Thoughts on Limitations

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Last month, I spoke at the The Image Deconstructed workshop in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Also there was Sara Naomi Lewkowicz discussing her powerful series of photographs, Shane and Maggie. After her presentation, I asked, “How do you start a new project knowing that it probably will never match the caliber of this series?”

She said, “I have to accept the fact that the best work of my career may already be done.”

It was an incredibly honest and graceful response. Her best work may already be completed, and yet here she is, still fighting against the odds to do better each time.

For me, there’s a great lesson: not simply that every project can’t be a bases-loaded-out-of-the-park-home-run but rather the underlying implication–that every time we pick up a camera or sit down to edit, we are fighting against the limitations of both the work in front of us and our own natural abilities.

Sometimes, as you’ve certainly experienced, the reality on the computer screen ends up miles shy of your original hopes. In times like these, it’s easy to be plagued by doubt and blame. I know I am.

Am I not as good as I thought? Someone else surely would have done it better.

I want to tell you that it gets easier, that in time you will learn to accept these defeats as just part of the process. But I don’t think that’s true.

I think it’s always hard and it’s always disappointing.

If you’re concerned about your work and you’re obsessed with craft, I think you will constantly struggle against limitations, particularly your own. And that painful feeling of being exposed for one’s shortcomings is also an acknowledgment of where our focus belongs next time. It’s the pain of a muscle being torn so that it can be built up stronger.

In the end, we are practicing. Each and every day when we press the shutter or splice the edit, we are just practicing, waiting for those rare moments where we collide with the world in some beautiful and unexpected way.

Until then, we practice and we prepare. Because today just might be that day.