Photographic aspirations, part one: who we are, vs. who we want to be

_M240_L1003792 copy
The disconnect. Leica M 240, 50/2 APO, Yangon.

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


Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop and Photoshop Workflow videos and the customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!

Don’t forget to like us on Facebook and join the reader Flickr group!


Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. apostolos chatzidimou says:

    Hi Ming. it’s the first time i read such a deep and honest opinion about photography and for someone going pro. it’s no only the state of the facts that speak out loud, it’s the way that a man who loves photography emphasizes the most vital issues of photography as as a part of an existance. as a (non pro) photographer myself and lover of this piece of art, i wanna thank you for this. such words & views do give photography the main reason for calling itself a human art.

  2. Wow, what a honest and clear post you write here. I already had a lot of respect for what you do, this only confirms it – you have integrity, and it shows. I just hope the best for you, you’ve decided to go on a journey, so you’d better enjoy the ride, and learn as much as possible in the process. And that is what life should be all about – taking some risks, learning, fighting for what will, ultimately make you happy. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel – it is the tunnel itself what should be cherished and enjoyed.

  3. This made me laugh, made me cry, made me giggle. What is most important is how it makes me reflect on the past 5 years of my photographic journey. How far I’ve come? And how far can I go?
    Thanks for the sharing.

  4. Go with the Yellow Border. Marketed well (and that sounds like a key for you), it will certainly pay off (in both ways).

  5. Straight Heart Talk. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Michael Matthews says:


    As PaulB points out above, this is one of the few sites followers try to read every day.

    As a person blessed with a talent for math and analysis, you’ve also looked at the numbers and are aware that this is among the most rare: a photography site to which people return days after first publication to read additional comments and then respond to them.

    In short, you’ve created a conversation. Not a loud, argumentative crossfire. Not just bleats of adulation from the Cult of Ming. It’s real. And that is good.

    • When I started, all I set out to do was create a photography site that I’d want to read and comment on – nothing more, nothing less. I think that’s worked out quite well, as the next couple of days will see the site’s 5 millionth visitor – after 15 months. Where we go from here is quite another question though…

      (Does a Cult of Ming really exist? How come I don’t have any worshippers, groupies or incoming tithes? 🙂

    • agreed Michael Matthews 🙂

  7. Thanks for sharing MT and I am sure a lot of aspiring photographers out there are truly inspired. 😀

  8. you should try pursuing the yellow border, Ming. An opportunity every photographer should not miss. It might enlighten you in different & many ways, working with photo community with higher skill set like NatGeo’s, Well i hope it shed new knowledge to be added to your current workflow.

  9. Dear MT:

    Thanks for the sharing. I enjoy your story very much!

    Best, Dan

    Date: Mon, 17 Jun 2013 04:00:54 +0000

  10. Ming

    Yours is one of the few sites I try to read everyday, as you are very insightful to your situation and perceptions of what you write about. Much of what you have written here is similar to my journey in the corporate (government actually) world moving from engineering to accounting. Yes I did have idea of going pro with my photography, though timing, obligations, and confidence, made the corporate change a more viable opportunity. Continue to follow your dream and adapt the practice of your photography to make it work.

    From my experience and work environment, photographing people and products (advertising) are still probably the best avenues to make a living. Corporate, or more specifically industrial, photography is pretty much gone. At my facility, when I started working we used to have a photo lab with 4 photographers and 2 technicians. Today we have one person that uses a camera part time to record special events. All of the photography that previously needed a photographer is done by someone with the office digital camera and the results are emailed off to whoever needs to see them. Only the largest corporations continue to maintain an internal photo staff, and even these are becoming fewer and fewer.

    Concerning, working on an assignment for National Geographic (NG), I have had the opportunity to talk with a couple of photographers that have worked for them, plus a former editor for Audubon Magazine. And they all said that photographers do not want to work to NG because they pay so well (they don’t). It is because, they will provide what ever support you need to get the shot necessary for the article. Any real money made from the images is probably made from after article sales rather than for the stipend paid by NG.

    Good Luck

    • I don’t know of any corporates here who maintain a photo department at all – either they hire people as required, or increasingly, just find an enthusiast on staff and have them do it. It’s actually a lousy deal for everybody – the market devalues, and the staff guy gets exploited. I know because I used to be that staff guy…

      As for NG – I suspect the contract will require you to turn over full rights to all of your images, meaning that there’s no real possibility for any follow on revenue afterwards.

