Words of advice for a soon-to-be graduate (part one.)

With a subject line like the title above, how could I not reply to the e-mail that recently came in from a “soon-to-be graduate” and how could I not turn my reply it into a blog? I have been sitting on this for awhile trying to figure out how to answer without turning into some cranky old man talking about the ”good old days.”

Specifically, the e-mail said:

My name is Michael _____, I am a senior at _______ University and am a fan of your work and am also very interested in photojournalism. I am only months away from graduation with a degree in communication and a concentration in media studies and am looking for some advice or insight into the field I might someday hope to be a part of. As an esteemed member of the photojournalism world I can think of no better person to receive a few tokens of advice from; such as what are your favorite aspects of your work and and how someone could break into a field like this. I find your web sites to be extremely helpful and encouraging tools to better my photography skills and I’m saving to buy myself a nice camera. I am currently enrolled in a digital photography course here at ___ with professor ____ and the class has really sparked my interest in the field. I would love to have a chance to speak with you in whatever format is most convenient to you and would greatly appreciate any time you can spare.

The two questions that he raised are:

“…what are your favorite aspects of your work.”

“…how someone could break into a field like this.”

Without being snotty, the answer to the first one is obvious. I get paid to take pictures of interesting things in interesting places while meeting interesting people. If it wasn’t so interesting, the photography world wouldn’t be overrun with aspiring photographers.

Seriously, a better question would be:

“…what are your least favorite aspects of your work.”

That is a better question which will organically lead me to answering the second question. My least favorite aspects of the job are:

Photographers (like me) tend to be loners, so we don’t stand together well. In recent years the market for commercial photography has changed so much and we have been over run by those changes. (We might have failed even if had we been more unified and stood together, but that is another blog entry.

Photography is such a glamorous field that the competition is high, the turnover rampant and expertise is minimally valued in most areas of the business. Like in so much of life, it is about the newest and the hottest….. Though I plead guilty to being a loner as noted above, I have never had the pleasure of being the next big thing.

Actually working as a photographer is perceived as so much fun that many people who try to do it for a living have no idea how to actually make a living at it, so they frequently under-price (or sometimes not charge at all.) Plus those same “low-ballers “ to do fairly generic work, dragging down the entire market for those who are trying to make a living and raise the standards for quality.

Photography editors/buyers are usually so far down the food chain in the management pyramid of the institutions that employ them, that finding a courageous editor who trusts and empowers photographers is a rare thing and something to be valued. Over the years I have had the honor to have worked with some great editors, and more than a few mediocre ones.

Commercial photography is fundamentally about getting paid to tell someone else’s story for them, using pictures. It may be a news story or recording a wedding day, selling a product or portraying a travel destination, but in the end, it is always about that event, that thing, that place, that story. Another confession here, I am only great at telling stories of subjects I care about passionately, so I am not necessarily the best photographer for certain subject matter.

The time clock in all of photography has been continually speeding up as long as I have been a photographer. I thought that the expansion Fed Ex nationwide back in the mid 1980s meant that I would have more time to work on a given story. All it meant was that most of the editors I worked with could push back the decisions they had to make to a point even closer to their deadlines.

Commercial photography, like so much of life these days is disproportionately about marketing and self promotion. I am not that good at much of that, but The Wells Point, my Twitter feed, my Tumblr and my Facebook pages are ways that I do some of the necessary marketing and self promotion while playing to my strengths.

So, with those things in mind, I will next try to speak to the question: “…how someone could break into a field like this.” Which is what I will do in next weeks’ blog entry.

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