The Best Photographers Are Troublemakers

Great photographers are fundamentally unhappy people. Not suburban-housewife unhappy, waiting to be swept away, a la Madame Bovary. No, the best photographers are unhappy with the world around them and how it functions. What bothers them is the way reality is commonly perceived: normal, bland, boring, uninteresting.

What is compelling to a photographer is not reality as it is presented to them, but what is behind the surface. Or on the sides. Great photographers do not accept things the way they are. They are troublemakers.

Discomfort Zone

Put them in a photo call with a pre-assigned position, and they will go out of their way not to stay there. Not because they like to create trouble — but because they want more. Something different. Something more revealing.

Try to put them in a pool situation, as was done during the First Gulf War, and they will wave their middle finger at you, even if it means putting their life in danger. If they are not permitted to change position, they will change cameras or lenses, or they will crouch or jump — because somewhere else, other than where they are standing, is the right image, the perfect frame.

No wonder photography’s birthplace is Paris. Parisians, whether born there or adopted, are notorious troublemakers. Absolutely nothing can satisfy them, with the possible exception of being dissatisfied.

From David LaChapelle to Henri Cartier-Bresson, the most talented photographers have always thought to go beyond everyday visual convention. They seek to show us the world “the other way.”

Their reason? To trouble you, to displace you from your center of gravity into a zone of sudden imbalance.

You need to readjust yourself to appreciate their images, rethink what you thought was normal. They force you to think, and to learn. They ever-so-slightly move you away from your comfort zone and force you to re-position your thinking.

Stubborn, Reckless — and Brilliant

It should come as no surprise, then, that talented photographers are 99 percent pain in the ass to work with. They have strong opinions. They are stubborn. They are reckless.

But that is simply because they are constantly challenged by a reality that annoys them. For gifted photographers, reality is like being assaulted by mosquitoes, all the time. They don’t have an attitude problem; it’s the world that lacks one.

And this is the exact reason we love their work. They disturb the reality in which they are placed. They challenge it, always demanding more, to see what is behind it.

They do not want to photograph the yellow brick road, no matter how pretty it might be. They want to photograph the wizard behind the curtains.

This is true for all types of photographers: news, celebrity, portrait, commercial stock, landscape. The rules — or lack thereof — are the same.

So the next time you hire a photographer, don’t worry too much if he or she is a troublemaker. For the best photographers, it’s a prerequisite of the job.

26 Responses to “The Best Photographers Are Troublemakers”

  1. So true! Great article... Thank you.

    Sime ( @gtvone )

  2. Being difficult to work with doesn't make you great. Just a jerk.

    While this maybe true, I am finding that those who others can work with are doing much better. Who has time for a jerk?

  3. love it! nice to see something like this in writing 🙂

  4. @stephen leary
    being fundamentally "difficult to work with" is not what this article is about. you missed the point. it's about photographers, seeing a reality that average people do not, and *consequently* they may be difficult to work with.

    people who are just plain difficult to work with might be lazy, or self-absorbed, or sociopathic liars.

    don't pool everyone who is "difficult to work with" into the "jerk" stereotype that you carry around like unnecessary baggage in your repertoire of nervous expectations.

  5. pardon me - i meant @stanley leary.

  6. "talented photographers are 99 percent pain in the ass to work with." translation "jerks" and I believe is a totally false.

    Having a creative eye is why top photographer's are hired. My clients expect me to bring my perspective. They also have concerns which I may not be aware of when I am hired. So, I must articulate what I think might work and listen to their concerns--sometimes proprietary concerns about a process for example that prevents this type of photo. If I am truly creative I should be able to come up with another different perspective. The photographer who gets argumentative in my opinion just isn't all that creative.

  7. This is an interesting debate to me. I don't think it's as much about being a jerk as about demanding independence. In a corporate setting, people who demand independence, of thought or of action, are often seen as prima donnas, people who aren't "team players," etc. In an editorial setting, it's often just the way things are.

    Corporations generally don't get the highest caliber of creative work -- whether it's photography, design or writing -- because they put a premium on people who work within the "team concept," who take direction well, etc. The best creative types struggle with these things. So I think some degree of tension is often necessary to create good work.

  8. Very funny reading! Yes indeed. You are right. Unfortunately.!

    Best Regards Yuri Arcurs - The World's Top Selling Stock Photographer

  9. Good way of putting that. I'll link back here eventually.

  10. Being the daughter of an award-winning photographer, who was the youngest staff photographer ever hired by the Daily Mirror (UK), who photographed the Queen and her fmaily having lunch near Maidenhead whilst working for a local newspaper as a teenager and who was recognised and lauded by his peers as being one of the best photographers around; I can say that this article pretty much hits the nail on the head!

    However, I would say that this article mainly applies to photojournalists, news photographers those working in the moment i.e. war zones, rather than corporate head-shotters (sorry @stanleyleary) as that is a different skill entirely - more of a sucking up and playing nice skill. Know what I mean - after all you have to, to get the work - there are so many of you out there who think they can point and shoot. Real news photographers, were and still are, few and far between.

    My dad was a complete bastard to work with sometimes and he was one of the best photographers out there (and yes I LOVED & ADMIRED him for it!). I believe the two went hand in hand.

    He was a bastard because he wanted the best shot, the best position, the best angle etc. He wasn't a jerk and certainly didn't do it for the fun of it but his pride in his work and that never-ending drive to get the best shot, to be the best, to show the world what he was seeing, was entirely the cause.

    Yes news photographers (or photo-journalists if you prefer) are some of the most difficult people to work with (trust me I KNOW) but only because they don't accept second best and they disregard anyone who doesn't have the same attitude.

    News photographers are bastards because they are perfectionists - after all you have only got one chance, one second to get the shot that beats them all AND tells the story.