      • I am pretty sure I remember Joe McNally saying something about relying on image monetization off the back of NG work being the main revenue stream from the relationship, suggesting that the T&Cs aren’t totally restrictive, I could of course be wrong though.

        To my mind, allowing for the photographer to keep rights to certain images is a win-win…it allows NG to keep contract costs lower, without destroying/putting off the potential photographer pool, and maintains the photographer’s incentive to get as much quality material from the expedition as possible. Certainly worth clarifiying. If this is the case, then it seems to me the ultimate deciding variable is your self-confidence in your photographic abilities…and I see little reason for this to be a negative factor 😉

  11. In order to be successful in photography ( $$$$$ ) you need three attributes.
    1.Creative talent, 2. Technical expertise,3. Great salesmanship ( or a great personality ) and business sense.
    With all 3 you’re in the 1% and will do very well financially. 2 out of 3 in any order will make you a minor success. 1 out of three will end your career. Trouble is Ming, you like beautiful “things” and financial security. Sometimes you have to starve for “art.” Like most people, the middle road is well worn. I took that road, not having the 3 attributes.

    • Actually, you’ll do pretty well if you just have #3. 1 and 2 are merely optional, especially in Asia. If you have all three, then yes, you’ll go far – but how many do?

      Things are just things. They are distractions from the fact that you’re not happy the majority of the time. They’re not a solution to misery as eventually you’ll need bigger hits than you can afford. I appreciate craftsmanship and integrity, not things for the sake of things – there I think you prejudge me. If I’d just wanted ‘things’ I’d have stayed in finance and become a consumer; instead almost everything I buy is a tool for creation. As for financial security – though that too is an illusion – who doesn’t want that? You can’t exactly devote all of your energy to creating if most of it is going on figuring out how to make ends meet.

  12. Stephen Scharf says:

    Your journey parallels many a pro I know. I remember reading when I was considering going pro full-time (like you, I’m a trained scientist and corporate professional, but in biotech), that I read that professional photography was 90% marketing and 10% photography. That ratio seems about right. BTW, a good book I bought when I was considering this was “Focus on Profit”, by Zimberoff.


    • Pretty much true, and I realize that marketing is neither what I’m good at, nor is it what I want to do…which I suppose is a bit of a problem.

  13. Great read!!!

  14. Michael Matthews says:

    I’m with Tan YK on this one. Tried to say part of this earlier, but proved inept; also lacking in poetry.

    Haplo’s second comment resonates with me, personally, as well. Just remove the word great and the comma which follows, then add my name to it.

  15. Please kindly take care of your health
    Rest accordingly and adjust
    At equilibrium, all well and smooth
    Good contracts will knock
    Because you already built door(s).

  16. Hmm? “delusions of artistic grandeur”, can you please elaborate on that? Are you saying “artistic grandeur” can’t be achieved with a camera and we are delusional for wanting to aspire to that, or how am I to read it?

    • I’m saying some people have no knowledge of photography or art whatsoever, but buy the most expensive camera they can find, and both see and position themselves as professionals and artists…

      • Ah, ok. 🙂 That’s not me then, I know I’m shit but hope to some day create something great, that I would consider art.

        • So long as you’re not doing it professionally, all you have to manage is to be happy with your own work. I really don’t think it’s any more or less than that. If its for pay, then the client has to be happy of course…

          • “So long as you’re not doing it professionally, all you have to manage is to be happy with your own work. I really don’t think it’s any more or less than that. If its for pay, then the client has to be happy of course…”

            Spot on! I try and bear this in mind when I show my images anywhere, and make sure my intentions adhere to this sentiment – ie I show images because I like them, not with an expectation that others should like them. Of course I hope they do, but if not, thats fine – I am certainly not going to try and convince them to like them, that stance leads to all sorts of negative emotions on both sides. Occasionally, showing the images might garner some constructive feedback that allows me to progress my capabilities….this is the gold!

            This philosphy does allow for self improvement…just because I am happy with an image today, does not mean I will be tomorrow. This is what (potentially) drives my progress. If I am forever happy with my photography, then I guess theres no need to progress so long as this level of satisfaction-with-self endures, or the demands made of my photography change (ie I am looking to make a living from it).

