I taught my first photography course in 1988. Many things have changed since then, but some have remained the same. Over the years, students seem steadily drawn to two genres of photography — fashion and photojournalism. It is easy to understand why: these are two of the seemingly most glamorous careers in professional photography. And these genres are also among the most visible and recognizable. Nearly every photography student, at some time or other, has probably glanced through Vogue, Elle, National Geographic, or Time. And I am willing to bet that many of those students have dreamt of being in some remote, exotic location, working with talented models, or documenting culturally interesting or newsworthy events.
The problem, of course, is that very few photography students — indeed, very few professional photographers — will ever get to work for such illustrious national publications. A photo editor at a seminar I attended put it this way: the business of professional photography is like a pyramid. At the top are the photographers whose names are well known and whose shooting styles determine, at least in part, the way we see and interpret pictures.
The photo editor likened these photographers to major multinational corporations. They are the equivalent, at least in our profession, of IBM, Microsoft, ExxonMobil, etc. They have large offices and studios, employ support staff and agents, and conduct their businesses at the highest professional level. Needless to say, there is not a lot of room at this highest point on the pyramid. Only a small handful of photographers will reach the pinnacle of their profession.
The next layer of the pyramid, which is significantly larger, contains the thousands of professional photographers who are making a decent living within their chosen areas of specialization. We may not know their names, but perhaps we have seen their images in corporate publications, in textbooks, in magazines, or on the Internet. They may also be shooting for private clients, concentrating on the often lucrative wedding and portrait markets. These photographers, too, run their businesses professionally, often hiring freelance support staff such as assistants, stylists, bookkeepers, etc.
At the bottom of the pyramid — you guessed it — is the largest layer. In it are those photographers struggling to make a living doing what they love. But they have not yet been able to solidify their careers. Like actors — a group with whom photographers are sometimes compared in terms of earning power — the photographers at the bottom of the pyramid may need to rely on other sources of income to fund their image-making. Or they may have to accept more than their share of unrewarding assignments to make ends meet.
The take-away message the photo editor shared at the seminar was this: photographers in the lower two layers of the pyramid are constantly struggling to push their way up to the next level. But as you move up the pyramid, the layers get smaller, so there is less room. Only some of the photographers in the bottom layer will make the jump to the middle layer. And only a few will climb all the way to the top.
So where does that leave our aspiring students? The photo editor said that photographers have only two ways to move up through the pyramid. They can try to push their way to the next level, which means competing with thousands of other photographers, all of whom have the same goal. Or they can find a way to jump to the next level — by thinking outside the pyramid. What does this mean? Instead of fighting your way up through the ranks, it means doing something that separates you from the rest of the crowd.
For example, you might develop a specialty, based on your other skills and interests, that sets you apart from the masses of photographers. Some obvious examples are aerial/underwater photography, skiing/mountaineering photography, and medical/scientific photography. How many of us are able or willing to dive deep under the Antarctic ice (Norbert Wu ) or climb the world’s highest mountains (the late Galen Rowell ) and also bring back stunning images? If you have a special expertise, exploit it! If you have access to places few others can go, use it!
You might also immerse yourself in the world of your prospective clients — whether commercial, editorial, or wedding/portrait — and try to figure out what is going to be the next hot (or cool) thing in their world. Understanding your prospective clients’ needs and problems — current and future — will help you be a more valuable player and a member of the creative team. Think of yourself as a problem-solver, not just a photographer. Anyone can take pictures; you are going to be hired to help your clients solve their visual-communications problems.
Finally, pack as many tools into your toolkit as possible. At the University of South Carolina, where I currently teach as an instructor in the Visual Communications sequence, the philosophy is to make sure the VisCom students are exposed to as many aspects of the profession as possible, including still photography, videography, graphic design, Web design, information graphics, etc. The hope is that our students will be able to advance their careers by offering prospective clients and employers a complete package of visual-communication skills. This is another example of “thinking outside the pyramid,” and who knows — this kind of approach may help at least some of them realize their dreams in the world of professional photography.