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.