A big, what is the meaning of life, kind of a question

A former student/intern wrote me with a big, “what is the meaning of life” kind of a question. The process of answering her ended up becoming something of a dialogue within myself about photography and “meaning” for me. After I sorted things out in my own thinking, I wrote her an answer I could also use as a blog posting.

To paraphrase her query:

Hi David,

I’m sorry I’ve been out of touch for so long. I hope you are doing well. A part of me has been worried about sending you a message because I was not very happy with the work I was producing and wanted to wait until I had something good to show you.

I am also trying to make a difficult decision this coming week about whether I should start medical school, where I was accepted many years ago through an early acceptance program for humanities majors. I am feeling at the same time that my heart is in photography, and am not sure if this is a feasible option for my life, or how to navigate the logistics of it.

I’m not sure if what I produced so far is good enough to do anything with, and this element of things, the constant critique, is maybe what I’m shying away from? I was recently a teaching assistant for a class ICP recently, and it reminded me of how passionately I feel for photography.

I started to think about if it would even be responsible for me to encourage her to enter the photography profession right now. I have written in numerous previous posts about how the market place is changing, generally for the worse.

Then I reread her letter, thinking about that in terms of my own experience and realized I could give her something to think about. Whether that will help her decide about medical school and the rest, that is another question.

The last phrase is the most important one to me, where she writes, “…it reminded me of how passionately I feel for photography. “ Passion is very important in any serious pursuit. This is especially true today when digital technology is democratizing the production of and our relationship to most media, including, video production, music making and of course, photography. Passion, tenacity and creativity are what distinguish the successes from the also-rans, because technical skills are no longer the major dividing line.

The other important phrase that I read was “…the constant critique, is maybe what I’m shying away from?” A wise self-assessment, but you might expect that, from someone who was able to get into medical school. This is important because today the market is more competitive than ever BEFORE and critical feedback IS more widely flowing.

So what are some career options for a person who is passionate about photography, obviously bright and well educated, but who does not like to be on the receiving end of too much harsh feedback?

Before venturing into that thicket, I would ask my young correspondent a few questions. As I answered them myself, I sorted out some questions of “meaning” in my life. I hope that by sharing them, the questions will help others, including my former student/intern.

Start by asking what exactly is it that you hate and love about photography? Break it down to the most basic parts. My answers may help. They are my opinions, not value judgments. On the negative side:

· I do not like writing about photography, but I sure do a lot of it.

· I kind of enjoy looking at and reading about other photographer’s work but only to a point.

· I do not like learning new technologies so once I settle on a system I am slow to change.

· I have little interest in print technologies and printing.

· I abhor doing Photoshop work, though I am getting good at it because I do so much.

· Having my work published and exhibited is very pleasant, but it is not what drives me. It does help pay the bills though.

· I am not the most social person on the planet so the social side of the trade leaves me cold.

· I am not good at “selling/promoting” myself, nor do I even like to try. I would never move to New York City to try to “make it” because the networking skills required are beyond me.

· I do not like the fact that in order to live reasonably well, I work many, many more hours than most of my non-photographer peers.

· I like photographing people as much as the next guy, but I am not that interested in people.

Each one of these evokes a vitally important question. For example, the last one is important because my experience is that many people really use photography as a way to get their “daily quota” of person-to-person interaction. There is nothing wrong with this, but it tells you that human interaction is a big part of why those particular people like photography.

On the positive side:

· I like the give and take that happens between photographers, particularly in a workshop setting. I like helping others learn things they can apply to their photography and I like learning similar things from others.

· Being self-employed as a photographer generally allows me to be somewhat in control of my life, my time, etc., which is important in terms of my time with my wife and daughter.

· The actual process of photographing allows me to challenge myself regularly. Many scenes I confront make me ask myself if I have the endurance, creativity and patience to make a good image out of what I am seeing.

· Photography is a great excuse for looking at everything, all the time. It gives the photographer a kind of license to nose round, ask questions, view things from multiple perspectives, etc. and to constantly be learning.

· Photography often gets me to other places I might not normally go.

For me, in the end, my favorite thing to do in photography is to get up early, just before sunrise and walk around to explore a new place. As the day unfolds, the people come out, the streets fill up, etc. And of course the light does its magical thing.

I am there, watching it, experiencing it and of course photographing it. One part of the process is very much about being “present” or in the moment, as things happen. Another part is being attuned to how the scenes that I am seeing can be photographed. I want the photograph that I make to recreate that moment’s experience in the mind’s eye of the person viewing my photograph. Being there and photographing is the best part of photography for me.

So for me, the photographing is paramount. Everything else supports it.

By comparison, many sports photographers are as much or more about the sports they photograph as they are about photography. For many it is as close as they can get to the sport they love without being a player (though many wish they could do that.) Fashion photographers are often more about the lifestyle, clothes and the fashion subculture. Nothing is wrong with that but it is not of interest to me.

As for my answering my correspondent, the aspiring photographer/doctor, I would encourage her to consider these questions carefully. Friends and students I know have answered some of these questions based on our discussions and acted upon what they learned about themselves.

In her case, there are many places where photography and medicine can intersect/overlap. I am not just talking on the medical/technical side, but that is a possibility. Working in medicine could take her different places and help her access different people(s,) etc. The possibilities are endless. Having secured admission into medical school, she clearly has the dedication and intelligence. Whether she has the imagination or commitment, only time will tell.

What are the possibilities? One former student realized she loved photography but was not interested in pursuing it commercially. She also loved art history so she is now pursuing a PhD in American Studies emphasizing the history of photography. For her the passion is for the photographs and the people who make them.

This is really important because the automatic assumption for many people is that the best way to live as a photographer is to get paid to make photographs. This is rather narrow perspective. Some photographers I know love the technology, the people, the marketing or the educational processes. Others love to make prints, retouch images or represent photographers to clients. They have all pursued careers that involve photography that do not include doing assignment work. For most of them this works well.

I have done my share of assignment work and I am comfortable with that, but it is not for everyone. I have also explored at great length other options, varying from working in a gallery to retail sales. Where I am now works well for me. What works well for each photographer is an individual choice requiring a clear, even cold-hearted assessment of strengths and weaknesses. Doing assignment work is not the only option when it comes to making a living as a photographer.

As I have previously written and say in most of my classes, professional photography involves doing something that many people consider very personal (photography,) for money, on command, for strangers. What is another word that begins with the letter “P” that involves doing something that many people consider very personal, for money, on command, for strangers. In this case, I mean prostitution, with the idea that assignment work entails a degree of selling yourself.

One great thing about the contemporary photography market is that there are now dozens of ways to work with and around photography, without giving it up for money, on command, for strangers! That is one highlight in an otherwise grim market.

2 responses to “A big, what is the meaning of life, kind of a question”

  1. and i thought the word that starts with “P” was pool 😉

    Trouble, oh we got trouble,
    Right here in River City!
    With a capital “T”
    That rhymes with “P”
    And that stands for Pool,

    An’ the next thing ya know,
    Your son is playin’ for money
    In a pinch-back suit.
    And list’nin to some big out-a-town Jasper
    Hearin’ him tell about horse-race gamblin’.

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