What does ‘success’ mean to you? This is a question that kinda came about from a conversation with a friend this weekend. I’d never really thought about it until then to be quite honest. At school when careers day and the like came about, and we’d be asked what we wanted to do when we left school, I was consistently confident with my answer that I wanted to be an artist. It’s what I’ve always done. I’ve always painted and made things. I always wrote and made my own books, and illustrated them. I was always going to do it for a living when I grew up. Other than directing me towards applying for art school, teachers never discussed with me what happened beyond that. I’d never really thought that far ahead. I lived in a council house and both my siblings were in care, I mean really… where was I ever going to go in life? That’s what I quietly thought. Never were the words ‘successful artist’ uttered by myself or anyone who queried me on it, because what does successful mean? Doing it for a living? Well then I guess I succeeded, right?
I remember after secondary school was finished, despite having a harrowing final few years at it with depression and all the stuff that was going on at home (I never made it into registration class for two whole years!) I was really scared and stressed-out about being forced into now putting into action those childhood dreams. School at least had a structure. Knowing for the first eighteen years of your life what it was that you wanted to do was fine, but how? I’ve always admired people who have it all planned out for themselves, more so those who then make it a reality. You’d think that having OCD I would be one of those people, but I’m not. I’ve never planned very far ahead when it comes to real important life decisions. Life has always been a constant dappling of horrible surprises which as much as I hated them, I got used to the drama and I was unsure of how to cope properly in between them. So making plans for far ahead in the future? No. I’ve never been able to do that. Something would inevitably come along and wreck them. I felt like I was jinxed.
So instead, I took a year out and pretty much spent it comatose on my best friend’s sofa watching films and spending weekends out clubbing. However, she’d been accepted into university and would begin at the end of our year out, so I had to make a decision. I applied and got into college to study fine art. I actually enjoyed it despite being completely socially inept and awkward. My main struggle during that year was with criticism, not from my tutors, but my own self-criticism. I could never find my voice as a painter and it killed my motivation. Repeating what had happened in secondary school, we were all encouraged to apply for art school at the end of our studies, and I was interviewed for one down South. The thought of relocating that far from home was immensely daunting a reality; and so the following year I began studying creative writing and poetry. It was something that I’d also excelled in and came naturally, being done side-by-side with my art. Again though, there was that ‘voice’ dilemma. I didn’t have the dialect that I grew up speaking and when writing it was never there either. I felt like a phony because of that. I couldn’t say what I really wanted to say, I wasn’t using the colloquial language which I’d spoken with for most of my life. Who even was I?
Strangely, photography has never thrown up any of these dilemmas despite dealing with the same amount of self-loathing and struggles. For some reason though, I’m able to channel them in a positive way. I love learning, it’s what excites me. Perhaps because I’m older now. Perhaps because I was never pressured into doing photography, but instead stumbled upon it by accident. Perhaps because like writing and painting it also comes naturally, but there isn’t really a set goal in mind when you’re not studying it. There are no boxes to tick and modules to complete. I’m self-taught. When I want to learn something new in photography, I just do it. There aren’t any rules. There’s just how I want something to look. Of course, now I realise that both painting and writing have all of the same liberating lack of rules, and I find myself going back to both without the old trauma that I had forever tainted them with as a student. How I managed to make the talents that had saved me as a child, given me a reason to get up in the morning and to make myself known to my parents, into such harrowing occupations, I don’t know. I think your mental state really shows in your work, whatever that work may be. And it can also ruin it. I ruined my love for painting and writing because I was so desperately unhappy.
And that’s where the word success comes in and actually has a meaning to me. Being happy. Modelling made me face most of my fears without my even being aware of it at the time. Having my photograph taken meant being looked at, something which I cannot really describe just how awful I found for most of my life. Attention from certain people as a child brought about terrible things, and so any attention on my appearance has unfortunately conditioned me into expecting the very worst of consequences. Modelling has taught me that yes, bad attention will still take me back to bad places, but not all attention is bad. Travelling, now there’s something that my anxiety used to fight me over – and win – for years. I remember having a panic attack on the bus to Irvine once and that was a mere forty minute long journey. Embarrassing. I’ve since gone on buses and trains and planes to places all over the UK and I’ve even managed to stay over with people despite the constraints that my OCD has put in place. Gawd, I can let some people see me without make-up on! And so far, none of them have set themselves on fire at the sight. Those are all successes for someone who spent several years of her life locked in her bedroom when she should have been out having the most fun. A girl who would have four baths a day and take three hours to put make-up on and do her hair, simply to cross the road to go to the newsagents for her Dad in the morning. I used to put bleach in my bath, I mean what the hell? I can look back on all of the maddening things that I would do to myself and feel horror, but at the same time, I remember how I felt back then and why I did them. For me, facing all of those things and winning against them is a success because they were all things that I chose to do because I wanted to do them. Despite each one of them being terrifying to me, I battled them. I wanted to do them because the pay-off was important to me, photography was giving me something powerful in return. Sometime much, much more important than I could really know.
So what do I define as ‘success’? Now that I’ve thought about it for the first time – happiness. Happy in doing something that I love and making a living from it. I don’t have tonnes of money, and I’ve barely made any mark with my work, yet. I don’t have anything really that anyone else would aim for, but I make enough to feed myself and my cats, and to go out and do things when I want. To travel to photograph the people that I want to photograph without having a meltdown over leaving the house. To finally be able to photograph myself again and not hate what I see quite as much as I did before. Having even just a little bit of confidence in what it is I’m trying to say through all of these photographs. Admiration and respect for the people who allow me to photograph them. Gawd, I’ve found my voice and there are people who want to listen to it. I could never have anticipated that, I could never have planned for it. I’ve sort of stumbled my way through the last fifteen years or so doing all kinds of things, not really knowing where I’m going in life. Things that I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life. Things I’m not proud of and things that I am proud of. Ultimately, if from doing all of that, it got me to where I am now: I can live with it and live with it quite happily.