piece of our souls. I would argue that if fear is your prime mover, that fear will overpower everything else that your soul wants to express.
While fear is a difficult feeling to break through and grasp, I suggest you confront it. If fear is driving your work or you, make a list of what you are afraid of. Write out all the worst case scenarios and just let them be. I find that this removes quite a bit of their bite right at the offset. I was recently accepted to my first gallery show and met with a lot of fear from myself surrounding pricing and just the general cost of the show. “What will people think of this work?” “What if someone who I think is better than me in this show prices their work lower than me and people think, ‘who does this girl think she is’?” “Will anyone buy this?” “Is it even worth it?”. These fearful thoughts were driving, in that they spun me into a whirlwind of calculations and research. I got a lot done, but they were also very harmful. I felt completely unworthy of the opportunity and doubtful of my skill. I turned out trash for days as I frantically hit the shutter, hoping for something better to confirm in my mind these accepted images weren’t just flukes. I was miserable. Fortunately before the fear completely overtook me, I sat with it for a while, wrote down my fears and figured out how to manage them. When you are facing fears, figure out a strategy to subvert those fears and make your reasons to produce art your positive reasons that are at the heart of your venture. It can be a desire to preserve memories, a need to express your deepest self…whatever personal reason it is, I’m guessing that the reason deep in your heart you want to be an artist is not fear. I decided that while all of my fears were valid, they weren’t worth the efforts I was spending on them. It is very possible no one will buy my work and it’s even possible, albeit highly unlikely, that I will never produce another decent photograph again, but my deepest reason for creating is not to succeed, but because it is my passion and the desire to create is embedded in my being.
Let your art be your truest expression and tell your fear that you hear it, but you are not going to let it determine your art.
So I implore you to put your fears in their place. Let them wash over you and then remember the reason you are doing this. There will of course be times that you can’t have a smile on your face through your swimming lessons and that’s okay. That’s not what I’m suggesting. What I am suggesting is that your journey, and I firmly believe ultimately your art, will be so much better if you let go of your fears and create for all of those reasons that are good and fill your cup, rather than empty it. Let your art be your truest expression and tell your fear that you hear it, but you are not going to let it determine your art.
Amanda Voelker is a fine art and lifestyle photographer, focusing on capturing the fleeting moments of childhood. She is currently located in the Seattle, Washington area. With her children and light as her inspiration, Amanda finds beauty in the everyday and is constantly amazed by all the wonder in her life. She strives to capture the subtleties of human emotion and connection in a beautiful way that showcases both the moment and a piece of herself. Amanda is also the co-founder of 30 Minutes in the Life. Aside from photography and family, Amanda is passionate about the ocean, seeing the world, diet coke, reading, and chocolate. You can find more of her work on her website and facebook