A few days ago I was asked if I would help out with graduating students of the photography program at OCAD. There would be five of us real-life working photographers in on that day and over the course of a couple of hours, we would have twenty minutes each with six students. In that twenty minutes we were to critique their portfolios and marketing materials, the idea being that we were to prep them for the real-no-more-school world. I was excited. To be 100% honest, I love criticizing work. When I see bad images, I get my back up. I am also a big fan of the youth, the young people in this world. Because from what I see, when they grow up to be in charge, we are all going to be in great hands. So being given this opportunity was a dream for me. Let’s criticize some photos and let’s raise people up!
When I was a photography major at Ryerson, I remember crying at most of my major critiques. You would stand in front of your peers displaying the images that you have been working on and the professors would rip you apart. I am a pretty sensitive person and oftentimes my work was pretty close to my heart so when criticism was aimed at my images, it stung. But later on I would go over in my mind what had been said to me and I would get it. I would take space away from the images and really understand where the criticism was coming from and then it was clear to me where I could improve. The kind of tough love mentality works for things like this, when you are prepared to face the truths and work hard to be better. On Thursday when I got to OCAD and met everyone, one of the professors said to us in what seemed to be a joking manner “And don’t make anyone cry!” What?!, I thought. Have we gone soft on the youth?
Nevertheless, I didn’t make anyone cry. In fact, I left the university that day feeling pretty positive about the future of this world. The work that I saw was stunning. The issues that the students are approaching, are necessary. So although I didn’t make anyone cry, I
hope think that I did give some good advice and that is something that I would like to share here. I write from my own experience, that of a 37 year old, who graduated from photo school 15 years ago (hello, film days!), who immediately started her own business that is still surviving now and who ran a studio with six tenants for ten years. I am not an expert and everyday I continue to learn new things but in those fifteen years of being a professional photographer, I have done things. And perhaps you don’t even need to be a photographer or budding one to take something away from this.
Dear Photography Students,
This is an exciting time for you. Soon, you will be free from those school walls and you will be out exploring the real world. The big real world can be a great place and it can also be a scary one. To help you in this transition, let me leave you with some tips.
Photograph everything. Challenge yourself in what you shoot. Give yourself assignments to complete each week. Put yourself in uncomfortable situations. Photograph people that you know but more importantly, photograph people that you don’t. Shoot everything (with your camera, I am never going to promote shooting with guns, ever.) until you find something that you truly love. Something that makes your heart sing. And when you find that, make it yours. Your specialty. Whatever is truly in your heart will be what you are successful with.
Don’t compare yourself to other photographers, especially those close around you. Stop looking at whatever is trendy in post-production. Stop worrying about how many Instagram followers you have – the number of followers is no indication of true success. Many of the photographers that I know who have the most followers, are not actually making a living at this photo-thing. Most that I know are too busy actually working on their businesses to worry about it. Start spending time really thinking about YOUR photography. About what you want to create and about what you want to show the world. You have a unique view: no one else sees the world like you do. Use that.
Harass a photographer that you admire.
But do so kindly. Actually, harass is probably not the best word to use but you will get my point. If there is a photographer that you particularly look up to, send them a message and let them know. Ask them if they need an assistant or ask if you would be able to tag along on a photo shoot. If it’s someone who is pretty successful, they likely already have 1st, 2nd, 3rd assistants lined up but… they may still let you in the room to quietly observe the magic. It never hurts to ask. If it’s someone more approachable, ask if you can have an hour of their time to pick their brain, to show them your work. If they do not reply to your email right away, do not feel too disheartened. Send a follow up a week later – sometimes we need a reminder. The worst that can come from any of this is that they say no or that they do not reply at that point. But if they do, hip hip hooray! If you do get in a room with them, whether it be on a shoot or for a coffee, be respectful of that. Ask questions (when it’s appropriate!), no matter how dumb your question may seem. This may be your only time to be with this person so take advantage. Be respectful of their time and of the time that they are giving you. Really value all that you learn from them, any insight that they may give. That knowledge took years and years of work that they put in to get to where they are now. And please send them a thank you email afterwards. A small thanks goes far in this world where manners seem to not be a top priority.
I don’t know if you can truly be a professional photographer if you haven’t worked for another before. I would not be who I am, where I am, had it not been for all of those photographers that I assisted for over the years. Assist as many different photographers as you can. Learn how they work, how they shoot, how they light. Even if what they are shooting is not something that 100% interests you, I promise that you will gain something from that experience.
Study the Greats.
Stop looking at Instagram for inspiration or what your peers are shooting. Look backwards into the past. The great photographers that came before you. I’m talking Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus, Robert Capa, Alfred Stieglitz, Dorothea Lange, Sally Mann, Susan Meiselas, Robert Frank (okay, those are my favourites!). Look at images by photographers who have been doing this photo thing for a while. The ones who really did something. Who changed the photo world. Who stirred things up. Study their images. Learn why they are the greats. What makes their images so incredible? What is it that you like or dislike about them? Spend time with these images. Learn what makes them work and why.
Create for you.
For every photo job that you get, create an image for you. Not every job will be exciting and creative. Some will be boring. Some will not be what you dreamt of while spending all these years at photo school. But know that it is such a privilege to make money from your camera. Be grateful for every job that you get. Shoot for the client and then (if there is time and the subject/client is willing!), shoot something for you. Push yourself creatively. What can you get out of an additional five minutes with the talent? What would be your dream image to create with this set? Take advantage and make something beautiful. Sometimes this results in being the favourite image for everyone involved, including your client. And if this is the case, they will know to trust your vision more the next time that you work together.
Create an inspiration book.
Rip out pages from magazines. Collect postcards from art exhibits. Make a collage of beautiful, inspiring shots pasted in a book that you can go to when in search of something in particular. Take it one step further by writing in your Inspiration Book about why you love an image. Is it the colours? The composition? The lighting? The feeling? How could you create something similar that has your own voice in it?
Visit galleries and attend lectures.
Invest in an annual membership at the Art Gallery of Ontario (or whatever gallery is where you live!) and make a point of visiting monthly. Get to know the gallery’s permanent collection. And don’t just visit the photography exhibits. Study the paintings, the sculpture. There is something to be inspired by in all of it. If you want to really learn about lighting, look at the paintings by the Renaissance Painters. Keep your eye out for photo festivals or events that have photographers giving lectures (hello Contact!). Go to as many as you can. Hear the photographers speak about their work. And afterwards, engage with them if you can. Ask questions. This is how I became friends with one of my most favourite photographers. Put yourself out there.
And finally: have fun with that camera of yours. Create images that you are proud of. Be kind to everyone around you, it is such a small community that we are in. Lift one another up and as a result, we will all rise.