A regular feature of my life is getting an email query from a student interested in photography who has been given an assignment to make contact with a working professional and ask them some questions. Sometimes these are questions I've heard before (How did you get started?) but others are more unique and probing. Whichever they are, they reflect common questions shared by many young photographers curious about the possibility of making their passion for photography in to a career. So from time to time I'll post some of these questions and my answers.
These questions come from Marie.
What does an average day in your life as a photographer look like?
Well, it’s an old saw, but everyday is different. There is no average. But at the fundamental level my photographic world is sort of bipolar. Either I’m out in the field taking pictures on assignment, or I’m in my office at Small World Gallery. In the office it breaks down into several items: taking care of usual gallery business, printing photographs or cards, filling requests for photographs by publications and attending to the large catalog of images already shot on previous assignments. Then there is the research and development of new stories, cooking up new subjects, developing existing lines of work, like my focus on food and agriculture, or my Scotland archive.
During these times at home and in the office I rarely take pictures. That comes when I go into the field for work. It’s a pretty clear divide for me.
Photography work in the field is always highly intense, confounded with vast logistical needs, trying to find subjects that will carry the visual narrative forward, and working hard to be creative in the middle of all the turmoil. The hours are long, dictated by weather, light and the schedule of the subjects. I become a different person when I’m out shooting. I’m totally focused on when and where I can get the pictures I need. I don’t care much about eating. Nor about stopping for interesting things I encounter along the way if they don’t have something to do with my story. (I don’t stop for sunrises or rainbows, for instance, unless they would enhance a needed subject.)
In other words, working in the field is not like travel. It’s not like taking a vacation with a camera every day of my life. While I find it immensely rewarding it is not the sort of footloose experience many people might want it to be.
Ultimately much time and effort goes into getting myself into position to capture something that is very fleeting. But the rewards in those moments are enormous and very gratifying
Do you have any formal schooling in photography? Do you consider it necessary to have any schooling?
No I didn’t have any formal training in photography. Formal schooling can be very advantageous, depending on the subject matter involved and the kind of preparation it gives you. But that can take many forms, everything from university degree programs to assisting established photographers, to concocting a program of workshop experiences that give you the needed skills and experience.
Should I consider assisting a photographer as an intern early in my career?
Yes, I think you should certainly consider it. It can be a great gateway into the field and seeing operations up close is often worthwhile, something that is difficult to obtain otherwise. On the other hand, I’d advise you to beware of photographers who are simply looking for free help. Reputable photographers pay for work performed. We all know that getting started is tough, but if you are performing valuable work then you deserve to be paid. I won’t work with anyone I don’t pay. It’s not fair to do otherwise.
How do you market yourself? What’s your biggest asset when trying to get your name and photos out there?
Well, in some ways I don’t market myself. After this long in the business and having worked for National Geographic for over 30 years the situation for me is very different than it is for a beginning photographer. I got my start working for newspapers, then delved deeply into personal projects that resulted in attention and publication of my images, won my share of awards, and collaborated with a broad range of people in the industry.
Today, I would say my greatest need is to stay abreast of emerging audiences, markets and new publishing platforms. For that reason I put a fair amount of effort into social media. I have 370,000 followers on Instagram, one of my most valuable assets. I plunge into new social media whenever possible, trying to figure out how they might fit into the larger picture.
On either end of the equation it still comes down to basic principles: go where the audience is and give them something interesting.
What is the most important advice you believe a young photographer could receive?
Be interesting. It used to be photographers produced pictures. Today photographers are expected to produce eyeballs. You are measured by how much attention you can bring to your subject. Don’t be boring.
To do this you have to have a broad background of knowledge (well beyond traditional photographic skills like knowing which knobs to turn) and the ability to tell stories with images in interesting ways. Oh, and it helps if you have something important to say.
So study widely, read widely, explore widely, and be voracious in your hunger to know the world. If you can then find a way to translate all of that into pictures you probably have a good chance to make a life for yourself as a photographer.