The Importance Of: Inspirational Despair
Every photographer knows the 1985 National Geographic cover portrait by the legendary Steve McCurry of the Afghan Girl with eyes so colorful they resemble Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring. It remains an incredibly powerful image today, still stirring emotions 30 years after McCurry felt the stark, searing gaze of a young refugee in a war-torn camp.
There’s kinetic energy in a camera. A photo in its most potent moments can affect cultural, political and environmental change. The right image can reverse widespread deforestation, save victims of the global sex trade, combat global warming, reduce poaching, curb sectarian violence and perhaps most powerfully of all, occasionally drive a discouraged, middle-class photographer to the bottle.
Yes, while most of the time photographers are inspired by great images, sometimes when you look at a really good shot you just can’t help but think, ‘Damn, that’s incredible. I hate that guy.’
It’s what I call “inspirational despair” – a vacillating response between being discouraged by other people’s work and being excited and motivated by it. It has become a rampant problem in first world western culture and tragically continues to get little attention — probably because it’s petty and shortsighted. But in a world inundated with content and opportunity, most creatives feel it at one time or another.
It usually only occurs after someone has been seriously pursuing something impractical as a career over a long period of time — right about the time they’ve irrevocably confused what they do with who they are. Musicians, painters, videographers, photographers, designers, actors, and writers are all susceptible.
Most of the time these afflicted artists are genuinely excited to see other people’s work. A truly iconic image like McCurry’s supernova-eyed girl transcends petty jealousies and angsty insecurities.
But it ain’t tiddlywinks and gin all the time. And that’s good.
That’s because any creative should regularly be unsatisfied with their work. Two reasons. First, because there are 7 billion other people and a photo of a dude with a headlamp looking up at the stars is neat but comparatively insignificant. Second, because if your goal is to improve than your best work will always be ahead of you, theoretically.
In the worst cases of inspirational despair, the victims undergo symptoms of momentary depression, self-doubt, and whiny pessimism.
My grandma once said after heirlooming me her Fuji film camera, “Benjy, the last thing the world needs is another entitled, bitch-ass millennial with 40 grand in art school loans bringing a six-pack of buzz kill to bingo night.”
My grandma never said any of that, though she did call me Benjy.
She didn’t go to art school. She learned the basics of photography in her 60s from my dad and quickly started acquiring blue ribbons at Montana state fairs. She was awesome, and a very sweet woman.
But I think she would have agreed that if you’re on the ride long enough the creative process will always end up being an emotional roller coaster because it’s by nature insecure. And that’s just life.
At times you might be driven, but cautiously optimistic, positive, but occasionally discontented, diligent, but creatively bewildered.
Most artists don’t punch the time card and crank out masterpieces with assembly-machine regularity. Many throughout history just up and died in obscurity, impoverished, and probably feeling a touch of inspirational despair. It’s a tenuous path, but it’s still a privilege.
An individual attempting something unique, but using other people’s ideas, but still being counterculture, but occasionally adapting to trends — that’s a suffer taxi loaded with inspirational despair.
If you’re putting your heart into something it’s normal to waffle between excitement, disappointment, introvertedness, stoke, giving it all, giving up, and giving no fucks.
The struggle is to maintain perspective, sift out the healthy gold flakes of inspiration, and leave the extraneous, negative dregs alone.
We only have a view of our own little slice of the life. It’s easy to overthink things when you can get clean water by walking 20 feet across a wind-proof, waterproof, climate-controlled building and then drive to a place where you can buy 500 pounds of rice for $250.00 (the bulk of a year’s worth of food for one person in Myanmar). The grass always seems greener through someone else’s lens.
Besides, Steve McCurry didn’t just Nat Geo swagger his way through that Afghan refugee camp back in 1984, zero in on the Afghan Girl, take one shot, and be like “Boom. Cover.” He even said in an April 2002 National Geographic article, “I didn’t think the photograph of the girl would be different from anything else I shot that day.” Even the greats aren’t walking around purposefully shaping culture with one brush stroke or click of the shutter. You’re seeing the fruits of unseen decades of diligence and hard work and a slew of other forces at work.
So if you find yourself feeling some inspirational despair maybe stop looking around so much. Maybe take a break from the gram. Focus on your technical game. Bench the ego for a quarter.
And if you’re still deeply, genetically drawn to do something afterward then who cares anyway. Stay focused on the craft and to a few close friends/peers who can tell you if you’re sucking. Because sucking is good at the beginning.
Only a few weeks after getting my first digital camera I distinctly remember taking a photo of mangy-looking, shelter mutt just lying on the ground at a local climbing crag and being pretty sure I was going to win a Pulitzer if the dog didn’t kill me. The background was so velvety soft and the subject so bacony crisp that it absolutely necessitated some sort of humanitarian award. And it actually sucked but it didn’t matter at the time. I had tasted the photo Kool-Aid!
I had been hit by the magic. That tingly moment when the passion you love converges with a little know-how and the right tools to help you express that passion. It’s an exciting, pivotal moment, a time of explosive growth and learning if you are willing to be hungry and humble. I held the camera up with awe, eyeing it suspiciously and thinking that no one should have that kind of power, my grandma’s fictional words of wisdom drifting through my head like the Windows 95 scrolling marquee screensaver.
I’ve since acquired an impressive pile of image-filled external hard drives with varying levels of functionality and no hope of organization. But the feeling of capturing a good shot, though just a little more fleeting, is still one of the best things I know.
But being a little deprived never hurt.
It helps me take stock and appreciate what I have beyond those quick, intense moments of fulfillment that only come after hard work, a little luck, and a touch of the indescribable. And then I get discouraged. And then I get super excited again.
Another beautiful cover, Steve. Asshole.