The paradox of all creative professions

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Imagine you’re hired to do something on the basis of the work you’ve previously done: the client likes your previous work, and wants you to do the same for their brief – within limitations, of course. You have of course taken care to show only the kind of work you want to do, so that there’s no possibility for misunderstandings. But yet the inevitable happens: as the job progresses, the scope changes, and suddenly you’re being asked to do something that’s either a duplicate of what’s been done before – by somebody else – or worse, a mishmash of incoherent ideas that were clearly a case of design by committee and completely unsuitable for the original subject or brief. Sound familiar? Sadly, this is far too often the state of play in most creative industries, not just photography.

Fast forward a little bit. At the start, we might be idealistic and try to educate or explain to the client why what they are asking for will not yield the results they want; simply, you can’t apply the same approach as before and expect a different outcome. We might argue and offer to work for free to show exactly what we mean; after all, sometimes abstract concepts can be difficult to visualise without an immediate example, and this is what we’re best at right? In the end – we might give up in frustration. We might learn to be wiser further down the road and decline any such jobs that are starting to look as though the outcome may land up being different to what was originally suggested.

Taking a step back, we start asking ourselves why we started down this career path – and remember the satisfaction of outputting something tangible and definable on a regular basis, with the added bonus of feeling the satisfaction of having derived an elegant and aesthetically pleasing solution to usually an open-ended problem. At least a very small part of us likes the recognition, too; and hopefully with it, some sort of financial reward. We begin to harbour dreams that we might be able to hit this high every day, and get paid for it – perhaps not as well as if we were doing something less flexible, but the intellectual rewards make up for it, right? We try. And then reality hits: we’re back to doing the jobs we don’t think necessarily fit the brief because we still need to eat and pay the rent.

Here is the first dangerous tipping point: the more of these jobs you take, the harder it will be for you to get back to the kind of work you initially wanted to do. If all goes well – as well as it can – you will become known for that particular kind of work, and in turn receive more of it. And your ‘creative’ profession will be no more satisfying than the job you left; just more poorly paid, and without the certainty of regular income. On the other hand, if you don’t take the jobs – well, you might get lucky and have things pay off, but you might also get unlucky and be back in your cubicle the following month. Where is the balance? Can there even be balance?

Rationally, we should really be two people: the impartial professional who just gets the job done and executes with competence, skill and importantly no personal emotions biasing judgement – and the passionate artist who puts their heart and soul into ensuring every one of the smallest details is absolutely spot-on perfect. The problem with this is of course barring some sort of psychiatric disorder, there’s simply no way this is possible. Firstly, the kind of people who can actively abide such a rational approach tend not to be risk takers (i.e. won’t take the uncertain independent creative career path) and not usually quite so passionate about anything to begin with. Before you take exception to that: you really need to care to have passion, and you really need to have passion to be exceptional at anything – and none of that is rational at all.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the sensible person isn’t going to get off on the creative part – if anything, that requires a bit of irrationality and nonsense to get there and produce work that’s dramatically different from ‘corporate safe’ expectations to begin with. (Perhaps there’s also a nugget of reason as to why so many corporate driven creative exercises still land up somehow being relatively safe, too.)

As a result, there are really only three kinds of professionals that survive long term in the creative industry: the craftsmen (at best) who do whatever job they’re asked with a reasonable amount of skill and care, and doesn’t hold overly strong personal opinions as to what the output should look like or how it should be done. Barring the kind of unprofessionalism that’s unfortunately frequently seen in developing parts of the world (some people think they can get away with false promises – simply don’t know any better – because they’re not wearing a suit), this kind of creative is the perfect fit for most corporate clients. A safe standard is expected and delivered.

The second kind are the rockstars, who are lucky enough (or strong enough of vision, personality and patron) to get away with insisting on having their way – and pulling it off to great success. There are both extremely few of these personalities and extremely few patrons to support them, because it tends to be a sort of chicken and egg situation: you usually can’t start off a rockstar because you don’t have the track record to make demands, and as a result, you can’t execute what you want, which means future proposals are still unproven, and so on. I suspect you can become a rockstar if you survive being the third and final type of creative, but you can’t begin as one.

