About three months ago, I picked up a high quality Lumix GH3 DSLR camera in my hands for the first time, and I’ll be honest, the thought that went through my mind was something along the lines, “there’s no way I can do this camera justice”. Time passed and the nature photography class I was taking advanced. I tried desperately to perfect my usage of aperture and shutter speed, composition and subject choice — all before I really knew how to use the buttons on the camera.
Come the end of the quarter, and I’ve taken a moment to reflect on my learning process and look back at the photos I shot at the beginning of this endeavor. What I came away with is two fold: firstly, I lacked appreciation for the photos I was taking because they weren’t as good as those shot by professionals (or even just the advanced students in my class). Secondly, I don’t give myself enough credit for the small bits of learning I’ve been collecting here and there, which have contributed immensely to my overall growth as a photographer.
I’m part of the generation that has learned to be perfect.
Myself and many of my peers have adopted a no-failure motto and I’ve come to realize it’s perhaps our greatest curse. It too often begins with the college admissions game; we are thrown on the field with parents and teachers rooting us on. It is every-man-for-himself and requires a perfect play every time to win the game. It demands that we fill every position against what feels like a full team. The audience’s cheer becomes an endless, crushing boom. This seems an impossible game, yet some of us manage victory. There is a cost to winning, however. We come away treating the rest of life as more odds to be beaten and approach it with the same no-failure motto. We become so afraid of failure, of being imperfect, that we refuse to try the things we might be bad at.
Imagine the roots of a young potted plant — they grow and spread, collecting nutrients from the soil but eventually hit the walls of the pot and are forced to turn back in on themselves. This is what we do to ourselves when we refuse to take risks for fear of failing.
But sometimes we find things, meet people, or have experiences that help us come closer to breaking free. For me, this comes from creating art with the intention of imperfection. I think of it as something akin to Jia Jiang’s “rejection therapy”. Jiang would deliberately place himself in a foolish position so that he would have to face rejection over and over again. With this unique strategy, he trained himself to build resilience and overcome his fear of rejection.
Recently, I’ve been taking photographs with the intention of creating something imperfect, something raw that reflects the organized chaos of the natural world. I am experimenting with failure because failure provides direct feedback. When I fail, I learn. And when I learn, I get better so that I can fail in increasingly spectacular ways :).
Back to class. Now when I show my photographs for comparative analysis by my peers, I no longer show my most technically proficient photographs. Instead, I’ve started showing what I like to call my “misfit photos”.
They’re the ones where the subject is just a touch out of focus, the leading lines carry you right off the edge, and fuzzy distractors dance across the foreground like stars in your vision.
One week, I showed my class two similar photographs of fall leaves and polled which one they preferred. I was experimenting with composition, but one photograph was also more technically correct — the subject was in better focus, rule of thirds usage was apparent, and the smaller aperture made the noisy background less distracting.
Most of my classmates voted for the more technically “correct” photograph, but I wanted to know why those who voted for the misfit picture did so. They told me they didn’t know why they liked it better, it was just something they felt. The crazy thing was that I felt the same way.
Looking at the photo again, I notice that the crooked, out of focus tree trunk in the background intersects nicely with the line created by the leaves in the foreground and the bottom of the photograph. The interplay suggests a triangular shape running across most of the frame.
Realizing that the triangular shape was why I liked the photograph, I have started to seek out other geometric shapes when I am out shooting. I do so in conjunction with effort to improve my technical camera skills. This has produced photos that resonate with me on a level beyond what I was able to achieve before.
This is just one example of how my intention of imperfection (call it my desire for failure) has allowed me to break free from my preconceptions of success and learn something new.
This doesn’t mean the technical skills aren’t important, and it certainly doesn’t mean I’m an expert in the art of failure (or in photography for that matter). But through this adapted approach to photography, I’m learning how to re-calibrate my assessment of risks and I’m becoming more willing to venture outside of my comfort zone.