This was a year of change for us, filled with many firsts. It was our first full year as parents, and with our son now a big part of our lives we were confronted with the challenge of finding “work-life balance” (which had previous existed for us as just “work”). We also took the year off of client work, in order to spend time with him, and focus on only one business (for perhaps the very first time). And we shot our first large-scale documentary project, and went through the process of self-publishing a book.
This year of changes was a challenging year. We had fun, don’t get me wrong. But we were also faced with struggles, difficulties, disappointments, and tough questions – the answers to which are still yet to be discovered.
But I’m starting to believe that years like this – the ones that aren’t just smooth sailing, but that push you to your limits, and force you to think deeply – are the years that are central to shaping your character and your career.
So here are a few things we learned along the way.
1. The Key To Success is Grit
A friend sent this video to us at a time when we really needed it, and it’s well worth a watch.
This year we felt like we hadn’t yet found the success we wanted, and were worried. Maybe we didn’t have what it takes to achieve our goals. We thought maybe we weren’t smart enough, or talented enough.
Well, it turns out, that what we need to do to reach our dreams is quite simple: persevere. Success, in anything, is not quick. It takes many years of hard work and commitment to achieve.
So remember that, as you’re sitting down to assess what happened this year for your photography. Your work is for a lifetime. You need to put in years of study, practice, and growth. But hey, that’s the fun part right? Stick with it, keep going, and you WILL get where you want to go. With some passion and some grit.
2. Asking for Help is Essential
We have this tendency to avoid asking for help. It feels like admitting that we aren’t strong enough to do it on our own. But this year it became clear that we just wouldn’t survive without some assistance. Raising a kid is a huge amount of work (go figure). So is running your own business. Doing both is mind-boggling.
This year we brought on help for the business, in the form of Lauren’s younger sister Stephanie.
You may have seen her writings around here – she’s whip smart and has learned photography faster than anyone we ever met. We’re so grateful to have her help, and it made a huge difference, both in our productivity and our sanity.
In the end, we’re all human, with human limitations. There’s no shame in admitting it. In fact, embracing it, and seeing the benefit in being honest about it is liberating. Asking for help when you need it is a very good thing.
3. Documenting Your Family is Hard Work
The subject of the majority of our photography this year was our son, Max. We are fascinated by him, how he’s changing, what he’s learning, and the little boy he’s becoming. By rough estimates, we took over 20,000 images of him this year, bringing our cameras everywhere and taking photos nearly every day.
And yet, I don’t feel like we did a great job. Because it’s really really hard.
Looking after a baby is enough work to begin with. We’re constantly exhausted. Gone are the days where we’d roll out of bed at 10am. Now we consider 7am “sleeping in”. This kid is in constant motion, and we feel like we’re just trying to keep up. Add in trying to artistically capture it all, and some days it’s just too much to handle. There were many moments when we just couldn’t find the energy to go upstairs to get the camera to capture that adorable thing he was doing.
This is not a genre for the weak of heart.
Documenting your family is a loooong term project that requires sustained effort, day in and day out, over years, no matter the circumstances. Shooting when he’s cranky, when the light sucks, when you woke up 5 times in the night, and when most days feel the same is a true test of endurance. And finding the important details, the real moments, and the beautiful light in the middle of all that requires great skill. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done. And to everyone who is out there doing it, I tip my hat to you. You are amazing.
4. Documenting Your Family is Important Work
Of course, it’s not hard to see that despite it being really hard, it’s also really important to document your family. In fact, I feel like it will be some of the most important work I ever do, even though the majority of the shots are mediocre, and almost no one in the world will care about them.
See, my family cares about those photos. Those images are connecting people from around the country to this little boy. They’re helping them get to know him, even when they’re thousands of miles away. And down the line, when he’s all grown up, all of these photos will be a way for him to understand that we loved him completely.
This task is of the utmost importance.
5. When You Step Outside Your Routine, You Can End Up Facing Tough Questions
We made the transition from amateur to pro rather quickly. It was only a year and a half after buying our first DSLR that we were full time photographers. And from that point on we were busy busy busy with client work. It was exhilarating. We were taking tons of photos, meeting amazing new people, and filling in the rest of the time doing all the processing, emailing, marketing, blogging, and other tasks that make up running a business. We barely had time to pause, let alone stop and think deeply.
Then this year, as we took our “parental leave” from client work, we were suddenly shaken free of the routine that kept us so busy. We were no longer caught up in cycle, but standing outside, looking in. We started to question where we were. What we were doing. What we really wanted to do. How to move forward. And whether forward was what we used to think it was.
I’ll be honest, it’s hard to confront those topics. Scary even. It’s much easier to just go with the flow than to stop everything and ask whether it’s really what you want.
But we found ourselves there anyway. And we’ve been asking ourselves the questions. We’re not necessarily finding answers yet, but working on them is the important part.
