Photography hopes, dreams, and phoning it in

Or, the long-buried story of my epic photo school failure.

I never thought I’d be writing about phoning it in; you know, the act of making a half-hearted attempt at something. Normally, half-hearted is not a word in my personal vocabulary. This week, on something important (to me), I phoned it in, and I feel like crap about it. So, forgive me for what’s sure to be a very “soft” post, but, I need some catharsis, a little piece of mental salvation. Today, this little piece of the web is a journal; if you don’t want to read it, I understand. It’s one of those personal posts, that, like this one about losing Gomer and a future one about miscarriage, had to be written eventually. I’ll try to at least have a sense of humor about it, isn’t that from whence the best catharsis comes?

Back in around 1997 or 1998, several lifetimes ago, seemingly (yes, I am THAT old), I took a photography workshop in Oaxaca, Mexico, with the amazing documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark through Maine Workshops. I won an award for a photo of some Mexican Punks, and went to New York to receive it. Mary Ellen, whom I admired greatly (still do), liked my work and encouraged me to apply to the International Center of Photography in New York. They have an amazing documentary photojournalism program that at the time, accepted about 10 students from around the world each year. I applied, and I got accepted, and I quit my job at Minneapolis agency Carmichael Lynch, took a flying leap, and went to New York in fall, 1999.

And while living in New York was an amazing experience, my time at ICP was (still is) one of the greatest disappointments of my life. It started out strong; I had a great eye for “the moment”, everyone said. But technically, I sucked. I am really terrible with anything but natural outdoor lighting, and my printing skills were even worse. The director and teacher of the program, Joan Liftin, whom I greatly respected (still do), left mid-year, which really threw me off-kilter. I came home to Wisconsin for a break (met a guy) and lost focus, to say the least. When I went back to New York, my photos got more and more depressing. In January, we had a workshop with Mike Yamashita from National Geographic in which we had to go shoot Central Park in a snowstorm; I couldn’t muster anything more than a pathetic photograph of an empty slide. Mind you, I was in my early-30s and could almost hear the sound of my eggs dying. My final student exhibition was, laughably, a close up of myself and a close up of my bed, both taken with a plastic Holga toy camera, and a shot of my aging father walking into the ocean (the last of which, a gallery tried to purchase for an insanely low price, and I refused to sell.) I might as well have exhibited three large photographs of my navel.

Now, I’d been dreaming of being a photographer for about a decade already at that point, in spite of my burgeoning success in the *highly glamorous* business of advertising. So, needless to say, the glorious ball of flaming failure that I experienced in New York was a bit hard to handle. Never mind the fact that I didn’t actually want to achieve a lifestyle in which I’d earn $250 if I miraculously ever got a photograph on the cover of the New York Times, and I’d pay ten times that monthly for a tiny studio apartment. The point was, I’m not used to sucking, and failing, and I don’t much like it (who does?)

Fast forward a decade. I move back to Wisconsin, get a job, buy a house, meet a guy, get married, honeymoon in Paris, use one of my few remaining eggs to have a kid, get a different job, and another, then land, twice and for all, at Jigsaw. As far as photography goes, it doesn’t have much of a part in my life, although before New York it was a huge personal passion. Sadly, I haven’t taken a lot of good photos of my son. And, though we have been married for six years, my husband has never seen my photographs that got me into ICP or that I took while I was there. Boom! Passion buried.

Now we’re at the “phoning it in” part of this post. The lesson here is: kids, don’t phone it in. Ever. Jigsaw, you see, has a monthly photo contest on our blog, with some amazingly talented photographers. I decided I should start participating. But instead of actually doing that, participating, finding it again, taking some new photos for the contest, I just pulled an old photo from my blog and phoned it in (emailed it in, actually). And I’m extremely disappointed in myself. If I had put my heart into it, like the others did, and still not done well, that would be much more admirable than the fact that I couldn’t get over the disappointments of the past and find the passion.

