Reflection: Self-doubt and self-improvement

Having completed Assignment 3 of G&M and started Assignment 3 of Documentary, I am very nearly halfway through the degree, content-wise. This feels like a good time to try to articulate something that’s been preying on my mind for the last few months.

I’m disappointed with my own work on Level 2 – sometimes it feels like I peaked at the end of Level 1…

My journey through Level 1 was probably not dissimilar to many: I studied part-time over just less than three years and did Art of Photography, followed by People & Place, finishing with Context & Narrative.

Of the three, I really loved Context & Narrative – it felt like my photography moved onto a whole new level. I was ecstatic to see that my development was recognised as my marks progressed from 62% (AoP), through 71% (P&P) to 83% (C&N). And I half-jokingly said that I must have peaked on Level 1 and it’s all downhill from here… but sometimes it feels like that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that I need to shake off.

And now I look at the work I’m doing for my assignments – both on G&M and on Documentary – and find it somewhat lacking. I don’t feel that the assignments are as creative, conceptual or interesting as the work I did for C&N, nor as much a part of my developing photographic voice. So I’ve been looking at reasons this might be the case, and what I can do about it.

Higher standards

I posted in the OCA Photography group on Facebook a question about whether my occasional feelings of self-doubt are normal, and got a resounding Hell, Yeah. Everyone who responded confessed to having the same feelings, some more often and more deeply than others. A few people posited theories as to why this is the case, particularly on Level 2 and above, and a strong theme emerged of simply having higher standards as one progresses.

At Level 2 you analyse the work of others more, both professional practitioners that you look at as part of your research and (more fairly, perhaps) other students on the same course. As time goes on I feel I can more clearly understand and articulate what is ‘good’ (successful, achieves its intent, thought-provoking, whatever) photograph or project, and when I measure myself against these standards I mostly see the gaps and the failings.

What can I do about this? First of all, to simply be aware of the above context helps. Then, I need to remember that when comparing myself to others, to look for the ways in which I am improving rather than obsessing on the weaknesses. Also, I should keep getting constructive critiques from peers, as they have the double effect of both pointing out where I am being successful and politely offering advice on overcoming weaknesses.

Feeling too constrained by the briefs

I specifically used the phrase ‘feeling’ rather than ‘being’ too constrained; it’s up to me how to interpret the assignment briefs, but I do sense that I fall back into accepting limitations more than pushing against them. I find it too easy to take briefs at face value and only really identify ways of making the assignments more interesting after the fact.

Case in point: I asked for peer feedback on Assignment 3 (portraits) and someone suggested I could have done absented portraits using objects. My response was: yeah, I thought of that but dismissed it. But did I really give it serious thought? Did I visualise, sketch out, test shoot any variants of this approach? No, I stuck with a quite traditional response to the brief.

I do think the briefs are written in a more prescriptive way than on C&N (which surprised me, as I expected briefs to get ‘looser’ as the course progressed). On C&N the conceptual parameters were clear enough (‘photographing the unseen’; a self-portrait series; a constructed image etc) but the approach was very open. On G&M the subject matter parameters come across as more limiting (‘a local issue you feel strongly about‘; ‘a group with a varied membership‘ etc) and sometimes the submissions and format requirements are oddly specific (‘produce three images each of four people, shot in the same location, print one per person at A4 and the other two at 5″ x 4″ each‘ etc).

I confess I can’t remember which student said this in their blog, but I recall reading something along the lines of ‘Gesture & Meaning, more than any other OCA Photography course, is designed to prepare you for being a professional photographer‘ (my emphasis).

With this in mind I accept that part of being a professional photographer is working to client briefs, and this is something I need to get used to! But I also need to stop letting these parameters curtail my creativity.

Studying full-time

This is my recent realisation. Last year I decided to take a career break to study full-time, having been increasingly disillusioned in my career as a management consultant. This has had two unexpected effects.

Firstly, it’s possible that I do too much studying and too little other stuff! I’m currently averaging about 20-25 hours study per week, alternating between G&M and Documentary, plus photography seems to occupy much of my thoughts even when not sat at a desk or pointing a camera at something. Aside from domestic chores, a few hours volunteering and a bit of socialising, I’m all about the photography study. Maybe I’m just too close, too focused, too narrow in my horizons? When I worked full-time and studied part-time, I had other aspects of my life to think about, and maybe this mental space was actually useful… Now, I’m really quite immersed and that’s not necessarily all that healthy for my development. Maybe I should slow down the studies a bit, give my development some breathing space?

