Does the photography world need more ‘pros’

I tell my students, especially those who ask me questions outside of the classroom setting, that there are group questions and there are individual questions. The former being something that when answered in front of the whole class will benefit the entire group, especially those students who will learn from my answer, even if they have yet to articulate the question. The latter usually are more individual queries and are often best answered one-on-one. They are more typically “what is the meaning of life” kind of questions. One of the students in my photo-essay class in Singapore recently asked me what seemed like an “individual” question. As soon as I started thinking about (and writing to answer her, I realized it was really a group question (and this blog is the overdue group answer.)

I have already blogged about how I define the difference between group questions and individual questions. You can read that at: http://thewellspoint.com/2009/09/21/group-questions-versus-individual-questions/

In an e-mail exchange with the Singaporean student she wrote:

“…its power to make a difference. Photography isn’t just a beautiful medium, it’s also a window that allows us to see the world through someone else’s eyes and gives us a peek into cultures that we might never encounter on our own….”

Then she wrote:

“…don’t have the talent or passion to pursue photography as a full-time career.”

To which I replied:

“You seem to LOVE photography, right? Being a full-time “photographer” is not the only way to work around and support the thing you love. Frankly, someone like you who is very focused and organized could really make a difference in many other areas of photography. Being an agent, a gallery director, a workshop/event organizer, etc., etc., etc., are important and productive jobs that support the photography we both love. One example of this is Emmeline, who runs Objectifs, (the organization hosting me in Singapore,) who is an incredibly important (and under appreciated) figure in Singaporean photography. I would encourage you to think about that. “

Then I wrote:

“To be equally honest, the world of photography may or may not need one more ‘photographer’ but it needs all the help it can get in the other areas outside of the narrow role of “making images on assignment for money.”

That prompted me to think about all the people along my career path who helped me, who were NOT working professional photographers. I had a flash of inspiration when I realized the following (no offense to my peers who are pros and have been very helpful.) Many, if not most, of the people who have helped me the most throughout my career have been professionals in the world of photography, but most were NOT “making images on assignment for money.”

As an editorial photographer, the best editors I have worked with have strongly shaped my career and my work. I have had the good luck to work with some world class editors, some of whom have gone on to work for the likes of National Geographic, Life magazine, etc. Certain curators have been influential as well, though that is not an area where I focus as much energy. (Largely because I accepted their wise advice about the difficulties of placing most of my work in a fine-art context.)

Photo agency directors/editors have also dramatically shaped my career. The photography agent, who I worked with in the most depth, during the early part of my career, was the late Jocelyn Benzakin. Her thinking still shapes my work over a decade after she closed her agency, JB Pictures.

A couple photo editors were particularly supportive at critical points in my career. One actually said out loud what many editors thought (and almost as many practiced.) She worked for one of the major business magazines and regularly gave me at least one assignment a week to do a portrait of a businessman (or businesswoman.) Though many editors thought the way she did, she was the only one who said, more than once, something like: “I know that this portrait assignment is not the most important work you are doing these days. But I also know that the money you make doing this routine assignment will enable you to do those very special projects we both believe need to be done.”

I also worked with some editors whose area of specialty was not photography. The best ones stretched to come up with interesting new ways to use my photography. Those editor(s) at various newspapers who decided to use my photo-essay on the complexities of the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, as an opinion piece on their editorial pages, they made a huge difference to me (and I hope to their readers.) Seeing my work in new contexts helped me see how, though much of my work is pure and simple photography, other work I do is primarily about the topic, areas where I have developed credible expertise. Over the decade or so I was working in the Middle East and more recently with all my time in South Asia, I have developed a level of expertise in those regions that directly affects how my photography is perceived and utilized.

I can go on for pages and pages about the many professionals in the world of photography, who were pivotal in my career, but they were NOT “making images on assignment for money.” I will not for reasons of space. Also, if I single out some people, I will inevitably neglect others who have been equally important to my development. To borrow a line that was famously borrowed by Hillary Clinton, “… it takes a community of people passionate about photography to raise a successful photographer.”

All of these experiences and my student’s query lead me to appreciate that the world of photography needs more non-photographers and fewer working photographers. I say this knowing that most pros (like me) are so caught up in simply making a living that we are not likely to be the ones who reshape the future of photography. Most students who see themselves as “pros in the making,” are equally narrowly focused. Frankly, what the world of photography needs more of are innovators who can help out those of us who choose to be “making images on assignment for money.”

One weird way to appreciate this is to think about the growing number of grants for photographers. Grants are actually proliferating in number and getting easier to get, as organizations see them as an efficient way to promote their respective missions. What is harder and harder to find is a place to disseminate the finished work, besides showing that on one of millions of largely un-viewed or under appreciated personal web pages.

I am not the first one to point out that what photography needs is a serious, credible, widely disseminated, paying outlet to share the work that is being produced with the money from the ever expanding number of photography grants. Yes, “Life magazine” is dead. Still, the entrepreneur who creates an economically viable dissemination venue that is as widely read (and as economically supportive of photographers) as Life was, that person will be a hero to photographers (and make a great deal of money.)

My Singaporean correspondent’s expertise happens to be in management, a perfect example of a skill that could be utilized to spur photographers into new ways of thinking. The problem I see is that much of contemporary photography is increasingly built on the idea that expertise is not that important. The camera manufacturers would certainly have you believe that. The need for expertise and not just as “making images for money professionals” is still very important in the world of photography.

I mention thus because digital technology has democratized almost everything it has touched, leaving many to wrongly believe that “Anyone can be a photographer.” Despite that illusion, the real masters (in photography or anything else) are those who have developed an expertise based on intensive practice, work experience, in depth study or all of the above.

Despite the fact crowd sourcing is all the rage, outside experts, be they editors, agents, curators, etc., they ARE needed. A dreadful example of this is how certain academic institutions dealing with photography increasingly are hiring their own graduates as teachers. These places quickly become closed loop systems where everything taught is what was already taught within the same institution(s.)

The way it should work is there should be an ongoing dialogue between the insiders and the outsiders, the old and the new, with no “end” in sight but both being made better by the process. New people who love, understand and are passionate about photography are more necessary than ever, if photography is going to continue to evolve and grow.

What my student (or any other passionate proponent of photography) does with their career is obviously an individual decision. After another individual question morphed into a group question, I came to think of it this way: does photography need another “pro?” I doubt it! Does photography need someone like Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, to turn the world of photography on it’s head? That I am sure of!

One response to “Does the photography world need more ‘pros’”

  1. re: Does photography need someone like Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, to turn the world of photography on it’s head? That I am sure of!

    be careful of what you wish for, you may get it.

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