So, I’m committing here publicly that over the course of the coming months, I will do my best to pour my heart and soul into photographs again and find it. I might still suck, but at least I’ll be trying. And that, I can live with. Fortunately, I have an incredibly inspiring group of people to learn from.

Have you ever let yourself down? How did you let yourself back up? Ever buried a passion? How did you find it again?

Thanks for listening.


  • Jim Raffel


    I think photography is like blogging – is like almost everything in life. You just have to do it, and then keep doing it and most importantly keep doing it even on the days you don’t want to. Every now and then I golf and realize just how pathetic I am at the game. But at least once every 18 holes make a shot like the pros that keeps me coming back. If I played more maybe I’d start making 2 then 3 and someday most of my shots like the pros. The things that matter take time and practice and yes as you pointed out passion. I don’t play golf more because I have no passion for the game. I’ve found a passion for blogging and I like to think I’m getting better at it. I try to never phone a post in but that does not mean that every post is better than the last. It just means I dig for the passion and deliver the best I can on that day. Make sense?
    PS – I’d love to see those pictures from Mexico :-) I found my way in to the printing industry via photography.

    • Sue Spaight

      Jim, you speak truth, as (almost) always : ) One can only have so many passions that they are truly committed to at any one time. How unfortunate. I love your insight about doing it even on the days you don’t want to do it. That’s where I fell down. Thanks for sharing your experience! -Spaight

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  • Mary Spaight


    I have seen some of your photos, and don’t think for a moment that you are anything less than an amazing photographer. Mine usually consist of someone with their head cut partially off or composed so as to look like they’re wearing a lampshade on their head.

    As someone who received their degree in Graphic Arts, I have spent a laughable small amount of time working in the field since then. A short stint at a local magazine that was purchased and moved to New Hampshire, and some freelance work here and there was all it amounted to before I got married and had my first child, all at breakneck speed. Then life has a way of squeezing passions and dreams to the margins, sometimes out of the picture altogether. So my talent and passion was reduced to really great kids’ birthday party invitations, some beautiful shower invites, etc.

    But finally, I’ve got it back. Not quite in the incarnation that I would have hoped, but the spark of creativity is there again, and it’s awesome. I recently acquired a small business from a friend that specializes in custom gift boxes for new moms that deliver at the birthing units of local hospitals. It’s direct marketing, and I am paid by the advertisers. But I was able to do setup art on ads again, and design a new logo when I renamed the company. I also found that I’m pretty good at sales too, which was a surprise. And I have had a large measure of success in the short time I’ve had the business.

    A year ago, I was going through lots of personal turmoil, and was “phoning it in” a lot. I was scared of everything and this business venture scared the hell out of me. But I swallowed hard, and reached for it, and it’s been terrific. And amazingly, nothing seems quite so scary anymore and I’m not disappointed in my many half hearted attempts that were making up my life. For the first time in a long time, I’m all in, and it feels pretty damn good.

    Thanks for your insight-but your awesomeness is undiminished for me. : )


    • Sue Spaight

      Mary, “Life has a way of squeezing passions and dreams to the margins, sometimes out of the picture altogether.” Sooooo true. We musn’t let it. Congratulations on your new business – that is fantastic! You are a woman of many talents and it sounds like you’re getting a lot of satisfaction from applying them. Your story is inspiring! Way to go for it, my fellow Spaight.

  • Katie


    Phoning it in, is better than doing nothing at all. Every one of us is allowed to phone it in, as long as we do not make a habit of it. Ya done good.


