I recently participated in a panel discussion at PhotoPlus Expo, designed for young, mostly student photographers. The central issue to be addressed was roughly, “What do I know now that I wish I knew when I started?”
That’s a big list. But I only had ten minutes to speak, so I cut to the chase and got down to basics real quick.
Be careful with your archive. Simply put, take care of your pictures.
Jeez, I lost a lot of pictures. I changed agencies a number of times, worked for a lot of magazines, and often traveled one way while my pictures were traveling another. I’d be in Africa for a month and my stuff was getting sent to an editor who might be careful or careless, to a lab for duping, or to an agent who may or may not have scruples. Or, I just threw things away, unwittingly, carelessly.
Hang onto your stuff. What else do you have but your pictures? Why do you work so hard? At the end of the day, what do you have to sell?
Ideas. Create them, protect them, and describe them well. (Which means have good writing skills!) And, as hopeless as it seems sometimes, project them out into the marketplace. Repeatedly. If it’s seaworthy, somebody will bite. Without ideas, there are no pictures.
You might love the magazine. (Read, client, job, publication.) The magazine don’t love you back.
Understand you are in this, ultimately, alone. On your own pins. As soon as you get cozy about the run you are on, with anybody, things will change for the worse. The editor who loves your stuff will get fired. The magazine/client will hit hard times. Greece will default on some sort of loan, or we’ll get in a trade snit with China and for reasons impossible to fathom, the stock market tanks and your work clock slows down.
So, be resilient. Develop solid skills. They will be the foundation for the build of your career. You’re gonna hear “no” a lot. Or you’re not gonna hear anything at all, for stretches of time. Be confident. You’ll find another client. That editor who adores you will resurface someplace.
And ultimately, take satisfaction in the fact that you will endure. You know how to find work. You know what to do with yourself when you don’t have an office to go to. You’re not afraid of losing your job, ‘cause you’re not gonna fire yourself. And you love making pictures and that is a fire in your gut. Ya got sand. You’re in it for the long haul.
When things are at their worst, oddly enough, that is the time to be your most aggressive and take your greatest risks.
Don’t be afraid of your imagination. It’s hard, sometimes, to admit or explain your imagination about where a shot or a story can go. You are revealing a lot about the way you think, and therefore about yourself. When you are asked about the photos you have in mind, you find yourself articulating same, and it can sort of feel like you’re undressing in front of a bunch of gawking onlookers. But it’s okay. Get used to it, and be unafraid.
Diversify! Observe basic good business practices and find clients who will pay you what you are worth. Nuff said. Good clients are out there. Churn. Research. Find them.
Know your craft! Work hard at it. Know your stuff. If you are not confident with your tools, your pictures will be tentative. And tentative pictures ultimately lead to no work, or, even worse actually, work you don’t want.
Know that you will age, and take steps. There will be a day when you can’t quite make out your control panel anymore. You’re cranking that diopter on the viewfinder to the max. And your knees (ankles, back, shoulders, neck) creak back and forth like the cemetery gate in a horror movie. Take care of yourself.
Find something so beautiful you can’t help but shoot it. When you find such a thing, and your eye is in the lens and your heart stops, just a little, with every click, the money you may be paid, or not, doesn’t matter.
Make uncertainty your friend. There is no road map to good pictures, and therefore no real destination as a photographer. You’re never gonna stop, and you have no idea where you’re going. Relax about that. Realize it’s a beautiful thing. Celebrate it.