The current wave of human shortcomings and character flaws found in the news these last couple months have left me pummeled like the time I was on Oahu at some beach innocently talking to my friend when a wave came from behind and threw me into the sand. I was scratched for days by the grit left in hard to reach places, undetected until a long hike or bike ride.
Amazon fires, binary positions about climate change, and the US military strike killing innocent farmers in Afghanistan. And then this week – Moreno Valley. Oh that smiling face. I do not know him but he could be mine. He might some day be mine. The lives of these middle school children, let me repeat – children, forever changed. One’s breath to never breathe again except through another body (organ donation) and at least two 13 year olds whose families I imagine are devastated (at least that would be the appropriate response) for the sin of their son’s fists and what these boys will live with for the rest of their lives.
The hate and greed in the world today is nothing new. In fact, one doesn’t need to look too deep into history to realize the atrocities human beings can do to one another. Think Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, King Leopold in the Congo, Hitler, Cecil Rhodes in South Africa, Cortes in modern day Mexico, Christopher Columbus or Andrew Jackson to name a few that come to mind. Over the last eighteen months I’ve read some the excellent books that drive home these aspects of the human condition. Non-fiction accounts: Evicted by Matthew Desmond; King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild; When A Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa by Peter Godwin; Born A Crime by Trevor Noah; Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File by John Edgar Wideman. Fiction accounts: Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly; Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd and the classic by Wilma Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop, which touches on the ugly cost to Native American’s of pioneering settlements. There are obviously many more but these are the ones that have been in my hands recently.
When my heart cries out, sometimes putting pen to paper helps reorient me back to the realities of this world. The following was inspired this week by St. Teresa of Avila “bookmark” prayer.
Let human being’s decisions disturb you.
Let your heart cry out from injustices.
With people, your heart will break again and again.
God alone is unchanging, perfect.
With Him, unity and communion with the earth and all people is possible.
These last few weeks have been a mental killer as perfectionism has made it’s way into my proverbial driver’s seat more often then I’d like to experience. It got me thinking about what activities or elements I haven’t ruined with perfectionism. What I landed on interestingly enough is photography, which really has the potential to be a perfectionistic feast but for whatever reason hasn’t been engaged like that for me.
So I got to thinking – why not? As far as I can tell, it was all about perspective and expectations on myself. This more “laid back and emotional freedom” is called “Type B” mentality by some authors (see Daniel Pink’s Drive) whereas I have lived predominantly in a “Type A” mentality until my mid-30’s and it’s been difficult to completely replace, especially when I’m trying new things or exploring.
At one time I loved my perfectionism because it drove me to succeed and finish many milestones (doctorate, licensing, walking 39 miles, etc.). However, I realize that perfectionism comes with a joy robbing harsh judge and though I’m not coming from a binary perspective of believing this well-developed quality isn’t good, it’s much more complicated than naming it bad. Perfectionism can be both good and helpful as well as mentally taxing and stressful. What I’m trying to learn is how to approach life with high standards that aren’t paralyzing or joy killers but also stretch and grow me so that the standards themselves become an opportunity for me to learn something about myself. (I HAVE NOT found this balance with writing my book, which is why it hasn’t appeared yet – ugh! the perfectionism there can be paralyzing but that’s for a post on another day.).
Recently, I had the opportunity to wrestle with my perfectionism as I explored new territory and skills professionally. My autopilot categories are great and not good, which essentially as binary as winner and loser. Not the creative, exploratory mental playground I want to live in. I do not want to live in fear of underperforming and have been struck by how regularly this can happen to me. It got me thinking about areas of my life where perfectionism hasn’t shown up to spoil my exploration or invoke shame of being a beginner. What’s became clear is my journey with photography has been the most enjoyable learning and “crafting my skill” experience I’ve ever had. So I decided to invite you along this analytic and artistic journey to help me name and uncover the possible antidotes to my perfectionism around exploration and “the unfamiliar.”
