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I guess this is a question that I got to in stages. For some time now, I’ve gotten used to seeing people with DSLRs and photographic ambitions everywhere I look. It’s become natural and for some of my photographer friends, it has become second nature to question the livelihood of photography. A few days ago it just struck me: why do so many people want to make a living out of photography? I therefore decided to give myself some answers.
Generally speaking, when people make decisions about their future careers, they have certain criteria in mind. Things like financial security, working hours, health benefits and not to mention personal satisfaction are all important to most of us.
If you put photography through all these filters, it seems like some things don’t add up all the time. I recently stumbled across a quote from somebody who worked on the set of the 1966 movie Blow-up (if you’re into photography and haven’t seen it yet, please take immediate measures). It goes like this: "Some photographers were making so much money in the ’60s that it became almost compulsory to own another business in order to offset the crippling 90% tax burden for high earners. Antiques or restaurants conveniently fitted the lifestyle." For me, today, it sounds unreal and I’m sure I’m not alone. Without doubt, there many successful photographers in the world, and I’m not talking about celebrities like Terry Richardson or Annie Leibovitz, who manage an above average income. But that again, there is everybody else who is struggling in a market that looks like it’s killing itself and is being harmed by the technology that is supposed to make everything easier and more fun. Photography isn’t a day job, it’s a personal business that demands more and more sacrifice in terms of working hours and investment. So, even with the possibility of a decent living, I still don’t think the income of a photographer can be a very powerful argument.
Availability is the next thing I thought of. Virtually everybody has access to professional quality in digital photography. If you think I’m wrong, think about the fact that ten or twelve years ago, photographers who were shooting covers for major magazines were using D1X and other similar equipment. The cheapest DSLR you can buy today is far better in image quality than anything pros used in those days. The abundance of affordable technology has definitely made photography a lot easier (too easy according to many pros), cheaper and popular. But even more people have access and own powerful computers, yet you don’t see the majority of them developing and interest in programming or anything IT related. It’s weird I tell you, and yes, I know you can’t compare taking pictures with writing codes at an office in terms of enjoyment.
Is it the lifestyle? I’m not sure if many imagine that being a photographer is all about being around pretty, about shooting for large companies or photographing the nicest brides and grooms imaginable. No pro ever will tell you that a photographer’s lifestyle is easy. Behind the myth so many people seem to trust, that you make a good living by being awesome with your camera and snapping pictures all day, there is a lot of hard work, sleepless nights, accounting, location scouting, team work, design, etc.
Images via http://www.ispwp.com
Images via http://www.ispwp.com
Lifestyle, as a whole may not be the argument.
Someone I know recently gave up a decent, corporate position that came with a good pay and multiple benefits, to join the ever increasing armies of photographers. She dived head-in and when I asked why, she told me that the money and benefits from the corporate job didn’t give her anywhere near the joy of having satisfied clients for her photography. To me it sounded like a very risky maneuver, but who was I to judge? Examples like this aren’t rare and this is what I find interesting. People from very different branches quit their jobs and change their lives in hopes of living “the dream”.
So it’s not the money. It’s not working for your boss. If you have a decent sense of business you’ll realize that when you work for yourself, the effort is at least double. It’s not the lifestyle and it’s not the fame and glam. Even though the Internet and networking have done magic for how we present ourselves to the world, it’s probably harder to become a rock star in photography than it is to become a known musician. By this I mean world fame. It’s by no means impossible, but if this were to be the only reason for someone to pursue photography as a career, I would find it sad.
It is certainly not something as well defined as being doctor because you want to help other people, or being a lawyer because you value justice above all. You want to be a photographer because you enjoy capturing great images, but so do most people if you look at it. It’s just that as pros we do it better and expect to get paid for it, which is somehow in contradiction with the fact that so many others are willing to a good job for free.
You also want it because you found it to be the best form of expression. Maybe you don’t know how to draw, write or sing, but you grew up with a camera in your hands. Ultimately, and I’m willing to accept the possibility of being wrong, I think so many people get into photography because they somehow believe it is affordable art, both in technical terms, and from an education point of view. If you want to paint or draw, you need to go to art school. If you want to write like a pro, you have to study literature. Amazing photography is being created on a daily basis by people with backgrounds in economics or something else entirely different. It’s a sort of mirage and I’m not sure about its effects in the long run. What’s crystal clear is that there are many photographers out there, both good and bad, and that with numbers increasing, the market is shrinking. But never before have there been so many outstanding images created in such a short period of time, all over the world. Add the amazing ability to share with the world (if it hadn’t been for the Internet, I doubt we would be seeing so many people willing to invest in “the dream”) and you get to where we are today. I don’t know if it’s good or bad that so many people want to make a living with photography and it’s probably a thing of personal position. I do think however that it is a test for photography as a medium, and definitely not a light one.
Article by Sergiu Aursulesei