Secondly, almost all of my work on C&N that I was so proud of was a reaction to the rest of my life, particularly my dissatisfaction in my career. Assignments covered variously: surface appearances being deceptive (alluding to my smiley happy work mask), feeling disjointed and ‘all over the place’ (a reference to my constant work travel and lack of stability) and my decision to choose between a corporate life and an academic one. It hit me today: those tensions in my life led to interesting photographic work – and my current carefree home-based lifestyle does not!

To be honest I’m not quite sure what to do with that last point! I am not planning to re-introduce stress into my life just to act as a photographic muse.

I think just writing all of this down has helped me to see things more clearly. It reframes the feelings that I’ve been having and has helped me to unpack them and make more sense of them.

Specifically regarding my lack of satisfaction with assignments, I’m now understanding why so much is made of setting some time aside for rework at the end of Level 2 courses. I think with the benefit of time passing, I can come back to my assignments from the first half of this year and make them better.

Normal cheery service will be resumed shortly!


12 thoughts on “Reflection: Self-doubt and self-improvement

  1. helen 20 July 2016 / 13:30

    Well laid out thoughts, Rob. I have been surprised (and impressed!) by your breakneck speed of progress but I am sorry to hear that you are dissatisfied with some of your work. As I said on FB I am confident this is just growing pains.

    To your point about narrow focus and life just being all things photography at the moment, I maintain that the peak of my academic achievements and fulfilment was when I was doing my A levels because I was forced to study four different subjects in great depth. Each other subject (history, latin and english lit) inspired my thinking, my imagination and my art.

    It is just so hard to find the time to research and enjoy other things when we are so focussed on moving forward with our coursework.

    All I can do when I feel panicky about my progress (or lack of it), which is pretty much every day, is to take a deep breath and remind myself that this is all about the journey, not the destination. Every failure is essential and makes us better. We just need to stay mindful about being true to ourselves and everything will be grand.


    • Rob Townsend 20 July 2016 / 14:58

      Thanks. It’s not really that breakneck, per course it’s an assignment every 8-10 weeks :-) I think I have put quite a lot of pressure on myself to get both courses done in a year. It’s possible, but I do feel like I could slow down a little…

      Good point about being true to yourself. I think recent assignments have felt tangental to my ‘developing voice’ (dahling) and I’m impatient to get ‘back on track’, as it were. But I also know that these diversions will all somehow inform my future practice…


      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jane 20 July 2016 / 19:24

    I have to agree with you Rob, that Level two seems “harder” and of course should be. Plus I think we get much more critical of ourselves – which is perhaps how we in fact learn?

    It is fascinating to muse about whether we take the briefs too literally and maybe should push the boundaries more. The whole point of me attempting to do this degree was to try and be more creative and risk taking yet I still stick to the “produce prints”, ” create blog entry” etc only to be challenged (quite rightly) by my tutor who said it is still up to me to decide what is the best creative approach (and as long as I submit a bit of everything in the end all should be fine. It’s almost necessary to give oursleves permission to break the rules and take a risk.

    It’s also very true (in my case) that my best work has been done around a topic where I am emotionally charged (stress is also a strong emotion). So rather than deciding you might need some stress back – maybe find another strong emotion you can work with?

    And as to developing a “voice” – mmmm… I certainly haven’t found my one voice yet and to be honest at this point I am not sure I want to – I would rather experiment. My tutor fo Landscape said this was all fine and should be so – just to think about it for level 3. Crikey – got to find a voice soon!


    • Rob Townsend 20 July 2016 / 22:38

      Thanks Jane – a lot of useful and helpful feedback there. I really do take briefs very literally… another student said to me today he deliberately ignores the requested image count just on principle! And someone on Facebook made a similar comment to yours about needing to channel a different emotion rather than stress… I think this is steering me towards the political, especially on Documentary (less directly relevant for G&M I guess) as that is what’s really firing me up at the moment…

      Regarding my personal voice, I think I can see fragments of it emerging but they haven’t yet knitted together into a cohesive and distinctive whole… at a conceptual level I know I like certain modes of working, inspirations, thought processes, and at a visual level I think I am beginning to show a preference for particular approaches to composition… I just think it’s still developing while I go through Level 2 as you say.