The final – binary – type are those who are always going to feel a little uncomfortable. They do the generic and corporate work when they get it, because they aren’t rockstar enough to pick and choose assignments, but don’t get them that often because they aren’t willing to compromise as much as the craftsmen. They’re good enough to occasionally get blank slate assignments, which they relish because it reminds them of why they’re in the profession to begin with; but sadly those only remind them of the stark divide between the two very different types of work they do. We are always making the choice between how much compromise they can accept creatively, and how much they can accept financially – often, these two parameters are mutually exclusive. In the long run, this type lands up turning into either craftsman or rockstar – depending very much on luck and exposure. The binary state is an inherently unstable one and inevitably leads to an emotional rollercoaster – between soaring highs and days where you wake up thinking you’d be better off with a steady pay check, and knowing for sure what to expect.

I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that I’m sitting in the final category. There is work which I try to minimise visibility of online because it is not the work I ultimately want to do; it doesn’t give me creative satisfaction, but it does pay the bills, and consequently, I still accept those assignments. I can’t not show it because the risk-averse businessman in me says that work is work; on the other hand, I can’t show too much of it because I would rather be hired to do what I can instinctively run with rather than have dictated. In the end, I think it boils down to this: I want to be a creative, not an executor. I chose photography because it gives intellectual return on the shortest possible time scale; you have that high of seeing the product again and again, on a regular basis. It isn’t because I enjoy the gadgets or the hardware: it’s because I enjoy what they allow me to do, which is translate imagination into tangibility. Of course, observations in this article apply not just to photography, but pretty much every other creative profession, too; switching genres isn’t going to help. I suppose there’s probably a continuum along which large scale, long term collaborative projects like architecture sit closest to ‘conventional’ careers, and solo performers (direct to end consumer business) are at the opposite extreme.

The only conclusion I can come to is that we’re just along for the ride: all we can do is advance on both fronts and hope that one gains enough notoriety to start dictating terms all the time. The header image is an example of this: I love to shoot gigapixel forests, but the commercial applications aren’t immediately obvious; yet I’ve had commissions for this kind of work which wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t shot them in the first place. In short: we can only do what we have to so we can do what we want to. MT


Ultraprints from this series are available on request here


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  1. V. thought-provoking. I encounter this problem in my training work. Sometimes (fortunately, not often) somebody commissions me to provide training on the basis that I have some expertise in the subject – and then spend the weeks between commission and event trying to write my script for me. Never able to tolerate that – my policy is to offer to pull out, which usually results in them desisting from writing the script.

  2. The assumption that photography at its purist form is art should be discredited imho. It can be expressive within its severe limits and sometimes the most emotionally interesting work is where intuition and not craft becomes paramount. I think it was Charlie Parker who said learn your chops and then forget them. But jazz is improvisatory, where craft and form is subjugated to “gut”. Photography is not really a terribly “expressive” medium. We are all illustrators at best, some with more and consistent style than others. How many photographers can you say, “that image looks like so and so’s work?”

    Photo Rockstars are those that gain a degree of fame at some point in their career. They stand above the rest for their distinctive style (Sustaining a career is a matter of reputation and meeting (or exceeding) the client’s expectations). Noone can do this indefinitely and perhaps not consistently. Imho there are few photo rockstars with distinguishing styles and those few are evident in fashion or celebrity portraits. But mimicry is quite easy to accomplish these days. Meyerwitz and Leibowitz are two Rockstars with distinctive styles who have realized longevity, the latter experiencing financial distress notwithstanding. Fame does not equate to financial stability.

    Miles Davis realized Rockstar status in Europe more than in the US where his musical whims and style were embraced. Robert Frost is another who found reputation built oversees first before being accepted in US. But their styles were unique, distinctive and hitting an emotional key for their audience. No matter the background music behind him, Miles’ sound was always there: vulnerable, heart rendering, noone close in emotive quality. The fact that his genre changed is irrelevant, as he was the cohesion no matter how chaotic the environment surrounding him. He showed his deep-seeded love for music and people through his trumpet sound. A natural player.

