The serious photographer today should constantly be seeking new ways of commenting on a world that is newly understood. Constant creativity and innovation are essential to combat visual mediocrity. The photographic educator should appeal to the students of serious photography to challenge continually both their medium and themselves. ~Jerry Uelsmann
Some people say that you shouldn’t take yourself seriously. I think that you should. In fact, if you take anything seriously, it should be your self, since it is the self that decides what else to take seriously. But there is more to it.
Certainly, to not take yourself seriously makes life easier. It may save you from disappointment, it may liberate you from taking responsibility for things, it may help you rationalize taking the easy path, it may allow you to dismiss those nagging what-ifs, it may relieve you of some worries, and it may unburden you from caring too much about anything. And, when you excuse yourself from caring, you also spare yourself such undesired feelings as frustration, anger, envy, regret, disappointment, grief, obligation, guilt, and others.
So, why should you take yourself seriously? For starters, without taking yourself seriously, you don’t just spare yourself negative emotions, you also forfeit (at least in degree of intensity) positive feelings, starting with a sense of self-worth. Also, when you don’t take yourself seriously, the whole do-unto-others thing—considered by many to be the foundation for all human morality—breaks down. If you don’t take yourself seriously, doing the same unto others means you don’t take anyone else seriously, either, and some people are very much worth taking seriously.
Caring deeply (which is the product of taking something—and therefore also yourself—seriously) is the foundation for any kind of deeply emotional experience. To feel strongly about some thing or some person, to a point where it elevates your life in a way that you cannot accomplish on your own, you must care deeply about that thing. Therefore, to not take yourself seriously is also to deny yourself profound emotional—even spiritual—experiences.
When you take something seriously, you become invested in that thing; you become interested in it, and motivated to make the most of your relationship to, or with, it. To take yourself seriously means to not settle for a mediocre existence, no matter how easy or carefree*; you gain the strength to not yield to lesser temptations and to not take the easy path if greater rewards may be found by investment of effort. To take yourself seriously means to seek to elevate yourself emotionally and intellectually, and to strive for a more meaningful living experience. Without taking yourself seriously, you may never muster the courage to take risks in order to better yourself or the things you care about.
To not take yourself seriously, and to avoid living deeply, while certainly easier than finding some comfortable niche and persisting there, is also to not make the most of your living moments and the opportunities available to you within the blink of existence that is your lifetime.
If photography is an important part of your life, I believe that the more seriously you take yourself, the more serious you should be about photography, too. It is a simple case to make: if you feel that photography makes your life better, then the more you invest in photography, the more photography will give you back in return. Being a voluntary activity, if photography did not reward you for time invested, I suspect that you would not be a photographer.
Photography can be a wonderful pastime, but it can also be a means to much greater and more rewarding ends. Why not make the most of it?
I write this after having been rebuked for being “too serious” in my writing, advised to “lighten up,” and asked, “what’s wrong with just having fun?” I think that the word “just” within the question, likely used without considering its implications, is ironic. But there is a bigger issue at play, which is this: the attitude of some to gain popularity by appealing to people’s innate instinct to follow the path of least resistance. Evidently, telling people what they want to hear is a good business strategy, even if not always in the best interest of these people.
I am grateful that no one—especially those in positions of influence—convinced me to “just have fun” in my early years as a photographer, when I was still struggling with doubts about how I should pursue photography. What I gained from nearly three decades of photographing seriously—with dedication and dignity, and striving to understand as much about photography and its expressive power as I could—is many orders of magnitude more rewarding than “just having fun.”
To those who wish to become more serious—about photography or anything else—but struggle to find the first, or next, step, I offer this advice: seek out places, activities, and people you feel are worth caring about, and care about them; and among these places, activities, and people, find those you feel can challenge you, and let them.
* I expect that some who are committed to philosophies proclaiming that one’s goal in life should be to avoid suffering, and/or that the self is an illusion, may bristle at this notion. I address these philosophies, and why I disagree with them, in my upcoming book (expected to be published next year).