Like many good things in my life, my children were a catalyst to improving pictures – after all, who wants “just okay” photos of adorable children! Interestingly enough, this desire to improve didn’t bring with it a fear of shame or self-doubt about my abilities. There was no question in my mind that I was never going to be a professional photographer so I needn’t aspire to be one. Posture number for for getting perfectionism out of the driver’s set – expertise not expected or needed. “I’m good enough” was simply that, “good enough” which gave me space to explore and play without needing a professional photograph result.
My starting point as a photographer:
Theme – ignorance is freedom for I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
The above represents how I thought every picture should look – centered. Then, I attended a short photography workshop at a mother’s group and learned about composition and thinking about the picture in thirds. I started there – vertical and horizontal thirds but kept pointing and clicking whatever struck me – I absolutely refused to judge each picture by this new framework BUT I did began getting some pictures like this –
I practiced this for many years before adding anything. Posture two for drowning out perfectionism – allow the “unfamiliar” the time and space it needs to become familiar – without rushing it.
Besides buying a digital SLR camera, in 2011, I attended a one night beginning photography class by my good friend and professional photographer, Dane Sanders. I walked away with two different concepts that would later become internalized. Regarding composition – look at the lighting. Notice different aspects of the light in terms of light and dark/ shadow as potential friend. And in terms of the camera, I moved off the auto setting to “scene” setting. I did began playing with all the individual settings (like aperture and shutter speed) but I didn’t use them enough to integrate ANY of that knowledge and felt fine about all of it -after all, I’m a hobby photographer. No need to stress – just play around with switching up the scenes and notice new lighting consideration. Posture three for getting perfectionism out of the driver’s seat – accept your limitations and enjoy your abilities.
The following pictures were taken within two months of the workshop:
As I’ve honed my craft as a photographer, it has unearthed a playfulness and curiosity about the visual world around me. I love playing with lighting, composition, angles with not one care about mistakes or getting it wrong. It’s the process that’s soul giving rather than the outcome and pride of a job well done that’s feeding my soul. Sure it feels good to nail a shot but it’s like the cherry on top – not the primary “dish.” The focus on process rather than outcome is the fourth antidote to my perfectionism.
Then last April, I took a photography workshop with National Geographic Photographer, Stephen Matera, and my learning and play factor took off. (Read about the trip here – Seizing the Moment, Part 2)
I learned about “golden hours” – catching sunrise and sunsets.
I learned about white balance adjustments which can have a significant impact around color. See below:
I learned about editing in photoshop or Lightroom. Due to the skyline, this picture shown above was much darker unedited. However, using Lightroom helped me bring a bit more perspective to this spectacular wood carving up on the top of a mountain in the Dolomites.
In terms of composition, Steve really helped me “extend” my lines because I was cutting things off or not giving them “space to breathe.
As I think as evidenced in the pictures taken post-workshop, getting instruction from Steve really changed my ability level on multiple accounts. Since we were together for several days it was so much easier to internalize the techniques and knowledge being taught because I then had to remember the next day what I’d learned from the day before. What’s exciting to me as a perfectionist is that it didn’t turn me in to an outcome driven/ best shot photographer. Instead it gave me more tools to play with, which I’ve done with none of the perfectionistic thinking I’m so used to experiencing inside of me. It gives me hope that I might be able to decrease my self-torture around other artistic and creative endeavors like in my professional work. In this spirit, I’d name the last antidote for perfectionism is getting feedback by a grace-filled expert so that grace and generous spirit around performance can be internalized.
I love following good photographers on Instagram because it helps me keep an eye out for potential shots and helps me get an idea of why certain photographs are pleasing to my eye. Also, it’s encouraged me to be ready for pictures like the examples shown below.
This set of pictures was captured by shooting a snake as it came off the water near us while we were fishing on shore. I began shooting it for fun, trying to catch a shot that was interesting – like this one with its tongue out.
Having my sights on it, set me up to capture this food grab that was buried on the lakeshore sand.
Some reflections for your own process: What keeps you from being playfully creative? Do you have a creative outlet that captures your artistic side? Does perfectionism rob you of enjoyment or even getting started with a creative hobby? How might you navigate it?
Thank you for coming on this journey with me. It’s a blessing to be able to share.