I read the following quote from Magnum’s Christopher Anderson today and I had to repost it because it is so spot on:
“Forget about the profession of being a photographer. First be a photographer and maybe the profession will come after. Don’t be in a rush to pay your rent with your camera. Jimi Hendrix didn’t decide on the career of professional musician before he learned to play guitar. No, he loved music and created something beautiful and that THEN became a profession. Larry Towell, for instance, was not a “professional” photographer until he was already a “famous” photographer. Make the pictures you feel compelled to make and perhaps that will lead to a career. But if you try to make the career first, you will just make shitty pictures that you don’t care about.”
Coincidentally, this quote comes during a week of a lot of reflection on my career, spurred by a long vacation in the woods and an old letter my Mom recently found and sent to me, where I boldly declared my intention to become a photographer:
“That is me committed, April 22, 2001,” I wrote. “I am determined that this is what I’m going to do and I know I can do it well. It is going to be a hard road to get there, but I’m definitely up for it.”
I was living in Northern Ireland at the time and was captivated by photographing the sectarian side of culture and the resulting political unrest. According to the letter, my plan was as follows:
“As of today I’m aiming at going back to school and taking a few classes in photography to develop a better portfolio with the intention of submitting it to National Geographic in January for an internship they offer in the summer. I realize that I’m setting my sights high and I realize disappointment is going to be a big part of this decision, but I really feel like I can do it.”
Got to love that youthful determination, right?! I sure do. I remember not being able to sleep at night because my mind was abuzz thinking about photos. I had never been so sure about anything in my life. And it felt great.
It has now been 10 years since I started pursuing this dream and for the most part, I am realizing I have accomplished most of what I set out to do (with the exception of the National Geographic internship – If you’re reading this Ken Geiger, I’m free next summer…)
But now that I HAVE made photography my profession, Anderson’s quote still resonates. The biggest challenge I face these days is how to maintain the focus, drive and passion that comes with making photos for photography’s sake, despite what one friend described as “bastardizing” the passion by making it a living. So much of what I do as a freelance photographer has nothing to do with taking photos – keeping up on the books, finding new clients, learning technology, trying to stave of depression, remembering to maintain a life outside of work… that it slowly erodes away at the energy formerly reserved just for creating. And while I put everything I have into each assignment I shoot, lets face it, not every job you get is going to nurture your creative spirit in the same way as personal work does.
And so, 10 years into this business and looking at the 10 years down the road, as hard as it may be, I hope I can heed Anderson’s advice – to be a photographer first and let the profession come after. Maybe I should even be as brazen as I was at 23 and renew my bold assertion that, “While disappointment may be a big part of this decision, I am determined that this is what I’m going to do and I know I can do it well.”
The picture at the top of the post is a photo from a story I found during my time in Belfast from a boxing club where Catholics and Protestant kids transcend the sectarian divide of the country and come to fight in peace. Below is a photo from a working class Catholic neighborhood in Belfast where sectarian ideology is a common bond and where youth form their political identity at a very early age. It was my very first published photo.