Stop Being A Photographer And Make Better Photos
When I was young, a photograph was a sharp-edged piece of paper, often not bigger than your hand, something you would carefully lest you left smudgy fingerprints. Some were put in in a frame, or stuck it into an album, but went on to live hidden lives in boxes or drawers. A few photographs, the really good ones, could be found in books or magazines. A photograph was always a physical thing.
Now photos exist on screens; a specific arrangement of zeros and ones. More photos are made now than at any point in the history of the camera. But the overwhelming majority of these will never, ever be printed, put in a frame, physical album, or book.
The Emerging Digital Photographer
Digital technology has changed photography, both as a practice and as a business as much, if not more than any other creative pursuit. It’s not unusual to hear photographers whose skills, talent, portfolio and perhaps even fame were built before the advent of digital photography rail against the so-called “democratisation of photography” the idea that anyone can call themselves a photographer these days. Sometimes this includes a swipe at “internet fame” and the “culture of selfies.”
This is, of course, bullshit.
Before getting serious about photography I had a ringside seat to the death-match between digital and the music industry. For almost a decade the middle was violently, relentlessly, ripped out of the music business. We’d hoped the new technology, which promised “music like water,” would allow us to participate in a global marketplace. The reality was a few huge acts at the top, local musicians fighting for anything better than free at the bottom, and great studios (together with the ecosystem of jobs they sustained) no longer being built and then steadily going out of business.
Being A Photographer Today
Whining about changes to the photographic industry is pointless. It’s like arguing about building codes during an earthquake. You have to figure out how to survive first.
Early on, it didn’t feel to bad for me. As a photographer I cooked up some pretty clear personal goals. I was travelling a lot and I wanted to make better travel photographs. I had access to some amazing people and I wanted to make portraits of them. And I wanted to make prints. Big prints. The kind of prints people (at least daring people) might hang on their walls.
Early on I got some “traction” so to speak, chiefly as a result of four things. First I had some “early mover” advantages since back in 2009-10 there were fewer photographers online & not many used social media strategically. Second, I was fortunate to fine a vibrant, receptive creative community in Hong Kong, where people soon took and interest in my work, on both a personal and professional level. Third, I was relentless in trying to hone my craft. Finally, I had a degree of financial freedom, a portfolio career, a supportive spouse, a few savings, all of which helped manage the change in career.
But, where to aim for in the future, what that career as a photographer might look like, this was a lot less clear. I just sort of became a freelance photographer, by default.
Amongst making and processing thousands of photos a month, I got caught up in all the peripheral things that went along with being a digital photographer today (SEO, website design, managing multiple social media accounts, etc). And, I never really gave up the other careers. I still took music and audio gigs whenever I could, I started a film review podcast, I tried to launch a food blog, I kept writing a newspaper column. And, like lemming, I kept leaping from every new social media cliff I stumbled upon.
It was crazy. But during those years several of the photographers I looked up to, the freelance superstars, were all doing the same. They took photos, but their business was also a lot of other things, much of it feeding the vast, insatiable online content monster.
What Is A Photographer Anyway
Growing up I only ever remember meeting one photographer. He had a small studio and gallery on the main street of my neighbourhood, across the road from the train station. I almost never saw anyone in there but I guess, looking back, his bread and butter was shooting school portraits and class photos, which I remember him do for most of my school life.
One time my brother took a few of his best photos into this photographer’s studio to be printed. One was a photo taken on a snowy hillside. It wasn’t an exceptional photo, but something about the process of having it printed and processed well, then put it in a frame, made it exceptional.
Some Hard Truths About Photography
All this is a backdrop, context if you will, for the reaction I had attending the Magnum workshop with Antoine D’Agata (something I wrote about here). As a teacher, D’Agata was full of striking, provocative, quotable lines.
“To be ambitious is a way to not do something.”
“Define yourself by doing things.”
“To reinvent yourself is more important than becoming better technically.”
“Don’t find comfort in not knowing what to do.”
“The only way to solve photographic problems is to shoot.”
“It’s easy to get lost following your desires, follow your fears as well”
But, one statement in particular set off all sorts of reactions in my mind. In the weeks and months that followed it hold of my consciousness and shook it into submission, like a bear with a salmon in its grasp.
“I don’t really believe in photography. I believe people use photography to find what they are looking for.”
This idea, of photography as a way to be in the world, has come to clarify things for me in a way that reading an avalanche of books and blogposts about creating a photographic business or building a photography brand never, ever could.
It pushed me to remember a conversation with David DuChemin, in a beat up 4Wd, as we rambled down a dusty backroad in the Himalayas. David asked me if I missed being an academic, if I missed writing about philosophy and culture, to which I answered no, because in a way I was doing now with a camera was a better, more accessible version of what I had tried to do then with big words and complicated language.
It’s not that photography was a means to an end, but that it was a tool for a bigger purpose. Photographs let me say something about how I experienced the world, and what I believed in, that I had always struggled to put into words.
Facing An Uneasy Truth About Photography
At times, I sound ambivalent about calling myself a photographer. Since childhood I’ve wanted to make photos, but I’m not sure I ever dreamed of being a photographer. In way there’s been a truth I’ve never felt comfortable sharing.
I don’t love photography. At least not the way many photographers love it.
I love art. I love culture. I love beauty. I love design. I love travel. I love nature. I love architecture. I love colour. I love contrast. I love symbolism. I love texture. I love people. Photography allows me to play with and express these loves.
I don’t love cameras either.
I love what they can do. I love how a FujiFilm X-Pro2 with a 35mm f1.4 helps me interpret a street scene, or a Nikon D800e with a 105mm f2 renders the human face in a portrait. But, I don’t love these camera and lens combinations the way I love some guitars, or even my favourite pen. I only love the cameras for the art they help me make. If I could make that art with a potato, I would.
Connecting Photography And Photographic Purpose
Yet, this matters because you have to locate yourself somewhere as an artist. It’s dangerous to be disconnected, or worse to imagine yourself as somehow better, like some latter-day creative version of Frank Wheeler in Yates’ Revolutionary Road, feeling superior for being above the clamour of those obsessed with technology and technique.
Any creative community has it’s share of these kinds of bullshitters, the “I’m too pure to be commercial” crowd.
The problems I’ve had have been, as they so often are in the creative life, a case of getting in one’s own way. I tried to make a photographic business almost cookie-cutter style, “I’ll make it look like what it’s supposed to look like.”
I wonder how many of us struggle to live to ideas we’ve inherited about what it means to be a photographer, or make good photos. It’s like wearing an ill-fitting off the rack suit, hoping to give a certain kind of impression in order to just get permission to create.
For me the idea of the freelance photographer, inspired by the heroic, ever-hustling photographers, was something I put on but it never really fit.
Which is why I’ve given it up.
Not photography. I haven’t given that up. Even if I never sell another photo or make another commission I’ll keep making photographs. Not, I’ve given up the idea of being a freelance photographer.
When I sat down earlier this year to rethink my “business” I started with a set of values, with the idea of “how to be in the world” first. Not as an after-thought, but as a guiding light. The Fine Art Photography I wrote about last week, the new online store you’ll hear me talking about soon, are expressions of this. In a way, I’ve quit being a photographer so I can make better photographs