Five Philosophies for a Photographic Career

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Five Philosophies for a Photographic Career
Being a photographer is not really about the camera at all. It's about you and what goes on inside your head. Here are five ways to be a better travel photographer and make the most of your career potential.

Never Ever Stop Learning

The most amazing thing that came out of my photography tours and trying to help other people be better photographers is that it made me a better photographer. Not by a little, but by an order of magnitude.

I look back and cant believe how much I have learned through the process. I didn't realise it at the time, but from my humble beginning there was so much more I really needed to learn. The tours pushed my boundaries immensely, they forced me to rethink what I thought I knew and look for new ways to express my skills and art.

Since that time I have found new horizons that continue to expand my understanding of the art, the business, the photographic community and my place within it. I started writing about photography and that added yet another layer of challenge. Each time I take a step forward I pause to look back and realise how much I didn't know.

That process continues to this very day.

And the more you learn the more new horizons to learning that open up. There seems to be no finite quantity of learning that brings it all to a neat close. Not that I can see at this point. Part of that constant expansion is the result of overlapping realms of expertise, or the way learning from one arena can impact you in another.

A long time ago I learned to write a Java program. I spent three days in a course and went back to my job and wrote a very useful tool that saved a work colleague about 2 weeks of work everytime he ran the application on a set of data. It was the last Java program I ever wrote, but somewhere inside the synaptic chaos of my mind the experience still aids my work.

It could be that the structure I learned from the Java language helped me to adapt better to building websites. Perhaps the object-orientated model of Java programs gave me an insight into how to work with inherited properties and hence an appreciation of social networking. It could be I learned that I never want to be a professional code cutter and hence found a way to return to photography.

I don't expect to stop learning about photography until I stop breathing. I also hope to continue to learn wider skills that at first seems tangential to my art, but maybe add something unique to how I work with the camera too.

Give People Nothing But Respect

In the absence of respect for the people you photograph you are nothing but a thug. You'll also never reach your full potential, and I say that in full knowledge that some big name professionals out there are brutally disrespectful to their photographic subjects, maybe even sociopathic. Without respect for people you have no empathy, and without empathy you have no connection, and without connection your photography is a hollow shell of what it could be.

Some people get by with that hollow shell, or even get rich of it. But what they forget is that they could actually be much better photographers than they already are.

Travel is ultimately about people, so your relationship with people is the key ingredient to your photography. Anything less is a compromise. And it's not just respect for the people you photograph, it's everybody else too. Humanity is all around you, but it's also within you - unless you honor the humanity within you're just a lump on a rock instead of human on our planet. Everybody you meet deserves respect, from the security guards at a temple, girls working at a coffee shop, the van driver who gets you to the shoot, and even those annoying tuk tuk drivers who try to cheat unwitting travellers.

Think for a moment about that man who spends 14 hours a day sitting behind a counter at your hotel for example - he deserves as much respect as you do. He's working harder than you because he doesn't get to fly around the world in fancy jet planes every year and complain when the hostess runs out of apple juice.

Maybe he's got a wife and kids who really need that $3 an hour he earns. Maybe he would rather be chasing a dream but knows that until his youngest son finishes school that job at the hotel is the best way to get the kids through school. Maybe he has a plan to learn better English and eventually earn better money being a tour guide. Maybe he has learned to be very patient with annoying tourists who get aggressive at him just because they have to check-out of the room before 12noon and that's the policy of the owner.

Whether your photographing someone or need their help to get out and photograph someone, that person is a human being. They are not merely a service or an object, they are an actual PERSON. It takes very little effort to show respect for a person, but ultimately it's in your best interests too.

Patience And Endurance

Most travel photographers are actually small business owners, and they have a company the size of one. The key rule to any successful business is not looking for that knockout idea that changes the entire game in one swoop - the key is to simply survive.

Two phrases come to mind here - "That which does not kill you, makes you stronger" and "Last man standing is the winner."

Careers take time to evolve and photography is no different. That's easy to say after 25 years of being employed, but a difficult concept to relate to after just 25 years on the planet. Embarking on a new career and building a business in photography is a lifetime project, so it needs a lifetime of commitment to see it through.

That means you can't expect to become a National Geographic photographer in just a few months. Most of us don't expect it will happen after a few years and the honest bods in this game admit that it probably will never happen anyway.

