Advice For A Young Photographer
Recently I was asked to talk to a group of high school Art and Design students about photography, on the subject of: “What advice would you give about a career in creative arts?” Unfortunately, for health reasons, I couldn’t do it. The following is based on the notes I prepared for the talk.
First of all: whatever you do, don’t follow my example. Don’t go looking for a template in my book or my blogposts. Of course you should read my blog – I need the readers – but hold on only lightly to any advice you find.
That’s true for all advice. Gurus are a dime a dozen these days. Experience is the stuff that’s precious.
Every career in the creative arts is a mixture of luck, talent, and something we could call Ingredient X. This X is your unique vibe or energy. If anything, the role of the luck and talent is to help you find your X.
Let’s think about luck and talent for a minute.
When I say talent, I don’t mean potential. The meaning of the word changes with age, or perhaps “deteriorates” over time. In school, talent is potential – it’s your headroom, how far you could potentially go in life. Later, in high school, then at university, then in the workforce, talent is your ability to pass or excel at predictable, pre-defined tests and activities. Being talented means you know how to meet or exceed those expectations, that you know how to play the game.
But in the arts, you don’t just meet expectations, you must also learn to to defy them; to play with what your audience expects from you.
Talent is really the ability to identify the opportunities in which we should invest our time and effort, and knowing which skills to use in the process.
I mentioned luck as well as talent. Luck is simply being ready and able to work when a suitable opportunity presents itself.
And at your age, you’ll probably have a lot of luck, if you’re looking for it.
Take a look at your friends. You might not see it, because you’re comparing them to all the cool kids on Instagram, but your friends are beautiful. Compared to most of my friends, weighed down by midlife stress, your friends look fabulous, fresh-faced and ready for adventure. Plus, if any of them are in this room, then they are also doing interesting things with their time.
So, go photograph them, all the time. The simplest way to make beautiful and interesting photographs is to point your camera at beautiful and interesting things, such as your friends.
Have fun with it. Play, explore, engage, fight against doing the same thing all the time. Don’t merely ask yourself if you like or dislike the photos you make and the other photos you look at. Ask yourself why. What do you notice about the choices made by the artists who you like? What do they put in their work? What do they leave out?
Sometimes you’ll feel like your art is rubbish. That’s the most important time to keep going. If you can make photos – or any kind of art that reflects your moods, especially the intense kind – then you will start to learn and feel amazing things, not just about art, but about life.
But don’t take yourself too seriously. Accept chaos. Accept that some things might be left unfinished. Don’t worry if you don’t feel inspired. And don’t go looking for inspiration online, as it’s no substitute for feeling something for yourself.
You may be obsessed with technical questions, especially about cameras. Those are worthwhile questions, but ultimately they are not what photography is about. Whatever is the latest camera today will inevitably become obsolete, maybe before you finish school. Many of the best photos taken every year are made with technology that was supposed to be obsolete before you were born.
The quality of your ideas matters more than the quality of your technique. The skill of working a camera will come with time and practice (so keep photographing your friends). But your sense of what is beautiful, what matters in life, your attitudes, your values – this, if you can express it in your art, is what will move people and hold their attention.
You’re not starting where my generation started. Your path will be different and you will get where you are going in a different way. Listen, learn, but hold all advice loosely, including everything I’ve just said.