    From my vantage point, emotive photographers are mostly born and have a true emotional kinship with their subjects (Salgado, McCurry among others ). A good friend, now deceased, who was an art gallery owner through most of his adult life, a trained/educated art historian, and a collected artist in his own right, said to me that the only photography that has any lasting value is of the “human condition”. I tend to believe him.

    I would say, if you don’t have a style or rendering that places you above the fray (and with the stars aligned so you stand out) and which can’t be easily mimicked, I would be content with being the best and most responsive craftsman you can be, and find another medium for personal fulfillment. Architectural photography has been done so well over the years with the fine craft of LF cameras and film. It would be difficult to say anything new (Paul Syruijk comes to mind as bucking the trend) with digital, except perhaps with night-time photography.

    As to street, it’s been done ad nauseum. Unless you can express intimacy of a moment (not to mean sensual), it becomes quite literally and figuratively, pedestrian.

    • Charlie was right: you need to know how to do something before you can do it intuitively and follow your own creative instincts.

      Unique photographers: few, because it’s much easier to copy than to make something original; you almost have to go through a stage of copying to know what isn’t copying before you can avoid it a) subconsciously, a la Charlie above, and b) producing something that doesn’t work because it’s a product of exclusion rather than synthesis.

      I believe commercial success as a photographer – at least from the creative side – is a process of continuous evolution and reinvention rather than just having a single hit; I suppose in a way this is analogous to a musician, too.

  3. “Here is the first dangerous tipping point: the more of these jobs you take, the harder it will be for you to get back to the kind of work you initially wanted to do.”

    This is exactly where I’m at, and why I keep a fulfilling (and somewhat creative) job in the corporate world and am extremely selective with the photography work I accept. Honestly, I service a small niche within an even smaller niche and I’m okay with that.

    • I think that’s the only way to be happy in the long run – though I always hope there are exceptions to that rule…

      • Not to impose my existential and perhaps jaundiced perspective, but happiness is an overrated objective and does speak to the endlessly restless soul seeking some truth. It’s all about process (think Odysseus but Jackson Pollock), survival psychologically in the midst of and making a pathway amid the chaos.

        Happiness is usually drawn from nostalgia rather than being beingbconsumed constantly in the moment. It’s as if you are trying to determine your well being by stopping time and reflecting on the past. Ill considered perhaps.

        Miles loved ballads but knew that if he immersed himself in and reflected on them, he would be getting off the train of progress.

        To quote Joseph Campbell, follow your bliss (how to realize what that us) and never look back. You might not be intrinsically happy or successful, alongbthe way, but you will be complete.

        And best wishes on the journey.

        • Perpetual unhappiness isn’t ideal either – it’s just downright miserable; one has to believe that at least following your inner drives must result in some sort of satisfaction (or at least not-unhappiness, which isn’t necessarily happiness). I can only wonder how much more pleasant the world would be if everybody was at least not-unhappy…

  4. Larry Kincaid says:

    Wow. You did it again. Opened up a huge subject related to photography and much much else. As some have noted, you are so honest that you give yourself away: “I’m not even sure that the other compromises that come with rockstar status are worthwhile – or even what we want…” One of Britain’s greatest pop singer –think 70s–(so great I forgot his name!) said that when he started his mother warned him not to record any song that he didn’t really like, a lot. “They will aways ask you to sing it again, over and over for the rest of your life.” Something like that. Now switch to Miles Davis, who completely redefined his music every 2-4 years in order not to go stale and get stuck, much the way you described it above. He was true to himself, and took the risk of failing in order to succeed in what he wanted to do. His first big hit was with a muted trumpet and one of the most romantic, and purchased LPs of all time, and and still is. Nothing could convince him to “play it again,” however, until the last concert before he died. When asked why he didn’t like it enough to keep playing it, he said I liked that music very much and enjoyed playing that tonight. I skipped his hard electronic rock/jazz phase completely (Bitch’s Brew) and it could have derailed his whole career. But he just kept going. Not redefining himself: that was himself! Very rare. So, we’ve stumbled into “Know thine self,” and “Be true to oneself.” But keep eating and providing for your family!

