Copycats and Creativity: dealing with professional jealousy

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Creativity is a funny thing. When you have it, you can’t imagine struggling to do the things that come so naturally - whether it’s baking, crochet, design, photography, embroidery…the list is endless. When you’re not creative, or you lack talent in a specific area (I am confident in my photography but end up almost in tears after 5 minutes trying to wrangle a crochet hook), these crafts or skills can seem like a very closed book - a secretive community.

I admire lots of incredible photographers, and I’m completely at peace with the knowledge that - however confident I sometimes feel - I will never be able to match their talents. I’ve adopted a self-deprecating attitude towards most of my adult life. It works well for me, encourages me to keep trying my best, and not to lose focus. Similarly, I’m sure there are innumerable bakers, textile artists, painters, glass blowers (you get the idea) who enjoy their craft, sell their work and even make a good living, but are never going to create something world-shattering. For the vast majority of us, that’s just the way it is; we accept it, and we are happy with it. Would I like a book publishing about me? Maybe. Would I love to have an exhibition in a Manhattan gallery? Yes please! Am I happy never achieving that, but instead, ‘just’ making special memories for all the families who are kind enough to book me as a photographer. Of course - in fact, I’m more than happy. 

But for some, that “closed book” atmosphere triggers nothing but feelings of anxiety and jealousy. Rather than honing their craft, they succumb to the easiest - but least worthwhile - option. They copy. Perhaps it’s intentional. Sometimes it’s not. I have personally found the photography world to be rife with this.

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Let’s be honest. In the age of digital media, when almost everyone in the western world over the age of ten owns at least a smartphone, if not a laptop/tablet etc, it’s very easy to access a veritable goldmine of information. Those previously secretive creative communities have become more open to us all; if you want to learn something new, you can bet your bottom dollar there’s at least 1000 YouTube videos happy to teach you how. Add the affordability of a decent DSLR camera, payment plans or subscriptions for professional software such as Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, and super professional web building packages like Squarespace and within a very short space of time, you can set yourself up as a ‘professional photographer’.

I will add here that I certainly do not consider myself ‘above’ people who jump into business like this, and that’s because it’s almost exactly the way I did it! Every photographer learns something new, every single day, so if you’re considering it as a career there really isn’t any point in waiting until you feel like you know it all. You never will.

The problem, though, is that although you can easily learn photography skills, build a website, set up social media, buy good kit and start trading, there is one true thing that you can never really learn. Raw creativity. It is definitely possible to “fake it until you make it” for a while, but you can, and will, be discovered at some point.

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This leads me to some experiences I’ve had in the last year or so, which shook me at the time, but which I now view in a different light. Especially as I’ve discovered that lots of others share my experiences. I wanted to write about this because I now know there are lots of us having the one special thing which sets us apart - our creative talents - copied, regurgitated and spit back out. It’s not a nice feeling.

Of course, original ideas, especially as a photographer, are very hard to come by. It becomes even harder to be original if you spend a lot of time on social media; even if you don’t actively set out to imitate a particular image or style, it can happen subconsciously as you’ve exposed yourself to such a wealth of different images. It’s just one of many ways in which social media can be both a blessing, and a curse, when you are pursuing photography.

My issue is when the copying is deliberate. This came to a head for me recently when I advertised a workshop I’m running next month, teaching parents and other photographers the tricks I’ve learned to take better, natural photos of children. I am positive that somewhere in the world, someone has done this before. I don’t claim to be a trailblazer. However, I planned the day, added in some things I thought would set it apart from other things on offer to potential clients, and hit publish on the post. Within an hour, a photographer I have had problems with before published a post about a similar workshop. Some of the wording was almost identical.

Was it a fluke? An unhappy coincidence? We don’t work in the same area, so it shouldn’t matter, right? Except it wasn’t the first time it had happened. For a while, I had seen posts that sounded familiar to ones I had written. I would come up with an idea for a new photography package or offer, and see it advertised elsewhere. When I submitted work to a magazine, so would they.

I felt as though I was back in primary school. I have had such positive experiences of photography; incredible people happy to openly share their ideas, settings, tips and tricks with me. It felt like I had gained access to a brilliant community. To suddenly feel wary about how much I shared, online and in private, felt like a violation of that community. I am working on a book project that will one day hopefully be published.  I started to feel nervous about how much I had spoken about it. What if this other person took my idea and made a similar book before I had chance to?

These are admittedly, silly thoughts. But an enormous part of creativity is that we must pour our souls into our work…and to be pouring my soul into something only for it to be taken by another person was very distressing. The more I looked back, the more I realised that this had been brewing for a while. Despite me not being especially successful in many ways, it seemed that jealousy was the root of the problem. In just a few months of setting up my business, I was doing well; having work published, getting a good amount of enquiries and bookings and enjoying my work. Someone obviously didn’t like this. I found it upsetting.

Is imitation really the sincerest form of flattery?

It upset me so much that I did something potentially very unprofessional, and spoke about it on my social media accounts. And something strange happened. Other people contacted me, telling me that they had had similar experiences, not just with that particular person but with others too. I heard about everything from client poaching, to copying branding & logos, taking almost identical photographs and even business cards designed and printed to look like someone else’s. One of the worst stories involved a brand collaboration for social media, when a photographer’s friend contacted the brand posing as a family member, asking to be involved too - and then posting the styled images under her own name.

A few people told me that I should be proud - imitation is, after all, the highest form of flattery. Or is it? It felt like nothing but a kick in the stomach.

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However, I can’t thank the people who chose to contact me about this enough. Realising that this had happened to other people - and more than that, realising that the same photographer had done this to other people, released me. It was no longer a personal attack. I realised it wasn’t about me, or my work or ideas. It was just the way that this particular individual chooses to operate, whether they are aware of it or not. They weren’t jealous of me. They were jealous of anyone they perceived as being in a better position than them. But without their own ideas, they did the best they thought they could by trying to emulate the success of others. This realisation allowed me to put the whole sorry mess behind me and move forward with my own work, on my own journey.

And that’s really the crux of it all. In any art, with any creativity, the journey is yours. No one else’s. Two photographers can look at exactly the same scene, use exactly the same equipment and still produce two very different images. You can copy many things, but not vision, drive or motivation.

And ultimately, it’s vision which drives us all forward. It’s hard enough to achieve goals when they’re your own…but it’s completely impossible when they are someone else’s. Even if my copycat chose to go ahead with a similar workshop or event as mine - they are not me. My ideas can be replicated, ripped off even. But no one else is me. Being confident and true to myself is what got me through, and I believe it’s the best way of dealing with this type of problem.

Looking ahead, this incident has certainly made me more mindful of how much I share via social media, but I won’t allow it to censor my ideas or plans. I’m lucky to have some wonderful clients, and a very supportive social media following - I’m happy to keep them all in the loop and if someone else wants to sneak a look and try to do the same, so be it.

At the end of the day, imitating someone else is exhausting, and a use of energy which could be committed to improving other parts of your life. It’s good to get ideas and inspiration, but if it gets to a stage where it’s causing you anxiety or envy, it really is time to step away. I am proud of who I am, proud of my fledgling business, and proud of the plans I have for the future. I’m confident I have the skills and mindset to pursue them. I am not lazy…and that’s why I don’t knowingly copy anyone.

You know you’re winning when you’re being copied.
— Robin Sharma

Have you been affected by anything I’ve spoken about here? Have you been the subject of professional jealousy, or have you felt envious of someone else, with negative effects? I would love to hear about your experiences!

Until next time,

Liz x