Like most of us, I’ve made career choices that haven’t worked out. Many years ago, I was recruited by Singapore Airlines, which trained me to be a pilot.
After my classmates and I received our commercial pilot licenses, we were told that our timing wasn’t good and that we would have to work as cabin attendants temporarily — just until our pilot jobs came open for us.
“Temporarily” became three years. I decided to pursue another course. But what?
Cabin crew days: Yours truly rushes to be front and center among the Singapore Girls after tripping the self-timer on my camera. I took the picture in the upper deck of a B747 circa 1982.
It Started as a Hobby
While serving coffee and tea on airplanes, I traveled extensively — so of course, I bought a camera to document my journeys. I enjoyed my hobby.
This is what gave me the idea to go back to school and study photojournalism. I graduated and landed a job at a fairly large daily newspaper in Southern California.
I had a good run there. Then, 22 years later, I hit another fork in the road.
Working conditions at the paper had become intolerable. How intolerable? I literally walked home after turning in my company-issued car along with all the photo gear in the trunk.
Saying adios or selamat tinggal (Malaysian or Indonesian for goodbye) to something I loved and went to college to study was, needless to say, very difficult.
Before things went downhill for me (and many other newspaper photographers), I considered it a job I was fortunate to have. Newspaper photography was fun, exciting, and extremely competitive. Positions were highly sought-after.
The perks of the job were innumerable. The experiences I had on a day-to-day basis were priceless.
How many jobs are there where you get paid to photograph and listen live to Luciano Pavarotti during rehearsal in a large theater with only five other people around?
Or to sit on the court at a Lakers game in front of Jack Nicholson?
Or to enter areas closed to the public when there’s some sort of disaster like a wildland fire?
I can list countless other examples from my career — but then it might sound like bragging.
Advice for My Students
I still make my living from photography, as a freelancer. And I teach it part time now, too.
I find it fulfilling to influence how others use this art form. I use the term “influence” because that’s all I can ever hope to do. Motivate, hopefully inspire and guide.
So, what do I tell students who enjoy photography as a hobby, and are considering it as a career?
I tell them first that it is very difficult to find the kind of staff position I had. Those jobs are disappearing.
A staff position is a job where your employer pays you specifically to take pictures. Most of the time, you’re just the button pusher — except in the case of newspapers, where your job is to tell a story in pictures.
When you have a staff position, you can focus on taking pictures and don’t have to worry about finding clients. You collect a regular paycheck and receive benefits. In return, you work the days and hours your employer dictates.
Even if you can find a staff position, they are often not as fulfilling as they used to be. (If they were, I wouldn’t have walked home from mine, for good.) Staff photographers are more overworked, underpaid and underappreciated than ever.
Charting Your Own Path
The alternative to finding a staff position is to launch your own business, or freelance. That world is a tough one, too. It’s even tougher now that digital photography is within the means of everyone who has a computer and some photo-editing software.
So am I saying not to pursue a career in photography? No — but you need to think about how to carve out a career that will make you happy.
Your answer may be to find a good mix of editorial work, weddings and portraits, while never forgetting to shoot for yourself, too. Projects that mean something to you personally (like this one did for me) help keep your passion alive.
If you forget to nourish your passion, you will eventually burn out — spoiling what otherwise might have remained a wonderful hobby.