Everybody has a dream. More realistically, everybody who picks up a camera has some idea – conscious or not – of what they want to get out of it: be it a simple record of an event, or delusions of artistic grandeur. More often than not, there’s a truly enormous gap between where the photographer wants to be, and where they think they are. There yet another gap between where they think they are and where they actually are. For most, the levels tend to shake out with aspiration coming first, followed by self-perception, and then finally, reality. As with most things photographic, there’s just as much psychology involved as technicality.
But before we even get into psychoanalyzing that, a far more pertinent question is: do you even know who you want to be, photographically? It goes beyond saying ‘my body of work is of quality at this level, of these kind of subjects; it encompasses doing these types of assignments for these types of clients, or not shooting for clients at all'; it goes as far, and further than, saying that this is the way you want to approach a shoot or a client or a model, and of course includes personal views and philosophy on critical things like postprocessing, cropping, and using film*.
*Though perhaps not such a good idea as a commercial medium due to inconsistency of deliverables, I still think every serious photographer – or person claiming to be one – should try it at least once. And that includes DIY developing.
Perhaps I’ve approached this from the wrong way: your photographic aspirations, condensed, are really the philosophy behind your photography. It’s why you do what you do, what makes you happy, and so on. Since I’ve so far been completely unsuccessful in reading minds (not enough practice due to excessive amounts of time spent on photography), I’ll use myself as an example. I’m going to leave out the objective analysis of where I am, because frankly, I don’t think it’ll be objective enough – I’ll leave that to my clients and readers.
Here’s where I wanted to be, and where I actually was/ am (in italics.)
2002 – Just to be able to take a consistently decent photo. (Thought small cameras with fewer buttons were better, and didn’t understand why the flash would go off in daylight in Auto mode – perhaps a defective camera? No knowledge or awareness of anything technical whatsoever.)
2004 – Make different and interesting watch images; accurately capture what I saw/felt when travelling. (Thought there was really a one-setting-fits all, and hesitantly ventured into the dark arts of controlled lighting for macro work. Still carried the entire gear cabinet when travelling thinking that that would help me capture everything.)
2005 – Shoot watches for the big brands; learn and be competent at wildlife photography. Spent a lot of time in swamps, bought ever larger lenses. Became pretty good at birding. Did a lot of talking to watch brands via contacts made through collectors’ fora, but in the end landed up blowing a big chance because I’d just taken a new job, and couldn’t take time off for a shoot (or risk leaving). Kicked myself for several years after, because I’d inadvertently consigned myself to another seven years of being chained to a desk doing something that really wasn’t me.
2006 – Relatively quiet hiatus years, focusing on corporate career. I shot some on my foreign business trips, but didn’t really produce anything of note as I’d not had any thoughts about personal style or photographic aims.
2009 – Be a photojournalist for Magnum. Nothing matters but the shot and the moment. Photographed anything and everything, developed the confidence to just stick my camera in and get the shot. Developed an intuition for composition and framing around the 28mm FOV; tried to find some reportage assignments but realized that it simply didn’t pay, and nobody wanted that kind of work unless you were extremely famous – and the style/ composition of the ‘extremely famous’ work I simply didn’t understand or appreciate. At times felt little better than a paparazzi. Gave up and returned to corporate.
2010 – Hiatus year, back to corporate. I forgot how to use a rangefinder, or at least, became so glacially slow at doing so, I gave up and sold them all.
2011 – Seriously reconsidering leaving corporate again for commercial; this time focusing on being renown for a few things: watches, food and architecture. That reconsideration turned into a burning itch, and a couple of large commissions, an exhibition and invitation to join Getty at the end of 2011 suggested that this might well be possible in 2012; I stayed corporate but secretly held this belief that it wouldn’t be for much longer.
2012 – Left corporate, wanted to be a full time photographer. No possibility of survival if doing it small, so go large. Realistic career development: I’d have to do many things to make a photographic career sustainable; continue to focus on shooting watches, food and architecture; carve out a piece of the blogosphere to develop international profile and start teaching. Secure sponsorship/ partnership from a major brand. Year one was tough. Tough in many ways: firstly, figuring out what to do, secondly, doing it all yourself (especially when you’re used to having a team of people), and thirdly, having the nerve to stick it out even during the quiet periods – and believe me, there were some very quiet periods last year. I gave myself a year – well, my bank balance really dictated that – and I promised myself to stick it out no matter what; there were times I came close to sending out my CV again. But at the end of the year, I finished with a bit more money than I started with, so here we are heading into year two… As for sponsorships, after dealing with several major brands, I’ve decided I’d much rather be independent: there are far too many strings attached and egos involved.
2013/ Now – This is actually the most difficult aspiration to write: what do I really want now? The more I see of this industry, the less clear it becomes. I want to have a successful commercial photography career, shooting subjects I understand, with enough curve balls to keep things challenging; I want to balance this with personal work/ experimentation that is less subject-dependent and more an expression of style. Maybe I want to make cameras or widgets or some tangible photographic objects at some point. Part of me wants to be famous because it’ll open doors and make life easier; part of me wants to be anonymous because I value anonymity in most situations – especially when shooting. I don’t want to compromise; I want to push myself to continually be better. What I do know though is that I’m spending far more time on chasing leads, meeting potential clients and retouching than I am actually shooting…maybe I need to hire an assistant.
I’d like to think the gap is decreasing, but as one goes further along the photographic journey, you tend to find – after learning more – that what you thought you wanted probably isn’t really what you actually want, or what will actually make you happy. Though I really wanted to shoot wildlife for National Geographic or be a hardcore photojournalist in the garden spots of trouble, the reality is that I don’t think spending months in a rainforest being a blood donor would be enjoyable – and I simply can’t, given that I’ve also got to be doing five things at once, normally. As sexy as photojournalism is, it simply doesn’t pay at all. (Even less than blogging, apparently.)
A year ago, I wouldn’t have turned down any assignment – I was starting out and had the fear of professional (and subsequently ensuing actual) famine. This resulted in me taking on a lot of assignments that were unquestionably a bad fit in terms of creative direction and expected output; I learned the hard way that you can quite easily shoot yourself in the foot and do more damage to your reputation than not doing the assignment at all (I fixed it in the end, but the billing wasn’t worth it at all). Thought I wish I could say I was so busy I could afford to turn down work now – that isn’t the case, but things are definitely better – I hope I’m a little wiser now and able to make better long-term decisions. I plan to be in this game for some time to come, so there’s no point in being shortsighted.
Recently, I was offered a couple of assignments I’d have jumped at several years ago: a couple of reportage gigs locally to cover a big event, and involvement in a 5-month shoot for National Geographic. I turned down the former because it would involve a lot of waiting, not much action, rush output, and very little money for the total time it would require; the latter I’m proceeding with caution because the simple reality is that I can’t afford to take five months out at a chunk – everything else would simply come to a grinding halt, and economic reality is that the pay is almost comical. Moreover, there’s always the slight fear that the job is several notches above your skill level – especially if it isn’t something you’re doing regularly. Admittedly though, there’s a part of every photographer that would love to shoot for the yellow border – and I’m no different; so if there’s a way of making it work, I will. If not, at least I know a) I tried, and b) this is part of the disconnect between who I am, and who I think I want to be.
Though this almost always results in that slight gnawing dissatisfaction because you’ll never get there, it also keeps you going for the same reason: because you’re not there yet. I think success is born out of two things: the drive, and the end, when who you want to be is who you already are. MT
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