            • Well said: I cringe at a lot of my earlier work. But then, there are also some pleasant surprises there, too 🙂

              So long as your expectations are higher than your clients, all is well.

  17. Aspiration – to self perception – to reality. I got my first camera at 5 and was developing and printing b&w by 10 and had an enlarger by about 14. After graduation from University in NY in ’64 I decided I wanted to be a professional and threw myself into it 100%. I got pretty good at small object photography using a 4 by 5 view camera – the bit about you learning to light the watches is very familiar. After a few years self perception told me that I had no more than a mediocre talent and the reality was that to support my family I needed to cash in my ticket and get a Master’s degree. I learned an important lesson. That I desperately wanted to excel and that I had given photography my best effort and demonstrated to my own satisfaction that the potential I felt in myself wasn’t going to get expressed through photography. It took me another 40 years to find that potential in myself. And then I got an unexpected gift. At about 65 I set a camera and mini tripod on a ledge and pointed it out across some water at a night sky with the moon and some very nice clouds. I knew exactly where to put the moon and when the clouds were right. Effortlessly. All the old uncertainty was gone. Somehow I had learned to see clearly. I believe, but can never know, that other forms of self discipline like meditation changed my ability to perceive. That was 5 years ago and I have been through a Canon 600D and lots of lenses to a Olympus EPL-1 to the OM D. The latter is the best camera I have ever owned. A more than good enough marriage between the size and handling of a Leica iiig and the direct seeing of a Nikon F. I have learned that I want to shoot mostly B&W and that I am not interested in cropping – shooting like with slide film knowing I am getting whatever cropping I see in the camera. I don’t want prints, what I see on the screen is enough. I’m not interested in making money or the future. Just the shot I get today that goes up on my website and what it means to me. I’m back at the stage of learning what I can do with digital B&W. The gap between aspiration and reality has narrowed as it jolly well should by the time one is 70! I am delighted with the tones I get from digital B&W and have tried the odd roll of film in my Nikon and Bronica 645, but no I don’t want to go back there. I am having to relearn photography and your blog helps. I find your B&W work goes in and sticks in my visual imagination. It is different enough from what I do that I am not confused, but similar enough so it changes my visual sense of possibility. You also give me hints at things I need to learn – like you said Silver Efex Pro had major limitations. I’m still at the stage of appreciating how much more I can get out of a RAW file with it compared what I could tease out of a silver print in the darkroom. It reminds me of realizing that if I wanted to get better prints from film that I needed to read Ansel Adam’s The Negative! Great to hear the story of your professional and artistic development in the context of the pressures of your life and your psychological perception of it all. Great post.

    • Thanks Lorenz, that’s an interesting story – and I suppose goes to reaffirm the reason why I’m always worried that I’ll never be quite good enough – perhaps not in a technical sense, but there are so many other things required to make a business of this, and failure at any one means disaster. We can only try until it’s clear that it’s going no further, then move on. Who knows, like you, everything might just fall into place one day. I think my post on the anxiety of infinite composition might have resonated with you…

  18. Forget the photography. The thing that I respect about you, Ming, and probably one of the reasons that I read this blog, is that you’ve had the guts to say no to a dull corporate life, and go do what you enjoy doing. Kudos to you. Most of us will remain chained to our desks.

    • There’s nothing to say that I might not have to go back to being chained to one in a year or so – with corporate, there’s the illusion of security, with self-employment, there’s no illusion at all, just the constant fear that one day, the fragile machine you’ve built will stop and it’ll all come crashing down…

  19. There is an interesting timeliness to your post, in that I recently watched a video of several well known photographers talking about tough times and success. I hope to keep it handy to view it again in times of doubt.

    This is definitely a challenging profession at times, in more ways than I could ever relate in a short comment. When things go right, it is fantastic, and those times remind me why I do this. When things go wrong, or there is a delay in projects, it is not always easy to be patient. I’ve had times when I was incredibly busy, and times when lining up new projects was tough. Most photographers I know in the profession never admit that there are any tough times; there are photographers who are always busy, but as that video indicates, even some well known photographers can go through tough times.

    The other thing is staying healthy, because it is you with the ultimate responsibility to continue making images. I’ve been dealing with a bad re-injury of a shoulder repaired a dozen years ago, which has slowed the rate of projects I can take on. May you stay healthy and productive, and most of all enjoy what you have chosen to do.