    • Sue Spaight

      Katie, your comment really made me think; thank you. IS it better to phone it in, than to do nothing at all? I would have said that it’s better to do only the things you can do whole heartedly, than to do some thing half-heartedly (or half-assed, if you will). But, how realistic is that really? None of us is ever going to be perfect, try as we might. So, I suppose I have to admit the inevitability of having to occasionally do some of what you or I or other driven people would characterize as “phoning it in”. The key, then, becomes discerning what we are going to really regret phoning it in on, and what isn’t a big deal after all. Does that make any sense? Or am I navel-gazing again (probably) LOL. -Spaight

  • Katie

    Think of it this way: is it better to try, than to never do anything at all? I hate doing things half-assed, if it doesn’t meet my high expectations, I’d rather not make an attempt. But that’s not realistic – and do you want to know who made me re-evaluate my attempts? YOU. Think yoga. I may never be as perfect as I want to be, but I WILL have given everything I have and given something a shot, even if it’s considered “phoning in” by someone else. -Katie

    • Sue Spaight

      Hmm…Katie…yes…it’s always better to TRY. In this particular case, I didn’t REALLY TRY. It was totally half-assed, no effort whatsoever. Didn’t give it everything I have, not even close. That’s not like me. It’s a huge “WTF?” That’s why it has kept me up for two nights and makes me want to puke. It’s that whole intensity thing that we talk about. Many would say I take things too seriously.I like to laugh, but I also like to always do my best. If that’s too serious, or too intense for some, then, so be it. It’s never going to be OK with me to phone it in on anything that I care about. I know you can relate as you are my evil twin muahahahahahaha

  • Katie

    Evil twin I am. Indeed. muahahahaaaa

  • Addy Drencheva


    Here’s how I see things: Passion trumps skills any day. If you are passionate about something (and know it) then you’ll work hard to improve your skills and get where you want to be. Hopefully you’ll never be happy with where you are so you can keep growing and learning. BUT passion requires energy. Passion requires emotional effort. Yes, it pays back, but it is exhausting and who needs that? Somehow you have to find a balance.

    Plus it is better to realize you phoned in and be disappointed in yourself than to be in denial about it. Disappointment is constructive.

    And the best part is that it is a WEEKLY photo contest. Plenty of opportunities to bring your passion back, try, learn and kick ass.

    • Sue Spaight

      Addy, as usual, you just “get it”. Yes, it is exhausting, trying balance work with all of our other passions, isn’t it? True passion “should” be energizing, but that’s not always the reality of it. Maybe you should be a therapist : ) — somehow you just got me to forgive myself. And I totally agree disappointment can be constructive if we channel it into motivation. Weekly? Really? Sweet. THANK YOU for being you. -Spaight

  • Addy Drencheva

    Passions are very strange and dangerous. I always say they are like drugs. They are energizing and make you happy. But you also end up with an obsession and sleep deprivation because you want to “do it all NOW in the best possible way” and that is exhausting. It even drives us crazy.

    One day when I leave Jigsaw I will go to back to school and get my PhD in psychology. Dead serious.

    • Sue Spaight

      “PhD in psychology.” Like. “One day when I leave Jigsaw.” Dislike.

  • Troy Freund

    Hey Sue,
    Good job. I look forward to seeing your efforts as you go forward. Though you might imagine otherwise, I really think you are possibly in a sweet spot. You are in a position where your income/stability/ability to pay bills does NOT rely on photography. You can make your photography as you wish, not as a client wishes, not compromise yourself in order to pay your bills. There can be a big difference between having a passion for something and making a living from something. Every day and experience you’ve had has led you to today. You ARE supposed to be where you are.

    • Sue Spaight

      Troy, thank you. The grass is always greener somewhere else, right? I would agree, the realities of how hard it is to make good money doing documentary photography did play a part in putting a big damper on it, for me. It also gave me even more respect for those of you who do it, day in and day out, and do it well and with passion. That said, it can be pretty hard to find the time and energy to make pictures when you’re working 50-60 hours a week at something else, taking care of a kid, and trying to take halfway decent care of yourself. So, I *suppose* I could cut myself a little more slack, but nah. ;) This afternoon, I would have loved nothing more than to be just strolling around looking at stuff with a camera. But, writing a social plan and walking some dogs had to happen instead. C’est la vie. I’ll just have to fit it in where I can. @nickpipitone walks around on lunch hours and shoots, and I can see that as a possibility for me. Also early mornings…in Spring! Love your comments about accepting where I am. Huge part of what I am working on right now. You are awesome. -Spaight