My most horrible failures and how they helped me grow

Failure is a very sensitive topic for many of us creatives. Most certainly it’s because when we make art, we’re sharing part of our souls, making ourselves vulnerable. That’s also the reason, why many creatives are afraid of sharing their art with others. But, that’s a whole different topic. Today, I want to talk about failing, getting it all wrong, losing the game, screwing up - you got the point. I’m nowhere close to a personal development coach, but I want to share the story of my screw ups with you, so that you a) can learn from my mistakes and b) stop being SOOO upset with failures and start seeing the bright side in them.


I was never the brightest kid in primary school, but somewhere in my teens, I became an A student. This, of course, made my Mom proud, but, at the same time, made me terrified of losing this status and making any mistakes. I took the tiniest negative note from a teacher so painfully, that I would have to force myself to go to her lesson again.


When, years later, I decided to change my profession and embrace photography I immediately snapped into the same mindset. When people around me recognized that my pictures were nice, I admitted that I’m a talented photographer and my craft comes naturally to me. So EVERY bit of criticism was devastating. That’s just to give you an idea, that I too suffered from “not being the best” when my amateur work got critiqued.​ This situation continued until I finally took a different approach to my screw-ups and began LEARNING from them without blaming the situation or myself. And this is my biggest lesson - learn from your failures.


So here are my biggest screw-ups - life lessons so far (some of them will go in groups):


1. Technical ones - these are pretty obvious and happen to everybody, BUT they are especially painful if they happen when you’re working for a client and/or when you invest a lot of time and personal money into a project. Here’s what has happened to me over the years:

  • My battery died when I was shooting a wedding for a client and I didn’t have a backup one to change it
  • My hard-drive died and I had two freshly shot client sets there, with no other copies made of them (so they were gone forever)
  • I thought that it was ok to shoot in the light rain and not covering my camera, so my camera went out of order
  • My camera refused to work exactly 2 minutes before the start of a client shoot

My takeaways from those situations:

  • Always have a backup plan, battery, hard-drive, extra copy of a freshly shot material, even a second camera, if needed.
  • If the situation is completely out of your control, don’t panic and make a big deal of it and most importantly, don’t resist it and wish it was the other way around, if it’s simply not possible. Accept that yes, your clients might be upset (and they certainly will be), but as Marie Forleo says - “everything is figureoudable”, try to come up with some solution that will make the situation less painful for the client.

2. I didn’t get the job, because I’m an artist, not a fashion photographer 

When I moved to Helsinki, I was trying my best to not only establish myself as a photographer here but also provide for myself and my family with my craft. So I had a job interview once at a company shooting web-store pictures for big Finnish brand names. The position seemed perfect for me and I seemed a perfect fit for it too. The company was young and small, but very fast growing. They provided photography services for brands, but everything there was done by machines, so none of the company’s employees was a photographer even, they just knew how to operate those product-photography mini-rooms. They wanted to extend their services and offer actual fashion photography to their important clients and become a one-stop shop. They also wanted a person with a Finnish registered company and I already had that, as well as lots and lots of experience of working with models. The interview went really well, as it seemed to me, and the manager of the company was impressed by my work. However, they never called me back! I was devastated because I needed the work so much and he almost offered me the position, mentioning however that he was a bit cautious working with artists because they might want to bring their art into the very specific regulated client order.

My takeaways:


When you want to get a fashion photography job, don’t show a fine art portfolio. Most utility fashion photography is not meant to be arty. It’s meant to make a product clearly seen by the customer and to make that customer want to buy this product. It’s not about deep sorrows and strange awkwardness of surreal fine artwork. It doesn’t make the artwork bad or anything, but it’s just not the place for it. If you want to get a fashion photography gig, get a fashion photography portfolio. You can paste any type of photography instead of fashion here.

In the end, the manager was right: at some point, I would want to bring my artistic views into the client work and if they didn’t want that, it just wasn’t the place for me.