    Here's to my late father and photographer extraordinare - Peter Stone - and all you grumpy bastard photographers out there - LOVE ya!

  11. I have worked for more than 27 years as a photojournalist. I worked on magazines which won POY awards regularly. I have covered events for the major news magazines.

    Even William Allard in his book talks about how when he over stepped it with National Geographic and stopped working for them for many years. His sensitivity was also there for he could not have covered the Amish or the Hutterites without being able to work with people and get their cooperation.

    James Nachtwey is the top in the world and is considered also to have incredible people skills.

    I can point to a lot of "pain in the ass" photographers, but I don't consider many of them in the same caliber as the two I have mentioned.

    You have to know how to get the picture as a photojournalist to be the best requires great people skills.

    Sam Able is another fine example of someone who has also excelled and isn't a pain in the ass.

    Great photojournalists need to see the world not always in a better way, but as Dave Black puts it in a different way. We must make photos that photo editors don't expect and couldn't do themselves.

    Having values and standing your ground when necessary is showing you have integrity.


    Corporations hire the finest photographers. You will find Jim Richardson, Jay Maisel, Steve McCurry and the list goes on as the finest photojournalists shooting for corporate.

    Here is one corporate client speaking to this issue.

  12. My reason for responding to this particular article, is my concern that many will think being difficult is normal and OK. I think students and those who want to make it, need to know it isn't acceptable behavior and should be avoided. This doesn't mean not getting unique photos of pushing for a different access at events. It means you still pursue an interesting angle and photo, but that you work hard at treating people with respect in the process. I have found you get much further and even more access this way.

  13. Hesitating to continue but I really think you have completely missed the point of the whole post and the subsequent comments.

    As joel said, it isn't about being a pain in the ass. It's about being difficult to work with tends to be a trait that great photographers have simply because their expectations are so high - firstly of themselves, closely followed by those of others.

    Yes you sure can be a great photojournalist and not be difficult to work with, but this article isn't about that either. It is a look at why if as a photographer you ARE difficult to work with - why that is.

    Oh and there is a BIG difference between working for a POY magazine and being a POY photographer. And yes James Nachtwey seems to have accomplished an awful lot, well done for mentioning him.

    But if you want to go that route you weren't trained by THE Photographer of the Year (NOT the Magazine Photographer of the Year but THE one and only; for his pictures from Vietnam, the war that inspired Nachtwey into photography in the first place).

    I was... And from your bio you haven't worked for a national daily newspaper in over 73 countries around the world (my dad did) and he trained me (oh and I have worked for daily newspapers - national and regional myself) before even graduating from university/college).

    Think I'm done now.

  14. Can everyone call a truce?

    Those who defend troublemakers are right in saying that Paul's piece is really about understanding and appreciating what makes a lot of great photographers tick -- not justifying bad behavior.

    Stanley is right is saying that being a troublemaker or exhibiting bad behavior does not make you a great photographer. In most cases, it just makes you a jerk.

    So everybody's right. Win-win! Can you tell I've worked in the corporate world for 20 years? 🙂

  15. Unfortunately? You were right!

  16. I'm the guy my newspaper sends in to photograph situations like angry fishermen who don't want photographers around, and who walks away with photos and audio rather than a broken nose or limb. But if you ask my editors, I'm a pita (pain in the ass), prima donna or someone bent on perfectionism and doing things his own way. The difference is where the perception is held, so here's a point of clarification. We're a pita in the office (where we fidget, stress from boredom or rant about the minutia), and we're trusted pros, even nice guys, in the filed with our subjects. When I forward this article to my editor, he's going to laugh his butt off.

  17. The important think is coming with the "goods" every time! For the sake of it you put up with everything

  18. Wow.. awesome post!!

    I have to agree with all words here!!

    Congratulations and thank you for so great words!

  19. I know a lot of photographers on both sides of the fence.

    I know some very good, Pulitzer Prize winners, who are a charm to be around. I know some that can't shoot their way out of a wet paper sack and yet have egos the size of Montana.

    And for me, sometimes I'm a real PITA, other times I'm sweet and adorable.

  20. The irony here is that Stanley's rebuffing of this article is proof positive that it is accurate...

  21. Generalizations are always tricky. Yes, there are great photographers who fit this bill, but there are just as many great photographers whose ability to get inside a subject helps them illuminate it and create great images.

  22. Typed the wrong url in my previous comment. Should be:

  23. Finally, someone who understands me...

    And please, ignore those grating comments from the type of people that ask "why do you say that?" to EVERYTHING!!
    I like a little anarchy with my creativity sometimes. That doesn't mean I'm a jerk.

  24. Better to ask forgiveness than permission. And be prepared to swap your memory card for a small blank one if the arguments get too fierce.

  25. I agree with this article for the most part, but it's over-generalized. There is a difference between being a 'troublemaker' and being an a-hole. I would call it 'Mischief' instead of 'trouble'.

    From a commercial standpoint, it's a stubborn dedication to quality, a willingness to take risks, and determination to pull others along with my vision. I'm as affable as Oprah unless someone tries to take me off course. Even then, it's not a situation that ends up in argument.

    From a journalist/documentarian perspective, this article is closer to true. If every one else is zigging, you zag. if you have to put yourself in a dangerous situation, you do it.

  26. I think that the author doesn't clarify well enough what he means by being a pain in the ass. I don't think he means being unnecessarily rude or purposely high maintenance. Photographers have very high standards, and it often happens that each story or assignment requires special treatment. This makes every work situation harder to deal with, thus making the photographer a "pain in the ass". Even a person who has great people skills and extremely friendly can end up being a "pain in the ass" if they are very insistent about their work and its presentation.

    That's a big distinction.

Leave a Reply