    • Thank you, Gordon – and the same to you too. I agree: when things go right, every moment is a pleasure. There are occasional empty days, but increasing numbers of days filled with tasks that have to be done, but don’t give any joy. I was told it’s important to keep work and passion separate, but what can you do when they become one and the same? One always finds oneself working…

  20. Steve Barnes says:

    A very honest and well-written essay, Mr. Thein!
    Whatever happens, and whatever you decide to do; I hope it enables you to keep running your unique website. 🙂

  21. Ming – your bloody awesome. Thanks for a wonderful article that resonates with me greatly, though I have no illusions or genuine aspirations to be a pro photog….but very relevant sentiments nonetheless.

    Keep it up, your words and images always give me great food for thought.

  22. Well said:

    “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.”

    I am certain you are up to any task you wish to take on. Best Wishes – Eric

    • Tom Liles says:

      Seconded. Well said to you, too, Eric.

    • I appreciate the confidence, but that’s hardly true – the deeper I get into this game, frankly, the less of a clue I have as to who I want to be.

      • Paul Stokes says:

        I concur with Eric and Tom. You are at least in there and pursuing your goals. Those goals may change over time, that’s a given, and sometimes being in there is as important as any specific or deliberate action or activity and may results in opportunities that otherwise may not have come your way. In my little part time project I have been able to take up an opportunity I wouldn’t otherwise have had, and present research and information on a process my boss is interested in but may be unable to take up. I await the call, perhaps in vain but you never know it might come.

        So stick in there as I’m sure the day will come when you wake up and realize you have become the photographer you wanted to be.

        • That’s the plan, Paul – I’m sure there’s far more to this, including elements of luck and fate and predeterminism, but those are another topic for another day…all we can do is try to make the best possible decisions at any given time and hope they pan out.

          • I would echo the above but I am not as eloquent as Theodore Roosevelt and frequently share this quote with my management teams:
            It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

            • I keep thinking of what I like to call the Edison paradox: try 99 times, die before making it work, and you’ll be called a foolish idiot who didn’t know when to quit. Succeed on the 100th attempt and that’s a story of amazing determination…go figure.

              • Tom Liles says:

                Listen, Ming, I know it’s stressful trying to get that perfect shot of a Chihuahua… But, you’ve done enough, just engage the Pet Smile Beauty Mode and let the camera give you the 100th try, every try. 🙂

                In all seriousness: those lines of Roosevelt’s are excellent, Jess. President Obama, from time to time, shows touches of being able to do this; but when he does, it’s more like a meta-speech: an act of a speech rather than a speech act. There really aren’t any grand orators left in politics to give us bristling commentaries, like Roosevelt’s above. It’s too risky to be too lyrical now, I suppose. It’s more like a percentages game, isn’t it. Percentages aren’t in favor of the unsure human reaction to forceful rhetoric and words charged with meaning; percentages prefer dog whistles. Percentages prefer hedging “on the one hand this, on the other..,” or “you thought I said.., but what I meant was..,” etc. Percentages prefer percentages.

                But why I mention all this —> for all the beauty in Roosevelt’s speech, it’s completely foreign to us, here and now [perhaps even back then!?]. We have ZERO respect for people who aren’t successes straight away, first try, asap, right now. Today it is the critic that counts. It is the smug spectator who points out what we could have done better that matters. Exhibit A, may I present to you, THE INTERNET.
                I know what Roosevelt was saying: in amongst all this, learn to hear the quiet voice in the back of your head that says “no, you can do it. Don’t listen to them. Try.” But it’s hard to hear. You have to focus and listen for it. Even when you hear it—this day and age is enough to make even the most confident egotist second guess themselves. Against the tsunamis of bile that the internet, that’s actual people, sends crashing into content, not much can hold up. Self-esteem and honesty, especially.

                But I think the main thing Roosevelt was trying to say, that we’ve been trained to forget, is that failure is the norm. Failure is the default position. When you get it right, especially after not many tries — most of all if it’s on the first! — THAT is the oddity. The anomaly. That’s what should stop us in our tracks and make us go: something’s not right here.
                I’ve never succeeded at anything, first time. Not even after the first few tries. From french kisses to kicking a football to lighting a product shot of a jacket with a fur collar and shiny nylon body to calculating the neutron flux coming off the cooling circuit of a submarine’s nuclear reactor. This state of affairs didn’t seem strange to me. Failure is the norm.

