What Happened Once I Embraced the Phrase "Self-taught"

Let’s start with the elephant in the room. There will ALWAYS be someone better than you. Fact(Bears, beets, battlestar glacatica for my Office fans out there.)  

Someone will know more, have more experience, have more contacts, have more confidence – though does any creative, or human really, not have a bit of a fraud complex? – have better equipment, have more access, etc., etc., etc. the list goes on. What I am getting at is that we are all on an invisible range of comparison and that’s just life. Now, the truth is that where you start on this secret, but not so secret, range – nay, where you perceive you are on this range – is subjective. Your place on the range is NOT a fact. Your place on this range is actually a big, fat opinion and 9/10 times that judge-y opinion putting us in this place is our own.

I learned a phrase in my first real (corporate) job out of college after getting a talk from my boss about “office politics” and “playing the game” (cringe). This ever so impactful phrase was “perception is reality”. It was like a little anthem that ran in our building and everyone was always quoting this mantra when answering why we had to do certain things that didn’t actually have anything to do with our on-paper job. As much as I hate this phrase - because half of me feels that its utter shallow nonsense – the other half of me truly believes that its 100% applicable in any situation you are in. In my opinion, there are two ways to look at this sucker: 1) The perception that you portray to others is what they believe is reality – aka you control your own destiny. 2) The way you perceive yourself determines your place on that beautiful, judge-y, fake range of comparison – aka you control your own destiny. This second viewpoint brings me to the title of this wordy but relatable –amiright?- blog post. Here we go.

I am a self-taught photographer. I did not go to school for photography, I did not take professional photography classes, and I did not assist a professional photographer. I picked up a camera one day, I ordered a “Beginners Photography” book, and I figured that shit out. 

I started from the bottom, now I’m…

Now, when I did this for what I first thought would be a hobby, my humble beginnings didn’t matter to me. It was just for my own fulfillment and fun. It was just another way for me to be creative (and obsessed) in my spare time. I read about photography, I watched youtube videos, I took online workshops, I studied other work, I was IN LOVE…privately. It was just for me. But that was UNTIL… dun dun dun… the day that I posted my work on that goofy ass photo application called Instagram and I opened the door to have a seat on that magical and horrible invisible range of comparison. 

All of the sudden, I had people commenting on my work. “You have a good eye” was like a rush of adrenaline to keep it going, whereas “You obviously aren’t editing any of your images, right?” was a dagger to my picture taking soul. The range grew.

As scared as I was, the love I found while shooting and learning about the “art of photography” was bigger than my ego and I decided to take my hobby to the next level. I posted on “Next Door” in the fall that I was “an aspiring photographer who needed to build a portfolio and would shoot for a large discount”. The holiday card requests ROLLED in. People were actually going to book me to take real pictures and pay me for my work. (Granted, I shot a lot for free and my highest paying gig that year was around $75, but that was $75 REAL money dollars, people).

The more I shot, the more I put it into the universe that I was a “photographer”. The more I put into the universe that I was a “photographer”, the more I felt like an imposter. I found myself following other REAL photographers and talking to them about how they started shooting when they were in the womb and how they went to the most creative photography school and published their award winning work in print magazine at age 16 months old (this is a joke, but you get the idea). The invisible range became GIGANTIC and I swiftly landed on my butt at the low end. How could I possibly call myself a professional photographer? Im self taught

Despite the crazy up and down emotional trip I was taking, months passed and in November 2016 my husband and I found out we were pregnant. I loved my job at the time (Director of Creative at HelloSociety) but the nights were late and with my photography gigs (now even for some brands) on the weekends, the work life balance didn’t exist. He had the (brilliant) idea that I start my own creative business. “ARE YOU INSANE? BUT IM NOT A REAL PHOTOGRAPHER. IM SELF TAUGHT.” 

In his defense, I had built up the creative studio at HS and was creative directing, producing, and managing the shoots. I was running a business within a business with a 5 person team, I was doing all of the creative marketing concepts for HelloSociety and The New York Times influencer campaigns, I was a creative badass, I was good at my job, I had worked with hundreds of clients, but in my head, I was only self taught. The range snuck in. 

