Why I Quit Photography

Before we left for India, my friend Amanda warned me, “India has a way of pushing you up against issues you need to face within yourself.” I thought she was referring to personal space limitations or economic disparities and thus I was totally unprepared for what really happened, something that cracked my heart open and forced me to acknowledge that I still hadn’t fully healed from the reason I quit photography four years ago.

why i quit photography

The realization had nothing to do with India per se except that it happened while we were there. Instead it pertains to something that happened seven years ago, something that was thrust back into my consciousness when I read Jessica Swift’s memoir in her e-book, Jump Trust Repeat.

In the book, Jessica describes “the most horrible experience of [her] creative career to date,” when a friend accused Jessica of copying her work and that of other artists. She says that, while she defended herself, the experience destroyed her spirit and that, “it’s a miracle [she] continued creating art after that.”

Oh how well I know what she means.

The Impetus: Why I Quit Photography

I’ve talked before about my creative burnout. But what you probably don’t know is that it was precipitated by one event:

On April 12, 2007, my husband’s and my wedding photographer—and a woman who’d once acted as a photography business mentor to me—sued me. Among the nine pages of complaints she levied were that I’d “intentionally and maliciously” engaged in unfair competition and defamation, interfered with contracts, and basically copied everything from her photographic style to her marketing materials. She claimed damages of just under $100,000, asked them to be tripled due to some legal technicality, and sought additional punitive damages. Her husband was the attorney of record, and my attorney later told me that this was not the first time he’d filed suit on her behalf. But this post is not about them. It’s about me.

While the lawsuit was going on I was running a busy photography business, trying to keep a full slate of 30 wedding couples and twice that many portrait clients happy. It was without a doubt the most stressful period in my life.

The lawsuit lasted six months and cost me $50,000 in attorney’s fees. Really it took that just to get the plaintiffs to the settlement table. When we were there, my attorney offered to cut his fees or take the case on contingency so we could continue the fight but, by that time, I just wanted it to be over. It no longer mattered to me who was right; I just wanted to be happy again.

We signed a settlement agreement and never saw each other again.

The Aftermath: Quitting Photography

It’s hard to explain how the lawsuit affected me. People who met me the following year said my rage was palpable. And I thought I was holding it together!

I lost my heart for photography and didn’t know how to get it back. Still I kept trying. My husband and I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. I thought a change of scenery would help, but I never recovered the initial joy I’d once had at being able to create beautiful and meaningful imagery for a living.

In my mind, the world had became a more hostile place. I didn’t trust other photographers. I had trouble trusting anyone. The stress of defending myself while simultaneously maintaining a full client roster had been debilitating. I began to resent everything about photography, even with clients I loved. So I quit.

In 2010, I put my photography business on indefinite hiatus and went traveling.

I made a lot of progress over the intervening years. I no longer bear the plaintiffs ill will. Our wedding photos have come out of the closet they had to be hidden in for a while. I rediscovered my lost creativity in the form of watercolor painting and other art forms.

However, as I wrote in my 2013 recap, early last year I realized that I’ve been playing small ever since. There was a part of me that viewed the lawsuit as punishment for being successful—I still believe that was its intention—and that part of me has been afraid to try too hard at anything since. That realization was a big breakthrough, but India showed me there was still work to do.

Looking back at her own experience, Jessica says she now sees it as a test of her dedication to her path and an opportunity to “deepen [her] trust in [herself]…and to listen closely to [her] intuition.”

I am sad to say that I didn’t take the same, wise lesson from my experience. Instead, I committed the ultimate in self-betrayal: I began to believe the bad things said about me and lost confidence in my abilities.

I should have known something was wrong when I didn’t want to use my cameras anymore. I sold one, gave away another, and locked the last in storage. I thought I’d just moved on and put that interest behind me. But now I see my inability to shoot as a symptom of something deeper, some piece of the issue not yet fully resolved.

That’s where I was when we returned from India.

The Recovery: Returning to Photography?

