Advice to Emerging Photographers

"Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience." -David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

So you want a photography degree? Don’t you know everyone wants to be a “Photographer” with a capital letter P? The world is full of pictures — one visual cliche after another. What’s that you say? Your photographs are unique? People “like” your images on Instagram with the right #hashtags #blackandwhitelove #nofilter #dogsofinstagram. As your professor, there’s some advice I must give you: 

1. Realize sooner rather than later that you are not special. You are not a conduit for a mythical muse. You’re not going to be in any photographic history books. You’ll likely never get that job at National Geographic. Most of us aren’t that good (myself included). To be honest, you’re not really doing anything that no one else has the aptitude to master. You’re not a surgeon or a civil engineer. You’re not in the business of necessity. You’ll be the first to get cut when the money has dried up.

2. You are entering a world where blinding subjectivity will decide your fate and unless you can defend tooth and nail, after getting yourself in front of the right person, that you are the next big thing, few will ever become the next big thing. Fear not emerging photographer; being creative is merely an episode of Survivor. Survival of the fittest will weed you out of the crowd. Before I continue, let’s talk about that phrase, “emerging photographer.” What exactly are you emerging from? It’s like you’re a creature climbing out of the murk of higher education with a trail of muddy footprints reminding us that you’ve just made a huge financial mistake!

3. Don’t look at me like that! Another word of advice: stop photographing your cat, dog, child, macro flower, sunset with a retro filter, angsty friends, or the homeless from behind a telephone pole with a telephoto lens and black and white conversion. Just stop. No one cares and everyone knows what you’re doing. These images please those who buy art from Home Shopping Network late into the night of a midwestern town, in a home with hideous knickknacks, and their only books came from Reader’s Digest. I’m telling you this, dear one, because a photographer’s life is more interesting than that. The only way you’ll make meaningful art is when you put yourself in meaningful situations. I am talking about the situations that make you uncomfortable. By the way, these situation do not find you. Talk to strangers. You have the potential to become the chronicler for the voiceless; the socially mute or blind. You have have the potential to make meaning not only for yourself and your art but for others who will never experience another reality but their own.

4. Read. I cannot express it enough. Pick up a book. Any book. Talk like a person enamored with things besides pretty pictures. Write. The only way you can convince people that you’re good at what you do is when the words and actions are harmonious. Don’t say that your photographs should speak for themselves, they won’t. Your audience doesn’t read minds. They need your help. Being the misunderstood artist is only for dead artists. If you’re breathing, be prepared to be misunderstood in all the embarrassing ways.

5. Lastly, take the training wheels off. Your equipment can only carry you so far before you’ve been exposed. Your camera is only a tool. Pictures require an obsessive brain and heart to push your work to the edges of greatness. Don’t let people think the camera does the work. Take any camera, lens, lighting scenario and make something great. Be adaptable and resourceful. Don’t lean on the crutch of your gear. That will only work for so long before they start to figure it out.

I don’t know what else to tell you that you probably don’t already inherently know about this life choice you’ve just made for yourself. All I can say is own it.