Since I currently teach photography to college students part-time, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on my own formal education in photojournalism. I’ve realized that many of the most important lessons I’ve learned — ones I hope to impart to my own students — were never actually taught in school. Here are a few of them.
1. Humility is paramount to growth.
No matter how gifted you think you are, if you project a know-it-all attitude, you will be left in the dust — in school and in your career. More than in most professions, mentors can be incredibly valuable to photographers. But nobody wants to take a smart aleck under his or her wing. Be humble and show respect for those who share their experience with you.
2. Equipment only gets you so far.
Most working professionals don’t dwell on gear. I’ve found, ironically, that hobbyists focus a lot more on equipment than many pros do. Perhaps this is because these hobbyists tend to have day jobs, so having the latest equipment is a fun luxury rather than a cost of doing business. Believe it or not, some of my students actually have better gear than I do.
Working photographers, on the other hand, are too busy taking pictures for a living to stop to learn the latest version of an application or check out the latest camera on the market. Brand names like Nikon, Canon, Hasselblad, Lenovo, Mac, Lightroom, Aperture are all just that — names. In the right hands, even a blunt stick can be a dangerous weapon.
3. You don’t need to travel to faraway places or spend lots of money to make good photos.
Nurturing a curiosity about the world around you will serve you better in the long run than having a well-stamped passport. I can say this with authority, because as a former airline cabin attendant, I used to hop on airplanes more often than buses. Pretty scenery does not a photographer make.
Not only that, but “exotic” photos aren’t as exotic as they used to be. Subject matter that once could only be found in National Geographic or a few other periodicals is now all over the Web, as photographers in every corner of the world upload their work.
Which means that storytelling must come to the fore to get your pictures noticed. And stories can be told in your neighborhood just as well as somewhere else.
4. Your future is in your hands — literally.
After you learn the basic techniques of photography, it’s up to you to decide how you want to fill your frame every time you hold up your camera. The more often you use that camera, the more likely you’ll come up with a muse. Imagination and persistence can make up for bad breaks, a bad economy, cheap microstock competition, and lots of other excuses for not succeeding.
5. Where you go to school doesn’t matter as much as the quality of your work.
I still have a copy of a chart a former boss used listing all the candidates he considered when he hired me. He was kind enough to share it with me after he brought me on board. That chart showed how he awarded points for education, resume, portfolio and other criteria. It was an eye-opener — especially when it showed the high-end schools my competitors had attended.
I have nothing against brand-name art schools, only the sham that by attending a certain school, you will have success handed to you.
6. Your work will not sell itself.
Most college kids don’t realize that art schools gain standing largely by virtue of their ability to market themselves. If an alumnus ends up becoming famous, a school will latch on to them even if they only attended for a semester.
The irony is that while a school’s “rep” is a product of marketing, few art schools incorporate any marketing or other business courses in their curriculum. That’s ridiculous — because in today’s market, learning how to sell your work is as important as learning how to create it.
7. Succeeding in business is not about what you make, but what you keep.
Learning how to market your work is important. But as an independent photographer, you also need to understand how to manage a business.
Sadly, one of the famous photographers in the world, Annie Leibovitz, had to teach us this lesson. As the New York Times described her situation: “One of the world’s most successful photographers essentially pawned every snap of the shutter she had made or will make until [her] loans are paid off.”
8. Mistakes are inevitable.
Don’t fret, because we all make them. The key is learning from them.