Like many arts, photography has a technical aspect and a creative element. Even though we might strive to improve our skills, our craftsmanship, with the ultimate goal of mastering photography, it is quite as liberating as it might appear.
There is of course nothing wrong with perfecting our craft, mastering the technical aspects of photography, that will lead to technically or even compositionally good pictures. I always strive to improve my skills, I analyze my work, I ask myself questions about the pictures that I like and don't like, but what I have noticed is that trying to become a better photographer does not automatically equal becoming a more creative or more self-expressive photographer.
Whilst seeing improvement in my work might make me slightly more comfortable than not seeing any improvement at all, I can't say that having mastered a skill is really that fulfilling. After all, mastery is not something that is that easily defined, it does not have strict boundaries, yet when you feel you have mastered something, this can actually form very tight boundaries and stifle your creativity.
In the end of the year many people look back at what they have achieved in the past 12 months. Many are scrutinizing over the question if they have in fact improved, achieved some goals, something that is at least measurable. I can totally sympathize with those who feel uneasy when looking at their pictures and feeling they might have hit a plateau and have not been able to get past it. Somehow they have become accustomed to a certain way of working that had worked for them before, they have tried to perfect it bit by bit, but this kept them from moving on.
If the emphasis is solely on improving your craft whilst forgetting to give the same priority to self-expression and creativity, you might end up perfecting the aspects of your craft that you were already able to do, but growth is in trying new things and following your curiosity. You could compare this to a painter, who is painting over the same painting again and again, trying to perfect it and destroying the soul and creativity of the initial painting in the process. If he had started a new painting, following some new creative urge, he might have learned new things instead of perfecting his old way of working.
Breaking through barriers often comes from simply listening to those nudges that spark your curiosity. "What if I did this? What if I tried that?" Self-expression is not a constant, as there is no constant self to express. We evolve, our vision evolves as a result and therefore self-expression evolves. If we stay stuck in the process of perfecting our craft, we keep our eyes on the past. We look through our catalogues feeling miserable because we are just not "there" yet. We don't even know where "there" is, we don't know how to get "there", but we do know that we feel rather or even very unhappy with the perceived (lack of) progress.
No matter how useful it can be to look at past work and analyse it thoroughly, it can lead to staying stuck in past work; trying to improve that work, rather than following the call of creativity. The problem is that once you have reached a certain level of craftsmanship (I am not sure if I like the word mastery all that much), this can create a comfort zone that is hard to break out of. If you have done things that had a certain level of "quality", you simply are less likely to risk falling flat on your face. You feel that people have come to expect something of you, but in fact, you have come to expect something of yourself and will rather stay stuck in perfecting old work, than moving out of the comfortable level of craftsmanship that you have reached.
Creativity is playful, it is soul work. Perfecting a craft is analytical, it is rational. These two can work together perfectly, but it is very important to understand that perfecting your skills will probably not lead to the kind of fulfillment that you thought it would. Your photography can become boring or frustrating to you, it is no longer coming from a deep sense of passion and dedication, but from willpower and fear.
The one thing that is more detrimental to your photography than not feeling good enough, is feeling bored. What is considered "good" by the outside world, pictures that might bring you awards, likes and accolades, may still be boring to you. I noticed this when I was looking at this year's pictures, which I must admit were way too few. I have been teaching a lot this past year and my mind was burdened by the loss of my mum. I found it hard to create and I can see that this has had an effect on my photography. My connection to inspiration left me for a while, I could not reach it and did other work trusting that inspiration would at one point return to me. When I look at the images of this past year, I can see that my heart was not completely in it, that I had not given myself time to be by myself and just experiment. The picture that got me the most likes, is the picture I dislike the most. I can honestly say that that is the picture I feel least proud of of everything I have taken in the past 3 or 4 years.
No matter how popular it is, it is simply a picture that feels out of sync with who I am. Being happy with the work I create comes from expressing my true self and being in a state of connection to my soul and nature whilst I am capturing the picture. I can even go as far as saying that if I feel totally blissful when photographing, I know that I will feel more proud of the pictures I am taking. It has to come from that bliss, not from willpower, for the work to have soul.
Don't crush the soul of your work by only focussing on mastering your craft. Art is not supposed to become a forced effort of translating willpower into a visual. It is supposed to be a free form of self-expression. It is supposed to come from a source of bliss and inspiration. Force has no place in art and creativity. Soul however does.