    Yes, paradox. Western Aristotlian logic doesn’t allow for it (so less dissonance, I suppose, holding two contradictory thoughts at the same time). There is no better example than the American (rock star?) baseball player, Yogi Berra who responded to similar complaints about baseball (could be football/soccer, cricket, or simply anything in life). Spontaneously, at the risk of sounding stupid, the said “If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.” In baseball, every pitch would be a strike, every pitch would be hit, every pitch would be a home run, and every hit would be caught in the outfield. A game with those perfect elements cannot be played at all. Life itself would not function either: evolution depends on error or we’d all look like the perfect Adam and Eve (pick your origin story). In fact, in sports no one would watch–too easy or too hard or simply too boring–with out error and difficult situations to overcome. They track it statistically, as does Las Vegas, if the pitching starts to improve vis-a-vis batting, they will change the pitching mound or the bats, etc. It leaves the greatest batters hitting at best 30% or .300 on the average. At .350 you’re in the hall of fame. In fact, that 1/3 outcome could be a good rule to look for, perhaps in your own profession: would you accept getting a blank slate and artistic freedom just 30% of the time? Why not? How much do you expect? I’ve heard that salesmen (where the money is made) can make millions of dollars a year with just a 10% success rate. Most of us would flee that kind of situation (and baseball would die as well). But not them. If the failure rate is 90% (chose any lopsided ratio), they just attempt to close more deals: 10% of 100 attempts works out much better that 10% of 1. This applies to submission for funding for science project as well: I heard some one complain about another university getting too big a proportion of all the federal funding (US National Science Foundation). The rep agreed, adding that they also submit more proposals and have a higher failure rate that the others. They revise and resubmit a often as they can. The others want a perfect submission record or they get discouraged and complain.

    We all know that Ming is a perfectionist. It shows up in his words and in his own personal photography. Sometimes he get criticized for it (not enough this, that, etc. for me). But we all like it anyway and wait for the next work to be shared. The fact is, to many of us you are very lucky indeed to be where you are and in fact are a bit of a rock star among your followers. I just watched the recent Grammy music awards and barely recognized any of the winners. Most people in the world wouldn’t recognize any of them: as a group of people sometime who Cartier Breton, or Miles Davis or Renoir and see what you get. Someone asked some safari guides in Africa a while back if they every heard of Michael Jordan (shoes or basketball rock star), “No, but we know who Larry King is.” What’s that all about? Size of audience.

    Emphasis on the word “follower” above: what size of audience do you expect? Back to percentages again. If I could persuade Coca Cola or Sony to try one of my brilliant ideas for a commercial and it worked, but only increased their sales by 1 or 2 percent over the competition, then I would be a millionaire myself. That’s a huge change over their population and results in a great increase in profits.

    Finally, know your audience. Those professional businessmen in suits may be in a situation that is not that different from yours, balanced between risk aversion and going along, or taking a chance on something new and greater, and also with families to support. I suspect many of them would like to do what you ask and see how it would turn out, but they are also under financial and time pressures themselves, with who knows what margin of error. Hmmm. Error?

    • Miles Davis: I think perhaps that’s some barometer of true artistry: he played that way because he had to. The rest came through some degree of luck and fortuitous timing; its not always quite so easy.

      Success rates, probabilities: a 10% success rate is acceptable – if you make enough attempts. The problem is most of the time, this does not happen; if you only have 9 attempts, that last critical one that might have been the game changer never happened. I see this myself: I shoot a lot; my hit rate used to be 1/100; it’s now closer to 1/5 or 1/4, but I still need to make a few attempts to fully explore each situation so that I am confident I got the best representation of the idea I intended. On top of that – how many people succeed at every business they try? Even 1/10 is doing well; I think personally it’s something like 1/20 or 1/30; being solvent at all and above zero on the average is already pretty good, I think. 🙂

      Yes, I’m a perfectionist: because if I know there’s something wrong or missing and within my capability to address, I will; it just bothers me. If I don’t notice, it doesn’t mean it isn’t perfect. I do realise just how subjective aesthetics are.

