You do belong

Imposter Syndrome as a young professional photographer

Rio Giancarlo, Chief Photographer

Rio Giancarlo poses for a photo after an OL Reign game in 2022. (Courtesy of Rio Giancarlo)

There I was, lined up in the tunnel at Lumen field, and we were about to walk out for the national anthem. I heard the crowd roar as we started to move and over 30,000 fans clapped in unison. I reached down, grabbed my camera and followed the Saint Louis City SC starting 11 onto the pitch. As a kid, I had dreamed of walking down the tunnel for an MLS game, not as a photographer, but nonetheless, it felt like a dream come true. In that moment, everything slipped away, and my focus turned completely to my work. 

This past year, I have been extremely lucky to be able to photograph a variety of professional sports. As cool as it sounds, there are many times I have really struggled. In most photo rooms I have been by far the youngest and least experienced photographer in the room. I have been lucky enough to create great friendships with many of the more experienced photographers who have welcomed me and even taken me under their wings. 

For all the positive reinforcement I may get, there are still times I question if I belong. Imposter syndrome is a difficulty feeling success internally when objectively being successful externally. It can also feel like you may not belong somewhere, are underqualified for something you are doing or feeling like someone else may deserve something more. 

This feeling can come up in many aspects of life, in education, vocation, relationships and more. Throughout high school, I felt this extensively in both my academics and about my positions on the various soccer teams I played for. I would constantly compare myself to others and let that shape how I thought about myself. 

It began to really take a toll on my mental health and my athletic  performances. Something needed to shift, so I started to find ways to work to feel better about myself. I began to compare myself to myself, and this helped me see the things that I was improving and what I was good at. It also helped me define weaknesses I had and allowed me to work on them.

When I got to college, I had stopped playing sports competitively and turned my focus to photography. I started shooting all of the teams at Seattle Pacific University. Any opportunity that came my way to take photos of athletics I jumped on, shooting every event possible. I began following the pros, messaging them and asking questions. Some answered and others didn’t. 

Over the course of a year, I worked and worked to improve my craft, learn etiquette, and make connections. This led to the opportunity to shoot my first ever professional sporting event, the NWSL semifinals between the OL Reign and the Kansas City Current. 

I was extremely excited for the opportunity, but my excitement quickly got overshadowed by my nerves. At the game, I didn’t talk to any other photographers. I just sat there and took photos. It felt awkward, and I felt out of place. I had never shot professional sports, so did I really deserve to be on the sidelines for a national semi-final match? 

After the game, I went to the websites of the outlets that covered the match. Looking at the photos, I began to see that while I wasn’t quite at the level of the seasoned pros, I wasn’t as terribly far behind as I had imagined. With the experience of one game under my belt, I began to feel more confident in my abilities. I had to start somewhere, and sometimes there is no better place to jump in than the deep end. 

Since then, I have added another strategy to help me combat the voice in the back of my head telling me I don’t belong. These organizations don’t just accept anyone to any game. If you are there you are there for a reason; you belong. 

The days leading up to when I got to be the team photographer for Saint Louis City SC was the day I put this mantra to use the most. At 19 and with only a few professional soccer games under my belt, I felt vastly under qualified to be responsible for producing all of the images for a Major League Soccer club. Every time a doubt came into my mind I would ask myself, “If they didn’t see your ability and talent why would you have been recommended and chosen to fulfill such an important job?”

No matter what you may feel about your being right somewhere or your ability to remember, there is a reason you are there. There are a lot of steps that lead up to any success you reach or challenge you face. Be confident in yourself. You do belong.