A GREAT question

A former student of mine, who has gone on to great accomplishment, wrote me with a GREAT question. My answer was be used on his blog page, but I thought it was such a good question that I am cross posting it on my page as well.

You can read more about the photographer, G.M.B Akash. Akash is a multimedia-journalist, who has travelled in 22 countries and received more than 70 international awards. His work has been featured in over 80 major, international publications. He was first Bangladeshi to be selected for the World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclass in the Netherlands. In 2006 he was awarded World Press Photo award and released his premier book “First Light”. In 2007 he became the first Bangladeshi to be selected for the 30 Emerging Photographers (PDN 30), sponsored by Photo District News Magazine.

The question he asked:

Q: Please share the greatest challenge/s you faced in your early career as a photographer? Or is there any struggle that you overcome and has helped to transform you eternally?

The biggest challenge that I continually faced throughout my career as a photographer was knowing which questions really mattered (and how to answer those questions.)

Very early in my career, I was sure that once I mastered the technical skills, I would be “set” as a photographer. First this meant getting good at using black and white film, then I had to learn to shoot color slides then to use electronic flash. Once I achieved a certain level of mastery on the technical side, I realized that I wanted to learn how to use my photos to tell stories. Once I achieved a level of mastery of that, I realized I was wrong again. What I needed to learn was how to market myself and how to work more smartly as a self-employed photographer. Once I achieved a level of mastery in that realm, I realized that I was again going towards the wrong goal (again.)

I came to accept that very few people in any creative pursuit achieve complete and total mastery. I slowly embraced the idea that I should be happy when I achieved “a certain level of mastery” knowing that I would continually be striving toward mastery. Mastery is a journey, not a destination.

That was an enormous lesson because it taught me that in the end, I am the one who decides and that I should be careful in deciding when to listen to others. An example of this was my well intended (and very caring) friends in the world of newspaper photojournalism who could not understand what I was trying to do. When I quit my secure jobs at various newspapers they were mystified. In certain situations I sought out and took their advice, but in the end I went my own way.

It is not that I do not seek input from others because I certainly do. I have worked with (and continue to work with) some great photographers and photo editors along the way. The best ones are the ones who understand who I am and know what I do best. They give me the room to do my best and offer guidance when I need direction.
Next, I thought that what I needed to do was differentiate myself from others and thus, I had to develop my own style. I started to do that for competitive reasons, to beat the competition. But I quickly learned that when I was telling the stories that were important to me, that was when I did the best work AND that was when I was also refining my own stylistic approach to photography.

Along the way I tried many different types of photography, from conflict coverage (photographing the 1991 Gulf War for LIFE magazine) to wedding photography and many other approaches in between. Similarly, I have done some university teaching, worked briefly with a few fine-art photography galleries and taught many workshops. I was trying to feed myself (literally) and to feed my soul (intellectually.) Learning what types of photography I was not good at (and thus could not bring passion too) was an incredibly important lesson.

My style as a photographer has continued to evolve and my “voice” as a photographer is more and more my own. My work on political topics is frequently viewed by the photojournalists as “too arty.” The same work is frequently seen in the world of fine-art photographers as too documentary. As time goes on I have come to accept the reality that I now, happily, work in between the two realms.

I am not sure I have “arrived” as a photographer, but I now understand the few things that I do really well. I know how assignment work, personal work, exhibitions and teaching all feed off of each other to make me a better photographer and teacher.

In my teaching, public presentations, etc., I am continually reminded how my work has served to inspire other photographers. I like to think it is because I slowly but surely learned that the most important thing I can do is be true to myself. As long as I keep doing that, my photography, my teaching and my entire career will make a small but important contribution to the larger world in general and the world of photography in particular.

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