5 Reasons Photographers Should Embrace Impostor Syndrome

Last week a photographer friend of mine – and a fairly successful one, with his own photography business and his first exhibition held a few weeks ago – posted about his battle with impostor syndrome, and how he fears he could be ‘exposed’ and end up back in his home town as a manual labourer at any moment.

When I read it I smiled in recognition as I too am regularly assailed by the demons of impostor syndrome. In the days leading up to the opening night of my first solo exhibition back in February, I worried constantly that either no one would show up, or the few that did would point at my work, laugh, and loudly wonder how the fuck this absolute charlatan got his own exhibition.

Thankfully neither of these things happened, lots of people came, they loved the work and they bought lots of books & prints, but did I learn my lesson? No, and the ol’ syndrome still creeps up on me every time I share an image online, enter a competition, or write blog posts like this.

But if so many of us have impostor syndrome, maybe it’s not such a bad thing? Maybe it has its positives as well as its negatives? A couple of years ago I acted as a guinea pig for a friend who was training to become a career coach, and we got onto the subject of impostor syndrome. “It’s not a bad thing” he told me when I spoke of my fears. “Stops you being an asshole”. It made me rethink my approach to impostor syndrome and start to embrace it, and here are five reasons why you should too…

We All Have It

Well, maybe not all, but pretty much every photographer I know, from absolute beginners to seasoned photojournalists, has it to some extent. A quick bit of Googling shows that even well known photography figures such as successful landscape photographer and Youtuber Nigel Danson, and Grant Scott, founder of United Nations of Photography and a university lecturer in photography, talk about their struggles with it.

What are the signs? They vary from person to person but the following traits of the IS-afflicted photographer are fairly common:

  • Hiding your work away and not sharing it because “it’s not good enough”
  • Not entering competitions or submitting work for publication
  • Not calling yourself ‘photographer’
  • Being intimidated around other photographers
  • Looking at someone else’s work & thinking “I wish I could do that”

There are loads more, but I suspect many of you reading this probably nodded and thought “yeah, that’s me”. And if so, that’s fine. You’re in good company.

It Keeps You Grounded

Back to my friend’s comment about “It stops you being an asshole”. Impostor syndrome is the world’s way of telling us to stay humble and not swan around like, in the words of football management legend John Sitton, “Bertie Big-Bollocks”. Outside the world of rock & roll, where it’s pretty much a job requirement, no one likes arrogant artists, and impostor syndrome ensures most of us stay grounded, humble and realistic about our work.

We’ve all been told by self-appointed photography gatekeepers that we’re doing it wrong, that we used the wrong lens, that we should use Photoshop more (or less), that we need this filter or that speedlite, that our composition/lighting/shutter speed are off etc etc. And then we’ve looked at that person’s own work and been amazed that they consider themselves qualified to dish out advice or criticism. That’s what a photographer looks like without a dose of impostor syndrome, and it’s not a pretty sight.

It Keeps You Open Minded

The moment you think you know it all is the moment you stop learning, and the moment your work becomes predictable and stagnant. Impostor syndrome tells you that you very definitely don’t know it all, and that if you want to stop feeling like an impostor, you’d better get studying.

American photographer Imogen Cunningham famously said “My favourite photograph is the one I’m going to take tomorrow”, and that’s a good way to think about your work – that your best photos are ahead of you, not behind you.

“In those moments where you feel like an impostor… you realise ‘I have something to prove’, so you’re not complacent. Hey, you know what, this might be a moment for confident humility where I can recognise how little I know and yet have a strong conviction in my capability to learn.” (Scott Galloway, NYU)

Impostor syndrome keeps me buying photo books, watching Youtube videos, studying other people’s work and new techniques, to make sure I learn new skills and keep improving my work. Without it, I’d still be stuck somewhere around 2017.

It Stops You Embarrassing Yourself

Above I mentioned the traits of photographers who suffer from impostor syndrome. Here are a few traits of those who don’t:

  • Sharing poor quality work, even in photo contests
  • Oversharing – sharing every picture they take
  • Acting as gatekeepers or criticising the work of others
  • All the gear, no idea – showing up for photo walks with thousands of dollars’ worth of the latest gear and no idea what to do with it

If  you have impostor syndrome, you’re less likely to make a tit of yourself by engaging in the above behaviour. Yes, it can hold you back and stop you sharing work or entering contests, but that isn’t always a bad thing – if you have any doubt whatsoever that an image is good enough to share in public, that’s probably a sign that you shouldn’t share it. It’s not ready, or maybe you aren’t. 

Image contest submissions on Gurushots

It also stops you damaging your career by saying yes to jobs that you’re not ready for. We’ve all done it – taken photography gigs, winged it, done a less than perfect job and not been called back. Whilst we may learn (and earn) from it, it’s not good for the person hiring you, so if you’ve never done a real estate shoot in your life, and someone’s offering you good money to do one, think very carefully about whether you’re capable of doing a good job – don’t risk your reputation by saying yes and making a dog’s breakfast of it!

It Makes You Work Harder

Finally – and probably most importantly, and obviously – feeling you’re not good enough at something can go two ways. Either you give up (and the fact you’ve got this far into a post on an obscure photography blog suggests you haven’t), or you work harder. Impostor syndrome drives you to keep improving your work, going out shooting more, studying, trying to compete with those photographers you look up to.

Basima Tewfik, who is a professor at MIT’s department of Work & Organisation Studies, recently discovered that whilst as many as 70% of us suffer from impostor syndrome in the workplace, there’s actually little difference in our competency compared with that of the 30% who don’t – and even better, as we feel inadequate, it has a positive effect on both our workrate and the way we interact with those around us. Author Adam Grant says “Her research is breaking new ground in highlighting that impostor thoughts can be a source of fuel. It can motivate us to work harder to prove ourselves and work smarter to fill gaps in our knowledge and skills.

So if you’re reading this and nodding along in recognition, I hope you can see the positives in this condition that the vast majority of us ‘suffer’ from at some point in our photography lives. Impostor syndrome may hold us back, but like a catapult, it does so in order to propel us forwards. Learn to love it and let it make you a better photographer!