                The Information Age is horrid because there are so many people to magnify and take joy in exploiting this. And they give you precisely NO LEEWAY. You have to be perfect first try or YOU SUCK! Perhaps I’m showing my age, but I’d hate to be a teenager again now…

                We hope it’s as Roosevelt said, that as triers our place isn’t with these people. But I dunno. Another wise man once said: we’re all the same Indian.

                • Chihuahua? You mean cat, surely!

                  It’s much safer to be the critic and attack others than expose your own potential weaknesses. We all know that. And the first time success thing can be managed with careful editing, just like your portfolio: learn from your duds, but don’t show them.

                  Nobody ever succeeds first time, but many would like to have you believe it.

                • Paul Stokes says:

                  Hi Tom
                  I think what Roosevelt was saying is that success doesn’t come easily or immediately which I would argue is not the same as failure. We all have high aspirations and we all have models of the type of photographs we would like to be able to take. Im quite keen on Ansel Adams and his landscape remain as a holy grail, if you like because everyone needs that sort of archetype. I don’t think I have reached that point yet but I am becoming more comfortable with what I am shooting. I think I’m improving and I’m happy with that.

                  At one time painters and artists started about the time Lorenz Gude did in the masters studio and did every shit and hazardous job needed and gradually moved up the hierarchy to paint hands or just backgrounds. For many it was a long time before they were out there taking commissions. I think Roosevelt may have seen success coming in these terms or perhaps like Edison being known for inventions he thought little off.

                  There are always prodigies out there is every area but for most of us its plain hard work, isn’t genius 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

                  Mot every opinion expressed on the internet , or indeed through any medium, needs to be considered, thoughtful and well-expressed. Many people would prefer to be famous that make a meaningful contribution in any area of human endeavour. My cynicism is cranked up to 11.

                  • Tom Liles says:

                    Hi Paul,

                    Interesting re: your reading of Roosevelt. Yes, I can see your view, quite easily. My take was two fold, 1) just wanting to shoehorn in some good old fashioned Walt Kowalski style misanthropy at any cost, and 2) Roosevelt talks more about failure in that passage. He only mentions triumph [success] once, and qualifies it with at best. I’m sure he means to say that success is the ideal, why we do it—but not the important thing. The doing, the trying is. And we should never forget or be persuaded otherwise.

                    I think you, me, and Teddy are on the same page of the songsheet there 🙂

                    I do see the perseverance angle in the passage and agree with — and like — your analogy with the master-apprentice system [rites of passage].

                    every opinion … needs to be considered, thoughtful and well-expressed.

                    You know, I think I’m against this. I would place honesty — be it intellectual or just garden variety “plain old,” or both — above all else. I don’t want edited, watered down, self-censored and second guessed. I just want it straight. I don’t mind snap, emotional, clumsy, rash opinions at all. Just as long as they smack of honesty.
                    Honesty invites its corollary: Truth. And every thinking man wrestles with the word “Truth.” Sorry for the capital “t” but I’m getting my grandiose on, so why not. Every thinking man ponders, examines, gets confounded by the word Truth [if it is just a word]. Artists especially. I’m about as far from an artist as it gets: baby back ribs at Tony Roma’s is my idea of good taste. But I have been interested in this word for a while now [mostly in a scientific context, but on subjective terms — which I value greatly — too].
                    Now so far, I haven’t said anything that disagrees with what you did above. But I’m about to…

                    Do you need to consider or think about what your honest opinion is?

                    While it may take time to express it — even more time to express it well — I think, really, we all [by that I mean me] have an honest opinion on something instantaneously. If not a preexisting one ready to call upon. Let’s just take that as axiomatic for a moment; then, since your opinion is already there, isn’t taking time and “shaping” it in some way, an act of dishonesty? We seek to hide, mitigate, even subjugate, bits of our honest opinions that we imagine are socially not a good idea. That’s to say, we lie.

                    I think idealism is stupid [it supposes ideas and the real world are different]. But I can see where they are coming from on this. Recently I’ve begun to sympathize with their view. All this “in the real World…” stuff we hear from people who would berate what they call “naive idealists” — I know you didn’t say this Paul, I’m conjuring imaginary rationalizers, you know the people I mean — all the people who say “back in the real World..,” I want to say to them: the World is simply what we make it. What are you afraid of?