      Thanks for commenting, I really appreciate it :-)


  3. Anne Bryson 20 July 2016 / 21:48

    Rob, I am so glad you have had the courage and honesty to publish this in what is to all intent and purpose a public blog because you echo so many of my own concerns but haven’t been brave enough to put them down in writing.

    You talk about the buzz you got from C&N and how you saw your progression from that module and I actually think that C&N is part of the problem. It wasn’t an option for me when I chose my courses and having joined the FB group I see what others have done on that course and am in awe of it. Suddenly there is a route in to all this contextual stuff other than by viewing work you don’t understand and reading dry accounts of it and my worry was that I am progressing to level 2 without that hands on knowledge and experiance. This is something I have raised with the OCA becau

    For your part, you found a new style of photography that you thrived on and were good at and certainly in documenary, you are back to to more traditional genre and not seeing progress in quite the same way. But ask yourself, would you have produced assignment 2 on loss in quite the same way if you hadn’t done C&N? I don’t know enough about your work to answer that but I suspect that this is where some of those creativity thoughts came from.

    The other thing you mention is the fact that at level 2 we are expected to analyse the work of other photographers in a way we haven’t done before. You acknowledge you have a better understanding of what is good and what works. That is progress too. I don’t think it is just about producing ‘better’ photographs.

    I was interested in your point about feeling you achieved more when you had more stress in your life and can identiry with that one. I have always found that the more pressure I was under the more I got done and the better the outcomes. I am now retired and just seem to faff around not making decisions and then when I do I start doubting myself and go back and change my mind. Not that I am suggesting that you should go back to your stressful career either!


    • Rob Townsend 20 July 2016 / 22:42

      Thanks Anne, really good of you to comment. It’s reassuring to know that I am not alone with my experiences! Yes, I found C&N very different to the other L1 courses, quite liberating – then found the L2 courses to be less inspiring (so far). But you’re right – my Doc assignment 2 on loss was kind of an extension of my C&N approach so I need to keep that in mind whenever I worry about creativity… I just need to keep connecting the dots…!


  4. Anne Bryson 20 July 2016 / 21:50

    I wish there was a spell checker or edit option when posting comments on this site!!!


    • Rob Townsend 20 July 2016 / 22:43

      Do you not see an ‘Edit’ link under your comments? I do… (?)


      • Anne Bryson 21 July 2016 / 03:04

        I do one the comments on my own blog but not on other people’s, very odd!


  5. Kate 22 July 2016 / 20:29

    This is really great writing Rob and there is much that I can empathise with, if not fix.

    I am at a different point in my studies, having finished the Foundation course and moved onto EYV. I have to say that I am finding a marked contrast, especially in the early parts of the course. Whereas the end of FIP saw me identifying my own brief, finding photographers to research and using my own decisions about the creative and technical parameters of the work, I now find myself in a far more circumscribed environment and am actually quite frustrated by it. At one moment I found myself wondering if I should have done EYV first and then the Foundation course. This is not meant to be a slur on EYV, which is beautifully written and probably would have had me spellbound from page 1 had I not had the technical, academic and creative grounding provided by FiP. I am hopeful that the playing field will level a bit once I get to Part 3. In the meantime though, I am just trying to assume that I will be held to stricter standards and trying to maintain the sense of creative wonderment and abandonment that was such a feature of FiP. Ultimately, it’s down to me what I make of the briefs, and if I feel circumscribed then it’s up to me to find a more creative path through the work, and learning as much as I can from my failures as well as my successes.
    Re needing external stresses to produce work – I am an at home mum after a string of IT redundancies. I think as long as you still have passion, principles, curiosity and/or whichever values get you out of bed each morning, then you can continue to make work. My FiP tutor said something very helpful about risk-taking, let me see if I can find the quote. I think my point is that you might well still have the same issues even in the context of full-time work in a role that you didn’t love.

    “This work is a high point but don’t stop taking risks and don’t be afraid to be naive. You are a student. Creativity can be fickle. Allow yourself to fluctuate because that is the necessary freedom of learning.”

    Thanks again for this post, it has certainly made me think.


    • Rob Townsend 22 July 2016 / 22:59

      An interesting comparison! It’s odd, isn’t it, that the courses would get more restrictive as they progress rather then less…? I do think that the courses are all a little disjointed and would benefit from a root-and-branch content review though I appreciate that they can only change so many modules at once… But FIP and EYV were, if I recall correctly, introduced at about the same time – so the inconsistency between the two does strike me as strange…

      Anyway – thanks ever so much for your comments – good to see that my experience isn’t unique :-)


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