Photography: Fears, Successes, and Failures

Confession: I’ve been wanting to do some kind of stills or video documentary of my family’s past; what they lived through in Vietnam during war times, how they fled Vietnam to an island refugee camp in Malaysia, what they faced on the refugee camp, and what it was like raising a family and growing up as a ‘minority-of-little-means’ in a very homogeneous community north of Toronto. The task always seemed to daunting, so I never did anything to even start the process.

I recently visited my cousins just outside the main district in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I was gifted my mother’s old pre-unification Vietnamese passport and some images of my mom, dad, aunts, and uncles from the 60’s and 70’s. After posting an image of the gift to my Facebook, my dear friend (and incredibly accomplished photojournalist) Sima Diab wrote to me: “But I think this would be an amazing photo essay. Something personal. Retracing your parents journey. Your life as a first generation immigrant. Nothing has been more pertinent, important or timely.”

Sima was in Cairo and I was in Toronto, still, we were on Skype within an hour to discuss. I had confessed to her that I’ve always wanted to do this project but was afraid of failing. Afraid I would fail at something I actually cared so much about. Afraid that I wouldn’t do my family right by creating something that was…bad. The battle of two sides of every photographer has never been more prevalent; the confident and self-assured struggling with self doubt.

She told me about how she felt after winning the 2016 James Foley Award for Conflict Reporting by the ONA

“Just got this award. Feel like a fraud. Every time someone congratulates me I feel they’re wanting an explanation. No one sees the MOUNTAIN of self doubt I struggle with every single day” 

Sima wrote at the time. Perhaps I am projecting a bit, but I really see a lot of similarities between Sima and I. Under the stress of an assignment or job, we show up prepared and confident. We get the job done, and done well. Left to our own thoughts, we compare ourselves to our peers, unable to see that even the most successful ones are flawed.  

Beyond their facades of implied successes and happiness posted to their Facebook or Instagram, there is insecurity and doubt. That we see the final product but not the tears and sweat that goes into what makes it. That throughout the process there are ever present moments of fear and anxiety. Moments that drive people to produce work that is evolving and improving, but that also limits us in going beyond what we think might be possible.

When I was still at my regular ‘9 to 5er’ job over six years ago, I didn’t fear failing because at that point in my life I was already a failure. Having a stable job somehow brought me misery and a high degree of anxiety. I was there to collect pay cheques, and little else. The anxiety got so bad that there were times when I thought I was dying, seriously. I woke up every single day thinking of excuses of why I shouldn’t bother going in to work. When I finally decided I had enough and left, there weren’t any doubts because at that point it felt like there weren’t any other options.

Failure at that time would have meant travelling the world and burning through all my savings, coming back home and not being able to find work, and then eventually selling my condo and cashing in on the equity to help me start over again. Success in photography six years ago meant being able to just scrape by and pay my mortgage. The Neil from six years ago would look at the Neil now and wouldn’t believe how far he’s come. He’d probably say: “Holy shit, dude! You’re killing it!” But my idea of success now isn’t the same as it was six years ago. I’ve grown and expected more from myself. I’ve seen the unbelievable things my peers have been able to achieve and it has both inspired me and left me with my own uncertainties.

So when will I feel successful? When will I not fear failing? I honestly don’t know. There’s work that I’ve produced that I am proud of that speaks to my growth as a photographer but this lingering sense of insecurity I think will always be there. In the eyes of many I’ve already succeeded at being a photographer (whatever the hell that means). But despite that, I still fear failing. Perhaps that fear and doubt is what I personally need to motivate myself to improve. So maybe I will start this project with my family and make it a success…maybe.  

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