Schwartz: How exploring photography helped me develop confidence

Alex Schwartz, Columnist

When I was on my high school yearbook staff, I was terrified of taking photos. For four years, I sat through lectures and workshops and learned photography mechanics and composition, but I was always afraid to actually leave the classroom. Part of it was because I didn’t want to be assigned to take pictures of any sporting event, but it was mainly because I wasn’t at all confident in my photography abilities.

But for some reason, I decided to take my camera with me to Northwestern this past fall. I started timidly taking pictures of buildings and trees around campus. Then I turned to food, joining the photo team of Northwestern’s chapter of Spoon University during Fall Quarter and exploring Chicago to photograph some of its most mouthwatering dishes. And, while the weather was still nice, I’d occasionally photograph my friends hanging out on the Lakefill or in local neighborhoods.

Then Winter Quarter came, and I found myself having raised none of my Dance Marathon fundraising goal. I was searching for a way to creatively raise money, and the first thing that came to mind was photography. I felt confident enough in the photos I had already taken of my friends to use them to advertise a mini photography “business” for Northwestern students, charging $10 for half-hour photoshoots. And, to my surprise, people started responding to my offer. I’d meet them at an aesthetically pleasing location on campus, walk around with them for a while and take a hundred photos or so, sometimes making small talk with them. They’d pay me, and I’d edit and send the photos later.

It wasn’t much of a time commitment, but taking photos of and with those strangers gave me an immeasurable amount of experience in my craft. I learned how to play with light and shadow, work in unique weather conditions and more artistically compose photos. But, perhaps more importantly, I learned how to better interact with people. Making small talk is a skill many people have trouble developing, and for me it was best to learn by doing. As my photography skills improved, so did my confidence.

By the time people started recommending me to their friends and my “business” began to branch out, I was meeting one or two new people a week, learning about where they were from and what they were involved in on campus. I wouldn’t consider them much more than acquaintances, but even just knowing some basic information about another person and being able to wave at them when walking along Sheridan Road made me feel more connected with this campus and its students. And once DM rolled around, I had taken portraits of 26 people, most of whom had been complete strangers before.

Doing portraits ended up being such a rewarding experience for me that I ended up continuing hired photoshoots after DM. Though I haven’t been meeting as many new people as I’d like to, I’ve learned so much just from taking photos. I’ve learned that while getting involved in existing organizations and extracurriculars in college is important, the opportunities I create for myself can sometimes be the most rewarding activities I participate in. I’ve learned that for many skills, the best learning comes from doing. I’ve learned that even the most unassuming people can exude beauty and confidence in photographs. And I’ve learned that standing behind a camera can give me confidence that’s worth more than any price I charge for a photoshoot.

When I look back on my admittedly short journey with photography, my only regret is being too scared to take those yearbook pictures during high school. I’d encourage anyone trying to hone an art or skill to dive in head — or lens — first, to get as much practice with it as they can and to not be afraid of making opportunities for themselves. Before you know it, you may find that success in your craft will enrich your life in more ways than you could have expected.

Alex Schwartz is a Medill freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.