I will freely admit I sometimes feel like a fraud. “Imposter syndrome” it’s called. I know I shouldn’t; I’ve fairly prospered in my civilian career since leaving my last active duty tour. But it’s hard not looking at some of the talented people working in the news media industry and wondering if I measure up.
Last month I met some especially talented journalists when MVJ helped send me to the Poynter Institute to attend the “TV Power Reporting Academy,” and at the end of it I came to a few important realizations. Before going too far into that, I should probably give some context.
From 2016 to 2019, I was a photographer and videographer at the White House Communications Agency on an ADOS tour. It was a fantastic, if incredibly stressful job spanning two wildly different administrations. The experience was an honor and it was exciting, but it meant putting my civilian photojournalism career on hold. When the tour ended, I had a good friend who found me a job, ironically enough, as a civilian photojournalist and field editor working out of the White House briefing room.
This was where that sense of being a fraud started seeping in: the weight of all that talent and experience working in that small, dingy-yet-illustrious briefing room bore down on me. I constantly felt like I didn’t belong there, and worried that if I wasn’t careful someone would catch on and see me for what I really was. But I plugged away, kept my head down, and kept shooting.
When COVID hit, all but a few journalists were removed from the briefing room and I went back to New York City to cover the outbreak. Returning to being a full-time photojournalist in the city after so many years in another city was tough; many of my contacts and editors had moved on to other positions or left the business altogether. I was still an Air Force reservist with 4th Combat Camera Squadron, but on the civilian side it took me a while to get back into the groove. The Village Voice, who had been one of my main employers before I left for D.C. had completely gone out of business. It was like starting all over again, but with fewer publications and more competition. Still, it felt good to be back home making frames.
I also took this opportunity to return to school, majoring in Human Rights at Columbia University. I started paying more attention to the mil-vet community in the field of journalism. It was here that I connected with MVJ, and began making a concerted effort to take advantage of every opportunity they offered. This included portfolio reviews, meeting with mentors and connecting with other veterans within the news community. In February they put out a call for folks to apply to attend the TV Power Reporting Academy at the Poynter Institute. I threw my hat in the ring and became one of eight MVJ members to attend this intensive program focused on broadcast journalism storytelling.
The first day at the institute brought back that old nervous feeling of being the imposter in the room. Everyone there carried themselves with an air of experience and confidence, and the work they shared was wildly impressive. Of about 30 students, only eight came from a military background. The rest had been in the business for years, and it showed. But as everyone – military and non-military alike – began warming to each other and the walls started coming down, it slowly dawned on me: everyone in the room felt as undeserving as I did. Each had their own private doubts about whether they were good enough.
Brendan Keefe, an investigative journalist and instructor at the Poynter Institute later described his own take with overcoming self doubt.
“I also get imposter syndrome a lot when I’m teaching. I’m not that much older than my kid students, but … I’ve been doing it for a while now and feel more confident in teaching them the things that worked for me. But when I first started teaching I felt terrified. Did I have enough experience? Was I good enough to teach another generation?”
Kaitlin Newman, a Baltimore-based photojournalist, described her own struggles.
“When it comes to imposter syndrome I don’t know a single one of us that doesn’t experience it one way or the other,” she said. “It’s a super saturated industry. Yesterday’s news was yesterday. I always feel like my work could be better, but then I see other people’s work and I feel like it’s not that good. I think it just comes with the industry [and] is part of the territory.”
My time at Poynter reinforced Newman’s position. The conference took place at Saint Petersburg, Florida, which was a nice change of pace from the lingering winter weather back in New York. Being able to bounce ideas and past work off colleagues and instructors with decades of experience and diverse points of view required a thick skin, but highlighting our flaws as well as our successes gave us clearer paths towards improvement. At one point in our small-group breakout sessions we were able to review past clips, and almost to a person these would begin with something along the lines of “so this may not be my best work.” Everyone had as much self doubt as I did, but even the harshest reviews gave us space for self-improvement.
Understanding that everyone at the Institute had the same doubts but still pushed forward was one of the better lessons I took away from my time there. Sure, we went over technical and ethical concerns; we discussed the necessity for privacy in some stories and the requirements for breaking that privacy in others – but it was that doubt, and the way it fed into our competitiveness and our desire to be better than we are that really stayed with me. Doubt can cripple you if you let it, but it can also be one of the most important tools in your kit. More than a good lens or expensive camera, coming to grips with the doubt that we all have will make you a better journalist.
New York-based photojournalist and Army / Coast Guard veteran B.A. van Sise gave his own take, suggesting that self-doubt can be a tool for improvement.
“Self confidence is deleterious to good work; if you don’t hate your own work, you will never improve. For me, it’s been this thing where I’ve published this first book I did, and asked myself ‘when am I ever going to make it.’ It’s common and natural, and the only way you grow as an artist and professional is by wondering where it can be better.”