      The men in suits: I’ve been on the other side of the fence, too: a lot of the time the fear of error is linked to the corporate blame game and not being particularly passionate about any of the work, rather than genuinely being afraid something won’t work (or it won’t work and they won’t be able to correct it). I’m not sure it’s the same fear that drives us: I take risks and diversify that risk so that I can absorb individual failures; corporate tends not to be anywhere near as forgiving.

      • Larry Kincaid says:

        I guess the short version of what I said would be: Don’t be so hard on yourself. To everyone else you are doing quite well and working very hard at it. We enjoy hearing your experiences as you work through everything. I left out the point that if a game (or career) is too difficult, say 10% hits per game, or too easy, say 90% hits per game, then on one would play or watch. Nothing of interest at all, and more importantly human skill, decision making, and persererence doesn’t do any good at all. When the game gets around 30% or so, then skill and knowledge can determine the outcome and people will keep trying and others will pay to watch. My father gave up golf, for instance, because whether he played well or poorly didn’t seem to have any relationship to what he was doing; it seemed totally random so no way to learn anything or get better. So, he quit. What hardly anyone knows is that Einstein took on problems that others didn’t even see and ultimately prevailed. Five Nobel prize level papers published in a 2 year period or so, including general relativity, but then he spent the rest of his life failing to get even close to a unified theory of matter (that pursuit is still ongoing). How much better off young people would be if they knew that the “rock star” of physics failed as well as succeeded. It would change the way we all would think about our own lives. And no, my and others pointing this out now won’t change the world’s perception of him. The history makes what he did look easy . . . after the fact.

  5. Cognitive dissonance can hurt a person. Yes.

  6. I think the idea of a creative profession is overused and may even be a bit of an oxymoron. Most ‘rockstars’, certainly in the profession which gave this type their name, actually make their money from trotting out the same generic material that they made their name with and dare not change or move on from for fear of upsetting or alienating their fanbase. True creatives that continuously invent and make new things need to deal with the fact that most of the time they are going against the grain and run the risk of not getting anyone to pay for their work because their ‘patrons’ won’t understand them. Therefore I would assert that the true ‘creative professional’ can only ever be a ‘ starving artist’ or derive most of their income from alternate sources. Needless to say I would prefer the latter approach.

    • You’re probably right. That said, there are a few examples who genuinely manage to make it work – but they are definitely by far the exceptions.

  7. Larry Cloetta says:

    I have worked in a completely different “creative” field for 45 years now, and struggled with the same conundrums. Having lived this problem for a very long time, and having struggled with the same issues, I don’t think I have ever seen anyone delineate the issue as succinctly, clearly, and accurately as you have here. Having now reached the end of my career, more or less, it’s a problem -how to move from a binary to a rockstar- that I never really solved. I had success that flirted with rockstar status, but never quite there to stay, so my income never matched my skill level or dedication to craft. It’s okay, as I reached the level my personality would allow, and I had a good life. It was my personality-a certain lack of hyper aggressiveness-which ultimately held me back, but I like my personality and realized I would not have wished it different, so things are as they are and it’s fine.

    Of the things that you mention that make rockstars, rockstars, by far the most important is personality, second is luck. “Patrons” are just due to the aforementioned luck, and their “strength of vision” is, in my long experience, rarely if ever greater than that of a good binary. For every rockstar there are ten binaries who are plainly better at the task at hand, in every way. (Katy Perry is rich and famous? It’s the way of the world).
    You have the talent and the intelligence necessary, and you have massive exposure; you’ll be fine. Having said that, for creative people enough is never enough and total satisfaction is an elusive goal, always just over the horizon. Binary or rockstar, the ability to say, at some point, “okay, this is good” is a healthy thing.

  8. Ming, the next time the corporate types start telling you how to do your job, remind them of the old proverb, “There’s no sense in keeping a dog if you’re going to do your own barking.”

  9. Jonathan Hodder says:

    I’d say you’re a binary rockstar, at least in terms of rockstar status.

    On a other note, I do miss your reviews. Would you be reviewing the M10 anytime soon?


    • Haha. Oh well, if there’s such a thing!

