Working Through Doubt and Dry Spells

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As anyone photographically inclined knows, creativity is not always a constant. There are stretches of time when things just aren’t working. Either you don’t have the drive to take photographs, or you hate the ones you are taking. You’ve fallen out of sync with what you love. It can be one of the worst periods of time, and it’s not a one-off thing. Dry spells recur. They come and go like the seasons, but hopefully with not as much regularity.

Life grays out. You look at your camera, and you find that you don’t want to do anything with it. Perhaps you’re out with your camera, and there’s nothing you want to photograph. Whatever the case is, there’s a certain inescapable hollowness that pervades everything for as long as the dry spell lasts. For some, it can just be a creative funk where you’re just not feeling it. We all have off days. A dry spell, a creative drought, whatever you want call it, is longer.

The doubt that creeps in can be all-encompassing and deadening because there are few things creatively worse than feeling like your work is worth nothing. It’s a crippling experienced, and I imagine you’ve dealt with it in some form, as I have and have plenty of others. Doubt can stem from any number of external factors, but based on personal experience and interviews with other photographers, usually it’s all internal. “Be your own harshest critic” is the oft-repeated phrase, and it works, though it can occasionally work too well to the point where everything grinds to a halt.

Model: Natalie Margiotta

Model: Natalie Margiotta

Fortunately, these dry spells are temporary, and they’re formative periods, too. Every dry spell is a chance to find a renewed sense of purpose, that light at the end of the tunnel where everything comes back into focus. Once you hit your stride again, the sense of relief is immense, but it’s the getting through that matters as much as the getting out of it. It’s necessary to fester in our thoughts, to endure the at turns paralyzing and grating doubt, because if you’re not asking yourself “Why am I doing this?” then you won’t have answer when people ask you why you’re doing it. Only after the fact do you realize that the dry spell helped to deepen and strengthen your conviction and commitment to the craft.

When I was neck-deep in a photo365 project a year ago, I had smaller but far more intense dry spells that I had to shirk off or power through because I had a self-imposed 11:59pm deadline for a photograph each day. The images I made in the midst of a dry spell during that project were ones I wasn’t terribly fond of, but I had to wade through the muck, so to speak. I’d have felt worse had I given in to internal pressure by abandoning the project. In the months since finishing, I’ve had a few dry spells that gradually build up, gathering energy as they did, and then crashed like waves on the shore only to retreat.

Some people wait it out knowing that grousing and groaning will inevitably lead nowhere. Others pursue other creative endeavors because creative inertia doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t try other things. There’s the chance that giving time to other pursuits can help reframe your mind photographically. It’s always good and occasionally necessary to take a break. There are those who kick themselves in the ass, who break open a fire hydrant to wash out that dry spell.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but there are ways out. If all else fails, talk to photographer friends about what’s going on in your head. Commiseration is a very fine form of therapy.