At the end of this month, I will be entering a local, amateur photography competition. When I learned about the annual event at about this time last year, I promised myself I would enter this year. This year. Barely a year after I switched my camera from automatic to manual and started trying to learn what all those buttons and dials do. (Still learning. Forever learning, I suspect.) I read a little and asked questions of friends who know far more about photography than I do, but mostly, I spent the year taking approximately eleventy-million pictures and figuring out what I did and didn’t like, what did and didn’t work. Some of the pictures were awful. Many were ordinary. Some I loved. And a handful absolutely took my breath away.
The last few weeks have been exciting, as I’ve sought input from photographer friends on what caught their eyes and how to tweak my edits, as well as finalizing my (four) choices. But I’m nervous, too. This is a whole new level of vulnerability in which I’m actually asking people to critique my work. Good things will come, I know (and I’m not talking about blue ribbons – that’s not my goal and doesn’t feel at all attainable), but it’s still hard to open myself up like this.
Part of the process of preparing for the competition is, of course, ordering prints. Large prints. To be matted and framed and hung for display. When the box of prints arrived, I placed it on the dining room table and anxiously tore into the box.
And I was stopped in my tracks.
Most of my images I have never seen outside my computer screen. The images I have printed, I have never seen larger than what a standard tabletop frame would hold. But enlarged, details emerged: the rich green of mid-summer, the beautiful texture of wood grain, the pebbled appearance of galvanized metal, water droplets catching the afternoon light, perfect rosy lips. The simple act of printing these images in a larger size transformed them from mere photographs into art. Art.
I’ve only recently started becoming comfortable with the idea of calling myself a photographer. And when I do use the p-word, I’m always sure to firmly plant in front a descriptor that clearly indicates where I place myself in the hierarchy of photographers: “fledgling,” “beginner,” “new,” “amateur.” Barely worthy of calling myself a photographer.
But when I saw those large prints, something inside me shifted, and I realized that what makes one a photographer isn’t composition, lighting, exposure, and depth of field. Knowing how to do those things well is part of what makes a good photographer, but it isn’t what makes one a photographer. I’m a photographer because I strive to capture how I see the world – the beauty, the emotions, the shapes, the colors, the light (oh, the light) – in a still, digital image. Other people show us their worlds with their voices or fabric, clay or the movement of their bodies, a piano or a typewriter, acrylics or wood. Artists all.
Which means that not only do I have to come to terms with calling myself a photographer but, also, with calling myself an artist. This realization is maybe a little more than I’m capable of wrapping my head around right now. I’ve spent a long time waiting until I was “good enough” for such a label, waiting until I had achieved sufficient technical skill. But there are many other labels I have adopted, fully recognizing my (many) limitations (like “mother” and “Christian”). I could wait forever and still never feel worthy of being called an artist or photographer.
If I hadn’t decided to enter the photography competition and hadn’t needed to order those large prints, I wonder when, or even if, I would have decided I am a photographer. An artist. And I wonder how many others there are like me, attaching qualifiers to the label “artist,” questioning their value, downplaying the beautiful way they see and interact with the world.
Friends, trust me: Splurge on the large prints. And a mat and frame while you’re at it. You’re worthy.
Buy the domain name for the blog you’ve been contemplating, the leather-bound journal, the beautiful pad of sketch paper, or the nicest brushes. Hang your painting above the sofa. Audition for a talent show. Give your pottery as Christmas gifts. Sign up for the photography conference coming to your town. (Apply for the scholarship if you need to.) Reach out to someone you’d like to mentor you. Enroll in a dance class. Start an acting class in your neighborhood. Set aside time in your day to nurture your art. Sign your painting.
Do whatever little (or big!) thing you’ve been holding back on because you think you’re not good enough, because you don’t see yourself as the artist you are.
You may not feel ready. You may never feel ready. But you’re an artist. And you’re worthy. And that’s all that matters.