      M10: nope. The fact that I don’t think it’s worth reviewing should say a lot – I don’t have a purpose for it or time to review stuff I won’t use (nor any justification to buy it, certainly not for a review).

      • Too bad
        The beauty of your blog was that your helped us to choose among popular cameras and lenses
        I still include Leica in popular gear because many of us own them
        Any doubt about a summicron vs a summilux – I checked mingthein blog
        A question about sensor performance of a new body- mingthein blog again
        Your log was the best online free access source of information about photography gears which made us more. Incident when buying new or used equipment
        I have built my all lines of Nikon and Leica this way
        What is left today is different … don’t get me wrong …I don’t critize your choice I still recognize your talent as photographer but I miss the old time and I am probably not te I my one among your regular followers

        • Not incident but confident
          Arrrr… Apple automatic orthographe correction !!!!😡

        • Your response is precisely why it was necessary to change: everybody with any sort of problem expected me to solve it, for free. That was hundreds of people a day. I couldn’t get enough real, paying work done to support this, much less the non-stop camera buying necessary to test everything. I asked the audience for suggestions on how to make it sustainable; nobody could give me an answer but plenty could give me complaints that something they valued was no longer being provided for free. Sounds like entitlement to me: rather than be appreciative of what you did get for free, I got criticised for no longer providing it because it wasn’t providing anything to me.

          • I don’t criticize you. I respect your work and talent
            As a regular reader of your blog (since 2012 I think) I just try to help you to keep the attention of you audience.
            No intention at all to hurt you
            Sorry if I did

            • Sorry, misinterpretations and losses in translation are possible in text. But it’s simply impossible to continue what I was doing from a business perspective – unfortunately, I’m not independently wealthy and I didn’t appreciate waking up every morning to increasing numbers of trolling fanboys which those equipment reviews brought.

  10. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    For better or for worse – we’re surrounded by people who have all sorts of different views, and that’s our lot in life. Grin & bear it? – comfortable in the knowledge that many of the more informed members of your audience love & respect your work?

    A discussion like this always makes me think of the Impressionist school in France, in the 19th century. L’École des Beaux-Arts (the Royal Academy of Art) and the annual Salon treated them extremely badly – for decades, they were shunned as outcasts – and Van Gogh never managed to sell a single painting during his lifetime (according to legend, at least). Yet many people – including me – FAR prefer the Impressionists to the stuff l’École and the Salon found acceptable.

    • Actually, the more comfortable I get with my own work and purpose – the less it bothers me. This post is more of an observation than anything…

  11. Jason Waterhouse says:


    There is an undertone of fatalistic resignment that bothers me here. Perhaps that is because I am a secret romantic, or it’s because I don’t entirely trust the trichotomy you’ve setup here. Your concluding statement about doing “what we have to do so we can do what we want to do” seems an excessively sober assessment.

    When you say the rockstar type is lucky enough to be strong in “personality, vision and patron”, you’re could very well be talking about marketing. Additionally, I get the sense the word rockstar is used reverently when in actually this group of people you’re talking about are not always very spectacular performers artistically and not necessarily a homogenous group.

    Your craftsman also strikes me as the type who often thinks he is the mythical rockstar. There’s a movie called (Untitled) which stars Elon Bailey as the epitome of this sort. He’s a financially successful corporate painter that thinks he’s a great artist, even though all he paints are boring murals of bubbles for hospitals. His gallery manager exerts great energy to prevent him from figuring out his true place in the world.

    The third type is uncomfortable because he’s unclear to himself who he is and adopting an ambiguous pose by saying “I’ll sell out, but only a little.” But that sentiment is ultimately a self-indictment that the person isn’t sure. Either he believes he really is this mythical rockstar if it wasn’t for the fault in his stars, or that he knows he isn’t a rockstar and is a closet corporatist and can’t accept it. Or, the variety is actually more pleasing than they are willing to give it credit, and the current situation represents the most net profit in both intellectual and financial areas. Either way, uncomfortable is an awful state.


  1. […] his post: The paradox of all creative professions the photographer and blogger Ming Thein laments the lot of people who work in professions […]

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