Carefully examine the business books on your shelf. Listen to self-help podcasts where patronizing career ‘gurus’ revel in their success. Go to a lecture by a self-made millionaire who bootstrapped a Fortune 500 company. Read an interview with your favorite celebrity, athlete, musician, photographer, etc, etc. Hell, speak with a friend who dropped out of college to live nomadically. Chances are, when asked about their achievements—and how to get there yourself—their explanations will revolve around one simple, dangerous piece of advice: “Just take the leap.”
As noted in a recent Medium article, this is the most toxic thing you can say to someone seeking greatness, but it is especially true for aspiring photographers. Because more often than not, that leap will lead to failure. And I’m going to tell you why.
“Ansel Adams, God rest his soul, didn’t produce his first portfolio until age 25…Bernie Sanders is running for president at 74.”
If we look at some of the most innovative, inspiring, and successful people in history, their journey to stardom is far from the romanticized “big break” we envision as we drift off to sleep each night. Ansel Adams, God rest his soul, didn’t produce his first portfolio until age 25. Steve Jobs dropped out of college, was ousted from Apple—the company he founded—in 1985, and ran NeXT into the ground, until finally being rehired by Apple in 1997. Diane Arbus quit commercial photography at 33, with her first major exhibition almost 20 years later. Bernie Sanders is running for president at 74. And even Casey Neistat, the viral YouTube Filmmaker, lived in a trailer on welfare while washing dishes to support his family, before moving to New York City where he failed some more.
The point is that creative success almost never happens overnight. In fact, it comes very gradually, and for some, it may never come at all.
When we look at photography, in particular, the industry is plagued with lecturers, instructors, online tutorials, and indoctrinate propaganda that floundering hacks sell to make newcomers believe they can “make it”—follow your dreams, let your passion guide you, and buy my next book to find out what’s next! A bit harsh? Well, the thing is that most of these people haven’t made it in photography themselves. “Those who can’t, teach,” is perhaps more real in photography than any other creative field. And my best advice to you is to never take advice from someone you wouldn’t trade places with, myself and this article included.
“…the “film days” are over; not everything needs to be black and white.”
So when the times comes that you’re weeping away at your day job, yearning for the chance to hashtag #setlife on Instagram, remember that you will get there eventually, but the “film days” are over; not everything needs to be black and white. By this, I mean that working full-time doesn’t ensure a fulfilling career.
In photography, your success is based on not only your skill, but your business practices and ambition. There will always be more to learn, while complacency will ensure your irrelevance. You will often work 16+ hour days, sometimes for very little pay, sometimes for free. There will be intense highs—I find that work in this industry tends to come in waves—and extreme lows. It will be 20 percent work and 80 percent hustle, and you will deal with a lot of assholes to boot.
“In an age of eruptive startup culture, it’s easy to get caught up in the idealism of a big break.”
Now I don’t want my realness to deter you. In fact, I believe working smartly will trump prodigal talent in almost any case. The truth is, everything mentioned above are skills that can be built over time, and the more you practice them, the less you think about them when you do it.
So where do you begin? Start slow. Work your day job with pride, get paid, shoot at night, and network on the weekends. Build your portfolio. Put in 10,000 hours of work before you call yourself a pro. And if you’re “too tired” after a 9-5 day to do that, then photography may not be the right career choice for you in the first place.
In an age of eruptive startup culture, it’s easy to get caught up in the idealism of a big break. But taking “the leap” will leave you worse off than where you started. No, you won’t have the most compelling bio, but the slow and steady approach will leave you with something that lasts much longer.
Featured image by David Johnson for Resource Magazine. Visit his portfolio for more of his work!