In the couple of months since, I’m happy to report that I’ve made significant progress. I sought the help of a counselor and I’ve had tremendous breakthroughs:

  • I shot two portrait sessions, one for a new client.

  • I persevered through a major miscommunication with said new client—and still want to use my camera!

  • I’ve opened my heart and mind to the idea of shooting professionally again.

  • And suddenly I’m filled with all kinds of ideas related to photography.

There is still progress to be made, of course. I’m holding on very loosely to the idea of photography and staying attuned to my feelings during each step of the process. But I finally feel capable of making work that matters for clients…and work that I myself love.

So I felt like it was time to tell my story—although part of me worries I’ll be sued again for writing this.

But I preach authenticity in Art Aligned and felt that I needed to share this story to be authentic with you. For me, this is another step in the healing process.

As Brené Brown says in Daring Greatly, “If you own this story you get to write the ending.” Thanks, Brené, that’s exactly what I’m doing!

I hope you never have to go through something like Jessica and I have. But, if you do, I want you to know that you’re not alone and you can—no, you WILL—recover. On your own schedule.

Here’s some inspiration for anyone who feels a bit uncertain or lost today, from Adelaide Anne Procter, a poet who lived and wrote in the mid-19th century:

We always may be what we might have been

Big hugs,

Kate Watson

My First Watercolor Show » KateWatson.net - […] also been very careful to keep painting personal, to avoid commercializing it in any way lest it go the way of photography. After a few week’s consideration, I decided to give it a go—and I’m glad I […]

Kate Watson - Thank you, Susan! So happy you were moved to read and comment. 🙂

Kate Watson - Thanks, Corinne! I’m grateful to you because you’ve been there through this whole process. You’ve seen the anger, the grief, and you’ve been a constant and accepting friend throughout. Thank you!!!

Kate Watson - Thanks, Jess! It’s funny how just telling the full story has shifted so much inside me. I feel more relaxed and confident (and no longer obsessed with how others may respond). 🙂

Cassandra Rae - Of course I read this post at the exact right time for me! This week in practitioner training we are focusing on trust. Your article is all about trust. Trusting yourself as well as the creative voice within that is still wanting to be expressed. Good on you for listening and gathering your courage as you take those steps forward. What an honor to be a part of your inner circle of peeps who believe in you. Go Kate!

Sally Rorer - Your photography is brilliant and through your personal soul searching you have no doubt helped and inspired others who have had doubts about their genius and passion. Never quit what you love. We need to remember that those who try to push us down are the ones with the problem(s), not us. The watercolor is awesome.

Meghan - Beautifully written and so very authentic. Proud of you for opening up and sharing your story with others. I know this will help so many.

Brenda Hewlko - Thank you for sharing this…I enjoyed reading this learning for
yourself. As a coach I too learned, and even more so as another
human being. So many life lessons, that one only learns through
experience and the willingness to listen to your soul and another
testament to the power of working with another professional that
can led the way to untangling a whole mess of feelings and fears and making sense of it all…and most importantly as you stated,
owning it! All the best.

susan schwartz - Kate,
thank you for sharing your difficult and inspiring story.

While most of us don’t have the challenge you have, it seems
that coming up against doubters, deniers and dismissers who are
threatened by our creativity is a significant part of the journey.

Kudos for you for coming thru it and inspiring others to do the same!

Corinne - Kate, I am so stoked you decided to go public. As Jessica says, very brave. Not all women get to stand up and use their voice. We are often silenced and kept silent. I met you right when you moved from the East and I agree, you could sense the anger, even see the steam rising from your head. Healing is powerful – and I have always believed you would do, in time.
Thank you for sharing this, thank you thank you thank you.

Jessica Swift - Oh KATE. This is so brave. Brave brave BRAVE. I’m so thrilled that you’re beginning to work with your camera again!! I hope you’re feeling lots of joy and freedom (in addition to the fear of getting sued again) from sharing this here. Much love + creativity to you! xo