'Fighting against my own sense of inadequacy and anxiety is my hardest struggle, but working with it instead of running away was my biggest victory.' - Josh Stevens on learning to live with anxiety, dealing with imperfection and finding a way to express your talent in a competitively talented world.
Recently, I spent a lot of time in Crete scribbling down ideas in my notebook, which is the essential second part of my brain, interspersed with periods of peering through the viewfinder of my camera. As a photographer I am often sat by myself editing pictures of dynamic, happy people whilst, by the nature of holding the camera, I never see myself. This has often instilled an artificial sense of loneliness, as though I’m merely the observer of a social group and never a part of it. To me, anxiety comes hand-in-hand with isolation, the ever-present question of “am I good enough” in the back of my head.
Sat on that Cretan veranda looking though obnoxiously artistic pictures of pigeons, I noticed something about myself. Images have an incredible power of preservation, not just through what they show but also an entire journey of circumstance that led to its taking. I saw the full length of my journey leading from my home in the South to that very moment.
I don’t see a familiar face when I look across my childhood, but I remember being told I could excel at anything I put my mind to. That being said I was musically talentless, horrendously out of shape, and about as nimble as a stampede of elephants. According to my mind I was terrible at art, so I decided not to bother pursuing it. Not to mention being closeted for a long time around countryside boys who threw about my least favourite f-word more often than Hollywood girls throw shade. I found the perfect place for my then stupendously self-conscious personality, the internet, and I soon became complacent in my isolation.
When I arrived at St Andrews I suddenly found myself at the complete other end of the spectrum. Thanks to network restrictions in halls I was cut-off from my online friends, and I came to rely too much on the people I was now around. I saw myself in the midst of a very talented collective of musicians and intellectuals, and I felt I couldn’t compete (though the very fact that I thought I needed to compete should have been a warning sign). I didn’t call myself an artist then, and I jumped in at the deep end.
The way I see myself work is with an anxious fear that I am letting people down and a need to please everybody. In the space of a semester I took on too many responsibilities, offering a promise to work with so many people I can barely count. I had gone from a lazy physicist to a man with no time to relax, and it pushed me to the edge of personal disaster. The projects mostly succeeded but was not helped by my spiralled retreats to solitude with completely justifiable consequences to my professional relationships. Knowing people disliked and distrusted me only made me worse.
I needed an escape; something I could be good at that allowed me to actually exist as a human being with human needs. It remains my belief that everybody needs an avenue where they can express themselves, be it through writing, art, performance, programming or whatever. And as much as you may resist sharing it with others it is, for most people, the best course of action. I recognised that my own brain was fighting against my work, as my harsh criticisms had been the downfall of my journeys into writing and sketching beforehand.
Excluding the initial shock to my wallet, picking up my camera was the point in which my life changed in a positive direction. Of course, my first instinct was that I was absolute garbage and that I could never compare to anybody else. It took conscious effort to keep taking and sharing pictures, learning with every mistake. The key difference between this and all of my previous hobbies was that I didn’t keep this one a secret. I put my pictures on Facebook and Instagram, and I got my friends involved as my models. As time went on I improved, and I could identify myself more and more as a photographer, albeit a hobbyist. Being given books on the subject as gifts may seem a strange aside, but it made me realise that my anxiety had no base and that I am not insignificant to my friends.
I used this momentum to bring me back to my older hobbies, and I took up graphic design again. Now I stand on the point of not only being a paid “professional” photographer, but also as a resident designer for an LGBT+ community. Battling through my self-inflicted sense of inadequacy had brought me to a new place. Now I was not only comfortable with myself being gay, but also proud to be so. Pride through problems, as much as it sounds like the slogan of a totalitarian regime.
That brings me back around to sitting on the roof of that Greek building, staring idly at a picture of myself on my camera screen. In that moment I saw in completeness how I had developed in only a few years. If I was given the opportunity to give anyone advice, then it would be to learn to work with yourself. Turn your difficulties into tools and learn from your mistakes, as I have tried to. It will never be an overnight change, but don’t despair and try not to isolate yourself.
I recognise that my anxiety is here to stay, but now I know how to work with it, not run away from it. As clichés go, it is said that life is a journey. But they also say that a single picture can speak a thousand words. As a photographer and artist, I want these thousand words to lead to this picture to illustrate my journey.