Impostor syndrome

Blogs are a strange thing--it's so easy to be seen smiling out of a picture at an opening, and to be genuinely happy that night, and to present this version of your life that is at once true and too simple. I want to thank the people who have helped me, but sometimes it all can feel like hubris, and not necessarily meaningful to my readership, whoever those readers may be. Pardon my mood, I'm wiped out from a succession of busy weekends...

James and I talk often about "impostor syndrome," a term we learned from a good friend who is currently earning her PhD at Harvard, and one of the most brilliant people we know. She told us that so many people in her program suffer from the above that they hold seminars on the topic. I find this comforting, as I think I may be one of the afflicted. I wonder if we all are, to some degree. Is there anyone who's found the key to supreme and constant self-confidence?

It does feel somehow ungrateful to "out" myself--I don't want to write a post that appears to not recognize what I've got and where I am, but through this blog I also hope to be authentic, and I feel I'd be lying if I didn't at least give some voice to my insecurities, which are plentiful. I often wonder if Alec Soth suffers from impostor syndrome, if the up-and-comers and big guns are just as nervous and self-doubting as those of us trying to get our names out there. It always makes me feel less alone to hear about the anxieties of those at the top, and makes me wonder why we as a collective species seem somewhat more inclined to doubt ourselves than to be able to relax into our accomplishments. For me I think I fear that all of it will dry up--I've had my run and that's it, or my next creative endeavor won't be as well-received, or won't be what I envisioned.

Some of what I'm feeling currently stems from a portfolio review I attended last week in which a curator dubbed my work, if I remember correctly, "overly sentimental" and generally too simplistic. While there were nuggets of wisdom to be gleaned from the exchange, I left with the sense that my images were seen in an entirely different light than intended, which is the frustration of art I suppose, that it's all so bleeping subjective. But more on that another day, I need to go write some thank-you emails for said review.


Elizabeth, how timely that you should post about this my first day back from Review Santa Fe. YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

My first day I was in a funk. I had arrived there, among photographers both well known and unknown, and surrounded by the highest caliber of work I've ever seen under one roof. I was overwhelmed and felt like that very "imposter" of which you write. "WTF are YOU doing here?" the Voice was asking me? I had no answer.

Eventually I squelched the voice and the second day went much better. I was able to talk to reviewers and fellow photographers and gain something from my interactions, and my confidence rose back to where it should be. But that voice is never far from the surface, telling me that I'm going to be found out, exposed, and expelled.

I saw a lot of this in med school, perhaps the most hypercompetitive environment around---and I felt it even then, despite graduating in the top few percent of my class, with honors. I struggle with it still.

Great post. You're an honest woman for owning up and talking about it for all the world to see.
Anonymous said…
Trust me, you are not an impostor. You're the real deal.

Your Father (who should know)
Mike-very comforting to hear your own version of dealing with the dreaded "syndrome." I'm glad to know you were able to talk yourself out of it and get the most you could from RSF-of course it's also nice to hear that even someone whose work I admire can suffer from such anxieties! Thanks for your honesty as well.

And thanks Dad :)
Andi Schreiber said…
Hi Elizabeth,
I have been thinking about this post for a few days now. Is there an actual definition of Imposter Syndrome? I am curious because it seems that it could apply to anyone, not just those of us in the arts. I have speculated that the "big guns" I know personally have a tremendous amount of confidence and ego along with that relentless self-promotion gene that is very important to getting their work noticed.

I applaud you for attending a portfolio review. I am not there at all and am (somewhat) content just to produce my work, whatever that may be. While it can be useful to have those "nuggets of wisdom" you know that the voice you must trust is yours instinctively. I recently had a friend (not a curator) tell me that I should stop photographing and posting images of my children. My subject matter happens include all things that make me feel deeply and my children fall into that category. Oh well, can't please everyone.

Having a blog surely helps make the art happen. I find that after I post I have a brief moment of calm before I am again suspended uncomfortably in mid-air wondering where the next source of my inspiration might be hiding.

Producing art is scary, indeed, and fear is a big motivator. Tune into the anxiety and keep on making your images. I can't wait to see what you do next.
Melanie Flood said…

I often feel like a complete fraud who knows nothing about photography. Whenever I receive press, or I'm asked to talk, or teach or review or offer advice, I almost look over my shoulder,'Are you talking to me?'.

It's entirely human to feel like an impostor & I believe being humble is what keeps people like you and I creative, fresh & searching to be well rounded, better, more in touch individuals. (Or, so I'm told). ;)

Thanks for your comment. It is actually a true syndrome:

I agree that it could apply to anyone. There are probably those at the top who feel fully confident and others who are secretly afraid they'll be "found out"...

True indeed that you can't please everyone-I find your pictures of your children to be very powerful and I enjoy looking at them; I'd be upset if you stopped, just the opposite of your friend (still a friend? ;)

It's true too that fear is a motivator, and I'm trying to remember that anxiety is part of my work, not a separate component to seek to move away from. Without my somewhat bipolar personality I couldn't make the work I do, and in many ways I'm grateful.

I also can't wait to see what you do next-and want to mention that I love your writing voice as well (particularly your "In Vein" post.)

Thanks again-
Mel! Can't tell you how great it is to hear that you too look over your shoulder; as someone I admire and respect it's nice to know that even you have your doubts :)

I like what you say about being humble and staying human-that is really the key. I suppose when people stop feeling like impostors their egos have gotten too big, and that's probably worse than any insecurities one might suffer from!

P.S. It was so great to see you in PDN!

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