Updated: Feb 20, 2021
Being a new professional photographer is a waiting game. Like the opening refugee scenes in the movie Casablanca, my life seems a bit like travelers stuck in Morocco without exit visas -- "waiting, waiting, waiting, always waiting." The personal changes I made from being an arts administrator four years ago to that of "starving artist" have been profound and humbling, but I knew that going in having worked in the industry for more than thirty years. I also knew that establishing myself with any degree of notoriety or success would be chasing a dream that might never be realized. Forget about getting rich and famous -- I'm just looking for a modest living and a little professional regard, but there are a lot of us out there and the path is cumbersome, tedious and frequently unfulfilling at times. I understood early on that if you don't love 'the doing" of photography, and just want the end rewards, it's probably the wrong profession for you (or me). I've been fairly practical my entire life about professional choices, but find myself at a place, aged 60, where perhaps it's time I finally stop just hanging around what I love to do and actually do it.
Like many of us, I started out working in other jobs, either part-time or full-time, working on photography in the off-time trying and build the foundation of a creative career while still getting paid "legitimately". However, following a recent injury to my arm that happened on my other job, I lost important time in photography by not being able to even hold a camera for several months. I came to the conclusion that the only way I was going to make this really work was to commit myself full-time to photography only -- it's just the kind of devoted commitment that had to be made. So, once healed, I quit my other job and set out across the proverbial desert as yet another creative refugee looking for the oasis of self-sustainability in an arts career. After a full career serving other creative people, I can now proudly expose myself and accept what I always knew I was, but was too hesitant to embrace -- an full-time professional artist. Yikes.
That's actually the first hurdle -- admitting to be an artist and committing oneself to the discipline and lifestyle of producing quality work while balancing creative intent with commercial application (where necessary) to make a living. It's a big step, but perhaps not as scary as it is peering into the abyss of the creative unknown. Once started, the fear dissipates, but the hardship is real and requires a few realities to be accepted, consistencies to establish, and some freedoms to respect. But even as you do these things, you will often be stuck waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. You'll find yourself waiting for publications to review and reject or accept your work, stock web sties to sell your work, friends and fans to purchase your work, grant providers to approve and award funding, earning enough revenue to upgrade equipment (while also trying to pay your regular bills), waiting for wildlife to cooperate (let alone show up at all), for the wind to settle down, for the commercial clients to call, for the travel to end, for the exhibit to be curated, for my work to get to an artistic level that satisfies my own passion for pursuing this dream, and most of all, for the light to be right. The results trickle in, rarely ever too soon, but through diligence, the process will eventually generate consistent results that produce a living. Now -- you can exhale.
Understand that I'm still new at this end of the industry, but perhaps there are a few glimmering insights I can share:
1) We all have the realties of life to face (whether artists or not), and we are paying our way through the process either doing what we want or not -- you choose how. Playing it safe and holding back part-time on a creative career is not the right decision, if this is your passion. Nor is it as scary as it seems. It's a living like any other (kind of), but with many artists competing with you full-time. You just have to do it -- with no guarantee you'll succeed financially or socially -- the best rewards come from elsewhere.
2) Be prepared often to be isolated professionally (and socially). If you've built up a network of friends and associates in photography to connect, commiserate and collaborate with, all the better, but in the end the creative process is often a solitary endeavor that requires a lot of your personal time shooting, editing, planning, conceiving, etc. Likewise, your work may or not be immediately embraced. It takes time to build a portfolio and even longer to focus it down to the type of work that sells, represents your style, and that satisfies you creatively. The time spent trying to find your creative voice often results in nothing more than what feels like a hollow echo back from the abyss, but you will find your way.
3) Less is more, and I mean a lot less. Sacrifices in relationships, the ownership of things, and in limiting beliefs will need to be made. Getting rid of the clutter of life is necessary to maintain focus, set priorities, find direction, and open up clarity, is the flip side of reducing financial cost implications necessary to sustain a life as an artist -- though you need not be starving. Smaller and perhaps shared living quarters, economical transportation, fewer things to carry around, fewer things to store, fewer relationships of a casual or unsupportive nature, and less time spent on hobbies and interests that interfere with you getting your work done. Being an artist is a bit selfish, but that's okay for now -- you've given before and you'll give back later.
4) Freedom in time and approach to pursue your art comes with a price, mainly that constant self-discipline is necessary to ensure you pursue your goals. It's too easy to get caught up in the planning, field shooting, networking and professional development workshops that help feed your vision. However, you must also attend to the daily business, attracting clients, shooting things your client needs, serving your customers, processing paperwork, paying the bills, cleaning the equipment, conducting the research, and just tolerating the dead ends of scoping out potential work.
Okay, enough preaching -- perhaps a it's just a byproduct of passing time while waiting. Just know that I love my work and regret nothing. I suspect you will too. However, that said, I should now turn my attention to more productive activities -- like picking the stray dust specs off my lenses.
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