Being a professional photographer brings me into contact with a lot of people. And one of the conversations I have again and again usually begins with the words “I’ve always wanted to be a photographer.” And I smile every time I hear it. On the one hand it reminds me that my life is a blessing. I get to do this job, a job many would happily claim. How many? 120 people applied for my job, I’m the lucky one who got it. And for those of you who don’t know me, I live in a small town in Northwest Montana. I can only imagine the number of applicants when your talking about a job in the big, bad city.
I get to be a photographer. I get to spend my days driving around looking for what’s cool, what’s interesting, what is beautiful. I get to be a seeker and I get to share what I find. It’s an awesome life. But my smile is also holds a touch of sadness, because I know the high price this job demands. Incredible flexibility. Last minute uncontrollable changes. Terrible conditions. The worst of humanity (and fortunately, also the best). Pain. Suffering. Grief. It is impossible for me to document someone’s pain and not share in it. Have plans for the evening — good luck with that. It’s your kid’s birthday — cute, but the building is on fire so go…NOW! “Who is texting you at at 3:13 in the morning?” — That’ll be dispatch.
Being a photographer is a gift, but you’ll pay a high price to have it.
Still, I would not trade my life for another. There are things about my job that I do not love. Welcome to reality, it’s a real job with real highs and real lows, just like any other. There are assignments I am passionate about, experiences that enrich my life, stories that stir my soul. Conversely, there are plenty of assignments I’d rather skip. That’s life at a newspaper. But being a photographer isn’t about having the title. It’s not even about having the gear, though that helps. Being a photographer is a way of living life. It is a means of exploring and documenting your own experiences. And you don’t have to work for Time magazine to do that.
Time does this great series called LightBox. I found an article today that brought a few things to mind about that dream of being a photographer. When people dream of being a photographer they tend to dream of working for National Geographic or Time or some other big publication. They dream of exotic locales and unparalleled access. The dream of photography seems to also always be a dream of traveling. This article puts a bit of the kibosh on that. With the way technology is changing regional photographers are becoming the standard.
One of my favorite quotes from the piece was by Susan Meiselas, Director of the Magnum Foundation. She said, “I want to know from within [emphasis added] what the world looks like and feels like…There are times when insiders have a privileged view and there are times when outsiders can see what insiders cannot perceive…” I grew up overseas and I know well, there is a unique power and access, that often an outside will never be privy to. The technology that exists today is letting people speak for themselves about what their lives and culture really mean, rather than waiting for a set of Western eyes to see and share and interpret.
With everyone having a personal cell phone these days, and therefore a camera in hand at all times, the glut of images can be overwhelming. And as the technology changes photography is changing. I’ve been doing this 18 years and other than once talking my boss into sending me to New York (from DC) to cover a local kid on Broadway, I have never managed to convince my editors that travel expenses were necessary. (Side note: the only reason I got to go, was I had a friend living in NYC and a free place to stay).
It is however important to note that just because the world of photography is changing does not mean the photography has become any less worthy. But perhaps the dream needs a bit of tweaking. Keep dreaming of being a photographer, but accept the harder challenge: to be a photographer without the National Geographic All-Access Pass. Be a photographer right where you are.
Recently, I was asked to teach a photography class at my church. I am really excited about this, and also really terrified. It will start in March and wrap up 12 weeks later in May. Nothing is set at this point. I have so many ideas bouncing around my brain I barely can contain them. But most of it comes down to an overwhelming sense of joy — I have been a photographer for 18 years. I LOVE being a photographer and for the first time, I am going to try to share what I love with a group of people for an extended time period. I have until March, to organize the classes. You can’t learn all there is in 12 weeks, so I’m focusing on what I think will be most helpful. And at this point, that revolves around learning to see the way the camera sees. (More on that later. Incidentally, I plan on posting the lessons here on my blog, so check back in March if you are interested in that.)
The dream of photography is a lifestyle dream. The love of photography is about where you are right now. It’s about seeing what is right in front of your own eyes. Finding the beauty that is all to easy to overlook, pass by, take for granted. The most ordinary place you can imagine is exotic to someone. The most boring moments of life have something worth sharing, just waiting to be found.
I am so looking forward to teaching this class. I look forward to all I will get to share, but mostly, I look forward to all I will get to remember and relearn.