After some thought, financial planning, pregnancy cravings, etc. I decided he, my family, my friends, the stranger on the corner, the wall (I talked to everyone if you couldn’t tell) might be right and it was now or never. February 2017, 5 months pregnant, I left my job and started my business The Atelier. 

From week 1, I had shoots booked and clients who needed social consulting. I was providing valuable content and information for my clients, and felt completely overwhelmed, but completely impressed with myself at the same time. Moreover, I felt like a liar when someone would as me what I do. “I own a creative studio... (But not really I just started a business and I am self taught and I don’t know what I’m doing so well see how it goes).” Hi, range! How are you today?

As business increased, I started to notice something. I still wasn’t technically trained, I still didn’t go to school for photography, I still didn’t have a staff of assistants and digitechs, BUT I was getting great accounts. Could I be really good at shooting? Could I actually know what I am doing and be GOOD at it? Nahhhh. I chalked it up to my award winning personality, work ethic, and good luck. It definitely wasn’t my self-taught, resourceful skillset. I was just good enough. I would have client calls and nervously wonder if they were going to ask me about when I started shooting and cross my fingers that the words “self-taught” wouldn’t have to come out of my mouth.

Then one day, my BIGGEST SHOOT TO DATE happened. Not only was it a large budget from a real brand, but I had to get the location, the props, the models, the wardrobe, concept the shoot, style the shoot, etc., etc., etc. and had to stay in their budget. I was literally not sleeping because I was so nervous/excited. The shoot was killer and the client was stoked. I thought to myself “I pulled it off! Good job pretending to know what you’re doing!”. 

Next shoot, bigger, national, very well-known brand - same deal. Hand to handle full production, creative, shooting, editing, blah blah blah all within a budget range and guidelines. It went splendidly. Client was thrilled and couldn’t wait to work together again. WHAT?! (Range appears, full force). They want to work with me again? Im so confused. How did I trick them into this? Im self-taught… 

AND THEN IT HIT ME. Perception is REALITY. 

I’m freakin’ self-taught! I taught myself photography. That’s pretty rad. In fact, I worked my ass off, had to be super resourceful, I worked TWO jobs for 7 months – 5 of those being PREGNANT, and I have my own creative studio where people actually pay me to create content for them and they love what I produce to the extent that they want to pay me more to do it again. Perception is reality and I finally hit the moment where I perceived my work to be better because of my self-taught experience. 

I had to CONTINUOUSLY, ferociously challenge myself enough times to see my competitive edge was actually the thing that I was hiding all along. 

Now Im Here…ish?

Fast forward down the line and today I sit here writing this, shouting from the rooftops that I AM SELF-TAUGHT and proud! I turned my mindset around and came out with an “advantage” on the other side – and it feels awesome. 

I always loved my work because I enjoyed shooting so much (like, so, so much) that I put my whole heart into it, but now I’m also able to say that I’m confident. I’m good at what I do. Thats a really big deal. It changed the way I approach clients, projects, even my life. It’s now a big part of my personal brand. I openly talk about how I learned photography - and how there’s always so much more to be learned - to hopefully inspire others who are in the same boat. In fact, when it comes to photography (…and business… and motherhood), I am continuously growing, trying to improve, and taking all I can from good old fashion trial and error. I have built a community around me of other self-taught creatives/business owners and love to practice good business karma by finding ways to support each other in this once-closed-off-but-now-accessible-world.

Now, serious disclaimer: Are technically trained photographers better than me? YES – some are absolutely better than me. And they should be super proud of their hard work. But, guess what, some aren’t. 

Do I still have a seat on that invisible range? OF COURSE, but I can also clearly see that that range is a fluid scale AND there are multiple ranges for different styles, different, industries, different locations, etc. The more effort I put into my work, the better results I produce, controlling my destiny on MY range. That’s also the beauty of being self-taught. I don’t see an end in sight. It still feels like just the beginning. 

Being proud of being self-taught changed my perception and therefore has legitimately changed my reality. There are still days where I want to go to school for photography, but the reason has shifted. Now, I’ll one day go because I know I will enjoy it, but it doesn’t determine my career growth like I thought it once did. Don’t get me wrong, of course I would have loved to have been formally trained off-the-bat when I started my business, but I do think there is something amazing about finding your own way and doing what works best for you. Make your own range, people. You’ll be better for it, I promise. :)