Thinking about photography’s “constants”

I read a number of on-line forums every day. My morning reading, which once was largely a leisurely enjoyment of the New York Times, now entails scanning the eight forums I read daily to see what items of interest are percolating through the world of photography. I rarely post on most forums, since I am not sure I have much to offer that hasn’t already been said. I recently posted on a forum and the thread that resulted taught me a lot about the state of contemporary professional photography.

My posting was started because a friend recently started a job teaching photojournalism at a small state University in the South. His is not the flagship university of that state’s university system (by a long shot,) so the school is, like most public universities, grossly under-funded. On his behalf, I posted on one of the well- established forums for working professionals, the following:

“For those photographers who are making the switch from Canon to Nikon, a friend/professor at a university recently wrote me and said:

“…do you know of anybody who might be upgrading cameras in the near future? We are down to one four-year-old Canon at the student newspaper, and I need to buy at least one, if not three more. We have some money, but I’m trying to stretch it, and I’d rather buy a few used ones. If you think of anybody, let me know. We’d, of course, take them as a donation, which is tax deductible.”

As you know, the deduction may well be worth more than the trade-in/resale value of the gear. If you are interested, contact me off list. I will connect you with the professor and then step out of the way.”

Other forum readers/professional photographers chimed in and pointed out how if the gear in question was depreciated/deducted as a business expense once, it cannot be deducted the second time as a donation. This of course is true, so I replied:

“As my accountant reminds me, somethings cannot be measured and somethings can. The explanations of the tax code noted here are thorough (and correct.) Having said that, my accountant would also tell me that a minimal tax deduction (only for remaining depreciation not yet deducted) plus the real good resulting from the cameras being used in the university setting is a potentially worthwhile option, for some Canon people that switched to Nikon.”

Then the conversation turned a bit harsh in tone. Some folks suggested by helping student photographers I was “working against the interest of other working photographers.” Others suggested the proposed donations would be going to schools that were well off enough they did not need the proposed “donation.” (Because of forum privacy rules and to make this blog post more universal, I am not quoting anyone but myself.)

Many folks used the thread as an opportunity to vent their frustrations about how hyper competitive the photography market has become. Some forum members talked about how donated gear is used by students to take jobs away from established pros.

Others saw the thread as an opportunity to talk about what we can do as professionals to make the business better. The particular point being students will become photographers whether encouraged or discouraged (just like we “old guys” did when we were starting out.) The best posts talked about how professionals need to compete based on quality, passion, vision and imagination, not price. Then a few posts went on to my favorite subject, educating the “professionals of the future,” be they photo students, assistants or emerging photographers. This is where I jumped back into the discussion, writing:

“ We were all students once and we all seized on every opportunity we could (or else left the field by choice or by the ‘persuasion’ of market forces.) Certainly some students are undercutting us (me included.) Most are just trying to do the same thing we all love, photography. Give them a bit of a break.

I teach a fair number of business practice classes when I can. My favorite and most successful is called ‘a week in the life of a pro.’ I go into all the minutiae of my “average” week. Marketing, taxes, insurance, pricing, quotes, contracts, copyright registration, all the dull but critical stuff. On average, 60% of the audience has glazed eyes at the end of the talk. On the other hand, 20% tell me, sometimes then and there, or some times later by e-mail, that they have decided NOT to become photographers. The other 20% (approximately) tell me, sometimes then and there, or some times by e-mail years later, how transformative the class was. The latter two groups are what I consider my successes.

If pros want to do something that will help us ALL, I would suggest teaching business classes, even just single night presentations at the local community college or state university. ASMP and APA have programs that do that which are aimed at the big photo schools and those are fine but the smaller state universities and community colleges are largely untouched. Those are places where students really need a reality check. They are also places where the best students are hungry for information and if you direct them to the right on-line resources, you can really make a difference.”

Then one photographer chimed in echoing a couple of my favorite points. He talked about how his mentor told him NOT to study photography in college but rather to learn how to think, analyze and debate important ideas. This same photographer has followed through with that idea. Now he works in a professional photography niche that requires a great deal of expertise, far beyond f/stops and shutter speeds, so he has continued to do well as a commercial photographer.

All of this led me to reconsider why I teach fewer technology-based classes. Technology and tools are important to photographers, yet they are constantly changing and they are not really what makes us photographers. What makes us good photographers is a series of other constants such as our point of view, our understanding of light, our ability to interact with people, our understanding of composition, our talent at creating emotions within our images, etc….. Those constants, and in the case of professionals, our knowledge of business are the really important skills that we have. As teachers that is what we need to pass on to future generations.

The thread that I had started with good intentions had become so overheated that a few folks wrote me directly, off the forum, to thank me, (which was nice.) To paraphrase one correspondent:

“…most of my education was at a community college. I earned my degree from a major school, which cost ten times as much as a community college, but it did not deliver 10 times the quality. …. I attribute most of my skills to my community college education. In both schools, there were no business classes and I had to learn about business other ways.”

I wrote her back:

“I have one comment about what you “’learned at community college.’ One of these days, as you evolve as a photographer it will be your responsibility to step up to the plate and teach similar classes and pass on your experience/ knowledge to the next generation. When that time comes I hope you will embrace it with passion.”

Then I closed with:

“The technology obviously continues to change but the “other” parts are relatively constant. “

Now more than ever, with digital imaging technology negating much of the “craft issue” in photography, I believe that these “other” skills are the key to our future as photographers, whether professionals or amateurs. This has been a thread in past blog entries focused on how photography information is increasingly open sourced. While that can erode the market for some photographers, in totality I see it as a good thing, since it will also expand it for others.

In my next blog entry I will explore a similar situation I experienced recently involving the same “constants” I described above, which make for good photographers. I encountered two remarkably similar questions about that idea recently from photographers in Singapore and in America. Their attitudes reflected their cultures of origin. (No surprise there.) The surprise was which photographer (and therefore which culture) responded in away that aligned with where our collective human culture is going Singaporean or American?

One response to “Thinking about photography’s “constants””

  1. My God, I thought this kind of mediocrity was a “luxury” of the “undeveloped countries”, where in order to barely survive you ought to “kill a lion a day”.
    I would say that as technology evolves that’s when the difference will show ONLY in how one sees and thinks the world.
    As DaVinci put it.. cosa mentale (a mental thing).
    Great post!

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