                    This whole passage I’ve had Jack Nicholson booming YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH in my head. Sorry, I just had to write it down, in the hopes it’d go away. Nope…

                    But yes, what are the “Real World” types afraid of? I think I know. If everyone was truly honest, we’d have lots more fighting, war, bloodshed, disharmony. But then, wouldn’t this also be honest to our true character?
                    [And gives a clue that the real-worlders are scared to face up to it.]

                    So it boils down to aesthetic choice:

                    — lie for social peace [very tangible and desirable thing]
                    — tell the truth for individual moral pride but with actual human damage — at the limit, human lives — at stake for the consequences of doing so?

                    You can see why ascetics, East and West, would do things like take vows of silence! And on that note—here’s me taking mine 🙂
                    [for tonight!]

                    Cheers Paul

                    P/S I think I’m improving and I’m happy with that Good for you! You didn’t need the “I think” clause—I’m sure you’re improving, the proof is that you’re happy [notice you didn’t need to say: “I think I’m happy” 🙂 ]. I’m still a beginner… no stop, I always qualify my sentences here with this, but I’ve grown to dislike saying it. So that’s it, no more. OK 🙂
                    I’m not happy, or unhappy, with where I’m at. I suppose I don’t really have any kind of easily teleogic project to my photography. I like the cameras themselves. It’s almost a fetish. And I like the images I make. But I haven’t printed a single one off, ever, since beginning end of last year start of this. I was actually very relieved to look at Lorenz’s page [which is excellent] and read there what he also mentions here, that he doesn’t feel the need to print so much. Most of his images are intended for screen viewing. I met another nice guy on here the other day, Leon, who also mentioned on his blog about not being a prolific printer… I want to get into it at some point, just because I feel like you aren’t bona-fide until you can speak convincingly about printing. But prints are neither here nor there to me, if I’m honest [though if I shot with a film camera, I KNOW I’d feel differently. I just know.] If I could do anything or emulate anyone, I don’t think I’d actually take that… what I want, more than anything right now, more than perfect technique, more than an audience, more than adulation, what I want more than any of this—is a Nikkor 28mm 1.8G. I’m not joking. This is the biggest thing in my photography life, here and now. And whenever I get it, and I will, I know the next thing will be the 85mm 1.8G. Then a DP3M. Then an M8.2 with “gretel” etched into the top plate. After that a Nikon D4. And after that, God knows what. The funny thing is, having the stuff really does make me take better pictures [on my low, low standards]. I’m not sure if that’s the done thing to say, or not… but there you go… Some late night straight talk! Alright, sorry for my waffling Paul. Catch you around the way 😉 Cheers.

  23. Nice thought provoking articles. I’m contemplating going full time in photography, but I have to admit that my level of skills is waay beyond what I would like it to be. And landscape photography is not really a “cash cow” in good old Malaysia…

    Btw, maybe you need to look into hiring a manager to manage your non-photographic and non-content workloads, like contacting potential clients, preparing papers and presentation, getting in touch with clients, arranging travels and logistics…and such..that might help…

    • The only photography that’s doing well in Malaysia is weddings and events; everything else apparently has no value, or is extremely difficult to get into. Consider that first…

      As for hiring a manager – I haven’t found anybody whom I’d be comfortable to allow even as an assistant, let alone entrust client relationships etc. to – that kind of thing really has to be done by the photographer. It’s far too easy to make a mistake, say the wrong thing or offend somebody and inadvertently destroy a hard-won relationship.

  24. Interesting story Ming, thanks for sharing. So you did *not* join Getty? I’m asking because they invited me lately, but looking at their rules I think I won’t do it.

    • I did, but after an early bout of enthusiasm and success with submissions, I’m now very careful with what I submit – I’d much rather retain control of the better work. It’s too late for images that are already in, but worth keeping in mind for the future. If I were you, I’d be fine giving them the B roll, but not your A grade work – certainly not if you intend to do anything else with it. The T&C are fairly onerous.


  1. […] two-part essay from Ming Thein about photographic aspirations (part 1, part […]

  2. […] the first part of this essay, we explored the dissonance between the photographer we are, the photographer we think we want to […]

%d bloggers like this: