The Lesson My Fifteen Year Old Self Left for me in Photographs

The other day, I went through some old photos from a family trip to Hong Kong and Beijing. I remember my fifteen year old self taking a 35 mm camera, hoping to take beautiful artistic photos. I just wanted to capture something beautiful. I wanted to become a real photographer.

When I came home, I was so eager to open the packs of processed photos. I can still feel my disappointment. They weren’t what I wanted. They weren’t beautiful. God, who was I kidding? I was no good at this.

I put those photos away and lost the camera. I didn’t start taking photos again for another 8 years.

Yesterday when I looked at those photos again I saw something completely different.

Learning mistakesmilitary 

A lot of these images have common issues that just show a newcomer to photography. The image above, for instance, has a problem with framing. It would have been more interesting without the man standing on the right hand side.

But the photo still tells a story. It shows the rush of people and the military presence in the middle of it all, a part of everyday life in Beijing.


Sometimes, the problem with the photography comes from not understanding the equipment. I wanted beautiful images but I had an automatic film camera. In this image, you can see it has some struggle with shadows and low light. At the time, it seemed boring, a bit dark.

Today, this photo shows me what the camera can and can’t do. It shows that the camera doesn’t have much nuance when it comes to shadow. If I had that camera today, I’d be more aware of the direction of the light and how the shadows would show up on film.

In both cases, these photos show opportunities to improve. They could have been learning lessons, for better framing, for better lighting. But I had been willing to see them.

The evidence versus the story

If you were to tell your life story, there would be details you had to leave out. Sure, maybe you’d mention high school, but would you bring up each and every class? Some details just don’t matter.

The story I used to tell was that of a bright young girl. It didn’t include creativity. I liked art class, but it was work, a lot of hard work. I was an avid reader, but writing essays? God finishing those was as hard as pulling teeth.

Telling myself that story of how I wasn’t creative, wasn’t artistic limited me. It kept me from believing in writing. It made me judgmental of any art I did. It made me envious of those who did such beautiful work.

But the evidence didn’t back that up. Here were photographs, some of them quite good, that I took. I have journals with smatterings of poetry since I was thirteen. I still remember sharing a story with my 8th grade English teacher. Bless her soul, I think she actually read it.

The hard truth? My creativity wasn’t a newfound revelation in my 20’s. I merely reclaimed the impulse that I’d denied myself for a long, long time. I created a new story, rewriting myself a narrative and a creative identity.

Reframing your story

double frame

Each of us has a story. Part of reclaiming your creativity is reclaiming the creative story, reclaiming creativity as part of your identity.

This isn’t about creating a new warped story. It isn’t about saying you were always a prodigy or gifted. It’s about embracing a larger, more complex identity that includes your creativity.

Here are a few steps to get started:

  1. Review your stories

What are the stories you tell yourself? When someone asks about you, what do you tell them?

Write them down and see what patterns come up. What do you define yourself as? What do you say you aren’t? There’s no right or wrong here. It’s about letting yourself really see how you do and don’t define yourself.

  1. Collect your evidence

Not all evidence comes in photographs. It could be a note your teacher made on a report card in grade school. Maybe it’s tall tales you used to make up for your family. This isn’t a court case: you can find glimmers of your creativity in many places. Some places to start include:

  • Going through old albums and any coursework you’ve kept over the years
  • Writing down any memories you have of being creative
  • Asking friends and family about any memories they have about your creativity

You don’t need to spend hours doing this, but having at least a few anecdotes or separate moments can be really helpful.

  1. Make a new story

tai chi

Looking at your evidence, what new story can you recreate? What were you really like as a kid or young adult?

For instance, let’s say you loved to dance as a kid. What did you do? When did you dance? What was or wasn’t inspiring for you? Finally, why did you stop or what made that change?

Answering these questions can help you connect the dots in your story. It can help you see what your creativity was like and what changed it or dampened it. Sometimes, the story is anticlimactic. Things changed, or perhaps you became busy.

Other times, creating this story could force you to face some old and deep wounds.  Either way, be open and gentle to yourself through the process. You might have made choices you deeply regret. You still deserve compassion through this process.

I wish I had been more gentle with myself. I wish I had spent more time as a kid exploring the arts I loved but didn’t think I was good at. However, we can’t change the past. We can only learn from it and treat ourselves better from now on.

Looking back at my old photographs, I realized how much of a perfectionist I still am. I push myself to always make something better. It’s easier for me to see something as wrong rather than learn from my mistake. If left unchecked, this impulse only hurts me. It only makes me want to put down my journals and cameras. It doesn’t help me improve or enjoy my work.

It may seem like navel gazing, but understanding our personal stories matters. They let us see where our blocks are. They can help us from falling into the traps that kept us from being creative previously. They can even help us be more compassionate when we don’t measure up in the future.

What was your creative story? How have you begun to embrace your true creativity?

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