But it can happen, and that's why you're on this path in the first place. You can become a National Geographic photographer if that's what you really want to. You can in fact become any kind of photographer if you really want to. The way to achieve your goal in photography is through persistence and perseverance.

But success does take time.

That doesn't mean you can sit back and just wait. It does take time, but only while you're working yourself to the bone and doing your best to develop skills, satisfy clients and eke (or eek) out a living. My favourite description of a photographic career is "90% struggle and 10% despair".

It does take time and you have to fight and wrestle for every inch of ground during that time. I didn't realise this at the age of 30 when I left my paid job and took charge of my life, but I knew it inside out by the age of 40. After ten years of relentless effort it still feels like a struggle, but now I know that's just normal.

It's Just Money Not Love

Your personal value and the merit of your work is not in the slightest way related to the price put on your photography.

Unlike most employment situations the remuneration for your work is not based on how much effort you put into it. Sometimes you work like a dog and it fails to lead to a pay cheque, sometimes you wake up in the morning to find that it rained gold coins while you were sleeping.

I have to laugh at friends who whinge about having worked an extra hour at the office but don't get paid overtime, and they make such a huge deal about it as though someone had stolen their first born child. Our society has taught us to be indignant about our salary, but all that goes out the window when you're working freelance. Some jobs will pay well, some will pay peanuts and some jobs you get screwed on and never see the cheque.

Plus there's all the work you do that can't be billed to a client. I don't get paid to sit down and plan a business strategy, or redesign the tour brochures, or write a story on how to improve your photography career.

Recently I had a photographic tour in Thailand and I spent a week reorganising the first few days because of floods in Bangkok. Instead of working a 14 days tour of South-East Asia I spent 21 days working on keeping my travellers happy. That in addition to the marketing, pre-sales, website development and logistics that took place long before anybody showed up for the tour. And all the while I have no idea how much I might get paid for that effort.

I get paid by how many people sign up for a tour and what kind of tip they leave me - I don't get paid for every hour of work I put in. This pattern happens on commission shoots too, or editorial content, or doing deals for travel companies who want 100 photos for brochures instead of just 1. The money doesn't follow a pattern of effort.

Regardless of your photographic ability and business prowess, if you start relating your success directly to the financial price put onto your photography then you're going to come up short. There's enough hurdles in the way of self-esteem and confidence as a freelancer and a photographer, you don't need to stumble over one of your own making. If someone gives you a compliment on your photography, take it and hold it with both hands, say thankyou and damn well mean it.

Love don't pay the rent, but money don't care shite about your art.

The Imperative of Survival

The human brain is a remarkable device that is optimised for adjusting to any situation, provided there is a compelling incentive to do so. As a hobby your photography may progress and occasionally take a step forward in one direction or another, but it's likely you'll just be ambling along Main Street instead of scaling up Mount Everest.

Regardless of your current perceived level of skill, until your financial survival depends on your photography you will never be as good as you could be.

If you do have a real job and just do the photography on the side, then your brain is devoting the most valuable efforts for the tasks that keep you alive. Photography comes second. Unless you have a wife and kids, in which case photography comes third. Or last.

There are some amazing revelations from medical science in recent decades that have unravelled new insights into how the human mind works. We now know the brain is far more flexible than we previously thought, and able to relearn skills and reassign our grey matter to new functions. But only when it absolutely has to.

I have seen countless colleagues move to China and live in their Ex-Pat communities and never learn to speak mandarin properly - because they really didn't have to. Despite the best opportunity, abundant financial resources and being surrounded by good reasons to give it a go. A rare few put themselves into situations where they simply had no other choice but to make a go of it, to work and live where nobody else spoke English. They are the ones who learned rapidly, deeply and eventually gained confidence.

Photography is exactly the same, it really is like learning another language. Why are you doing it and what crutches are you holding onto? Those things that support you and prevent you from potentially stumbling are the same things that prevent you from advancing. You actually have to stumble and fall in order to learn, you have to make mistakes and you have to face the real possibility of failing as a professional. Only then will you be your true best.


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Just The Facts

If you're looking for some inspiration on how to be happy or successful, try watching this TED Talks presentation by Shawn Achor. It's lovely and entertaining and could change how you view your own potential...
This feature was last updated on Sunday 08th July 2012

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