3. No one liked my portfolio at a photography festival

Ok, they didn’t say it sucked, but I didn’t get any deals with galleries, agents, etc. Here’s the story: I went to the huge Rencontres d”Arles photo festival several years ago. It was my first time doing it and I was very excited. The main thing I went there for was to get my work reviewed by international experts and hopefully to get invitations from magazines to publish my work, get gallery representations, find an art agent, who could help me sell my work, etc. But, none of them seemed to be interested. They did say that yes, the work is good, but the general feedback was - we don’t understand what your work is about because you don’t have a strong story behind it. And I spent so much money on simply to get to this tiny city in the middle of France!


My takeaways:


Galleries, agents, magazines need a story to sell your work. Usually, this story cannot be told in one image, that’s why they expect artists to produce series and be consistent with their work and style. This is how the financial side of the art world works. Art collectors, magazine readers are buying a story, not just the work. That’s why the story-telling component in your work is extremely important if you want to make money with your art.

It doesn’t mean that my art is wrong or bad though. It doesn’t mean I’m not an artist. But it does mean that at that point in my life I wasn’t even aware of why I was creating. I didn’t know what I wanted to share with the world through my photography and why it was important to me. Asking yourself those questions are important for growing as an artist.

4. The client didn’t like my work

Yes, the work I put all my time, effort and love in. It felt horrible, to say the least. I was hired to bring “magic” into their product photography, but something went wrong. They didn’t get the result they were expecting and they did spend a substantial sum of money to finance the whole project. I felt that I was responsible for everything, especially for their monetary losses and I was down and out for at least 2 weeks.


My takeaways:


  • Ask more questions before signing a contract. Understand what the client really needs and what their expectations are. It might be extremely tough, as in many cases they won’t even know the answer to the question themselves. It’s your job to see what would be the best for them and see if you and the client are a match. It doesn’t mean that you need to do everything that your client asks for and that the client will be always right. You need to self-assess and realize whether or not you’re right for the job. I’ve been through dozens of situations when I just jumped in convincing the client that I can do everything, when in fact it wasn’t so.
  • State clearly how you work and what’s included in the process (models search, retouch, set design, you name it). Communicate with the client at every step of creating your concept, so that they understand what to expect from it. Make it clear how many images they get and in what period of time. Make it simple for them to understand the price and the service, as though they are buying it in a supermarket. Yes, it’s often challenging, but it’s possible and it will make your client relations a lot smoother.

5. Negative feedback after a workshop

It happened at the very beginning of me organizing them and again it was a tragedy for me. The interesting part is that people were only willing to share negativity anonymously. No one wanted to come up to me and tell me that they were not happy with something face-to-face, or even in messages. The negative feedback was mostly about me judging their work during portfolio reviews and also about not making sure that everyone had their shots of the exact same scene that I was shooting. I was selfishly thinking about getting my own shots in because I had to present them post-processed the next day to the same students.


My takeaways:


When you teach someone, it’s important to make sure that they get the material. It’s crucial that they actually learn from you. So yes, I have to perform well, but with the goal of presenting my knowledge to my students, so that they can benefit from it, and not to simply look talented and cool in their eyes.

In this particular case half of the audience never heard about me before the workshop, so they simply weren’t digging my art and their expectations were different. Partially it was due to the workshop description, which might have been somewhat misleading, partially because they did like the description but didn’t actually pay a lot of attention to the enclosed samples of my work, so they didn’t realize how weird it was. So the takeaway is: make the selling copy crystal clear and state what kind of knowledge the students will get, without making it seem prettier than it is.

You can’t keep everyone happy. Sometimes, it’s not about you and your possible mistakes. Some people can be just like you when you’re taking the much-needed criticism about your work painfully.

I hope you can learn from my mistakes, as well as from yours. But the most important thing is to flip the pain of failure, screw-ups, and negative feedback into the desire to become better and actually be grateful to those who point out your weak points so that you can return strong. There’s a book that helped me embrace this powerful idea - Mindset, by Carol Dweck. Have you read it? If not, I’d highly recommend it. If yes, share your opinion below


What were your biggest screw-ups? Did you learn anything from them? I’d love to get this conversation started in the comments to this post!


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