And you know what? Even though it’s been hard, it’s been good. Getting caught up in the momentum is an easy way to spend years doing something that you aren’t completely happy with. Breaking the routine is a good way to shake things up, and force yourself to look honestly at how you’re spending your time, and make sure it aligns with your goals.
6. The Fear is Usually Worse Than the Reality
When our son was 6 months old we went on our first flight with him. And I was worried beyond all reason about it.
We’re experienced flyers, and I never used to feel anxious about stepping on a plane. But give me the challenge of keeping a baby calm and quiet during the trip and suddenly I’m shaking in my boots.
I spent countless hours researching baby travel, reading all the blogs and forums that I could find. We lugged so much stuff on the plane with us, just in case it was the magic thing that would save the day.
As we took off, with Max sound asleep in my arms, I still hadn’t relaxed. I was so obviously stressed out that a kind flight attendant, seeing the terror in my eyes, stopped in the middle of the aisle and said “You’re doing great.”
I almost started bawling.
Did the flight go perfectly? No. Max did get cranky (he was teething at the time). So I walked with him down the aisle of the plane and he relaxed. In the end it wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected it to be. The fear of what might happen was far worse than the reality.
7. If You Wait for People to Find Your Work, You Might Wait Forever
This year my dad gave us a very good lesson in marketing. It’s quite simple: you need to put yourself out there. You can’t expect the right people to just stumble across your work. The internet is a very big place, after all.
When we launched our Lobster Island project we submitted it to a bunch of documentary photography blogs in hopes that they would feature it. But we never heard back from any of them. We were disappointed with the lack of response, and went back to work our other projects, leaving the promotion on the back burner.
Then one day my dad sent along an email, letting us know that he had contacted the newspaper in Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward Island (the province where we shot our project). They were interested in our project, and would be getting in touch to do a feature on it.
It took him one email and suddenly we were getting a full page feature in the biggest newspaper in the province. We were ashamed at how easily we gave up, and grateful that he didn’t.
If you believe in your work, you have to put it out there, and refuse to give up even if you hear no. Eventually you’ll find the right people. Just don’t wait for them to find you.
8. Long Term Projects are Fun. So Make a Habit
We are notoriously bad at keeping habits, so many of our projects fall to the wayside after we get bored and move onto something else. But one habit that we stuck with this year was taking a photo of our son every night before bed. The result is an amazing record of how he changed over the year, and it is by far my favourite project that we’ve ever created.
At first it was hard to remember to get the camera, and there were days when we really didn’t want to go back downstairs to get it after we had gotten everything else ready. But because we made it into a project, and committed to it, we made the effort. And soon it became such an ingrained habit that we didn’t have to think about it any more.
So, with 2014 about to begin, now is a great time to think up a long term project that you can do. Find ways to make it a habit, and reduce the mental effort required to keep it going. I think you’ll find that committing to something long term is well worth the effort!
9. Print Your Work
This year we dipped our toes in the world of self-publishing and created our first book from our Lobster Island project. And holy smokes it was a huge amount of work. Far more than we ever expected. But it was so worth it.
It certainly won’t be bringing us fame and fortune any time soon, but it has brought us so much joy. We’ve been able to hold our photos in our hands, in a beautiful book, and enjoy that tactile experience. And we’ve been able to connect with people who have purchased it, and sent us kind words about how much they loved it. To have others support and enjoy your work in that way is well worth all the struggle to make it a physical reality.
Print your work. Regularly. Both for you, and for others.
10. You Are More Patient Than You Think
A. A. Milne, author of Winne the Pooh, wrote:
You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.
I think you’re all those things, and more patient too.
Patience is something I learned very keenly this year. Anyone with a toddler will nod their heads in agreement when I say that we all have deep levels of patience that we can tap into when we really stretch for them.
But that patience doesn’t just come when we’re facing down a tantrum in the middle of a store. It also comes with the understanding that our goals will require long term commitments. Whether it’s the goal of raising a good kid, building a successful business, or becoming a great photographer. These things can’t happen overnight. They require our dedication and our ability to think to the future. Our willingness to dig deep and keep trying in spite of the challenges (or screaming children) in front of us.
When you combine your patience with the grit of hard work, well, I think you can achieve just about anything!
This year was filled with disappointments, lack of sleep, screaming babies, big projects, and tough questions for us. But we’re here at the end of it, and we’re more excited than ever. For a while we felt like this year was a low point in our career. But then we reframed. We saw that it was what it had to be for us to learn how to take on our new roles as parents and to prepare ourselves to enter a new phase of our work as photographers.
Change is hard. Frustrating. Disorienting.
And oh so necessary for growth.
Thanks for sticking around with us this year. Next year is going to be a great adventure, and we can’t wait to share it with you!