Zack Arias brought it up –
Someone recently said of me on a forum something that went along the lines of…
“I don’t know how he (speaking of me) has so many followers. His photography isn’t all that special. There are so many other photographers doing real work out there yet this guy (again, speaking of me) has everyone thinking he’s great.”
That’s not a direct quote but it’s close. To whomever you are… There’s a lot of truth in your sentiment. I agree with you. It’s what continues to push me deeper into photography.
Back around 2006, I decided I wanted to be a professional photographer and set off to become one. I knew (at least I knew this much!) that the first thing I had to be was a good photographer. In the years since, there were two or three times when I thought “I’m there”, times when I now look back with some embarrassment at my naiveté about my own capabilities.
Along the way, “going pro” stopped being a priority. Life is like that some days. There’s an entire month of essays in trying to explain this.
This is a long-way-around explanation to the guy questioning why Arias has a lot of followers, and the other guy doesn’t. One of the things I learned along the way is simple, but I think it’s profound: being a good photographer won’t make you a success, and won’t get you lots of followers. There are millions of really damn good photographers out there looking for jobs and sales and followers.
Being a good photographer just gets you in the game. If you don’t have that, nothing else matters. That’s the starting point, not the finish line.
The reason Zack has me as a follower and you don’t is simple: Zack talks to me. He opens up a vein and pours it out all over his blog. At some point, I realized if I read one more piece on the rule of thirds or how to use a Grad ND filter that I’d puke. I don’t need to be told how — I’m beyond that. I know how.
I’m not looking for the geeky bits. I got those down. I’m trying to find my voice, sharpen my vision. I can press the shutter, but I’m still learning how to see. And so a year or so ago, the photographers I followed changed radically from photographers that were telling me how to do things to photographers that sat down and talked about what it was like being a photographer. There are very few photographers out there willing to open that vein and be real in public.
Chances are, dude, you’re showing me some really great photos on your blog — that look a lot like the photos on a thousand other blogs. And writing blog articles that are really similar to blog articles found on a hundred other blogs (like my blog; I’ll happily damn myself to my own words here, but at least I’m aware of it).
There’s only one Zack. And Zack doesn’t just point at a Grad ND and tell me how it makes water flows, he talks about what it’s like being Zack, in all its glory and successes and failures and insecurities and flaws.
And not only is that a major reassurance, to have someone like him express these worries and let me know that I AM NOT THE ONLY PERSON IN THE WORLD that goes through these recurring crises-in-faith, but as he does so, he teaches me about the attitudes and mindset needed to become someone like Zack, someone who’s successful at what he does — sometimes despite himself.
Just like me, and what I hope to be some day.
that’s why I follow Zack, and owe him many beers if I ever meet him (and David duChemin, and Kirk Tuck, and Chase Jarvis). Because he’s real. Because he’s not afraid to be real. Because after a while, it’s not about how to take photos, it’s about how to be a photographer. and that’s not something you do with screenshots of lightroom or pushing a shutter. It’s something you do by talking about being you — and I know that’s a seriously scary, risking thing to do, because it opens you up to criticism you can’t easily shrug off, because it’s about what you are, not about what you do.
And I expect the reason Zack has many of his followers is because they’re like me and listen to Zack for similar reasons. At some point, it’s not about the camera, or the workflow, or the process. It’s the voice, it’s the vision, it’s about being a photographer. And that’s what Zack talks about. And that’s why I’m listening and learning.
Are you this person? I honestly want to encourage you to stop talking about being a photographer for a little while, pick up your damn camera, and go be a photographer for awhile. Find a personal project to work on. Find an organization you can donate your time to and don’t just shoot their fund raising galla. Don’t wimp out and shoot portraits of the executive committee. Do something unique. Do something difficult. Do something really different then what you’ve done before. Prove not only to this industry that you still have your chops but prove it to yourself.
Early this year I made a strategic decision to do things other than shoot — it’s June, and I’ve only picked up the camera and gone shooting nine times so far this year. I knew the start of this year was going to be rough for free time, and I had all this infrastructure stuff that was an albatross around my neck; it mattered to me. Maybe it shouldn’t have, but it did. So I put the camera down and when I had time, went geeking instead of shooting.
Still, the additions to my collection for the first six months of this year are about 80% of the number of images I added in the same periods in 2011 and 2010 — I’ve shot a lot less, but accomplished a lot more in those shoots. And I’m coming out the back side of this infrastructure work, meaning soon I’ll be able to do more camera and less code.
And the yards will be weeded, and a lot of house projects will be done, and I won’t have to feel guilty about grabbing camera instead of rake; not being a full time photographer makes all of this even more challenging, in that it sometimes has to squeeze in around work and life and family and weeds and all of that.
If there’s a criticism I can make at full-time photographers who push the rest of us forward in our craft, it’s this: I think if you live full-time with a camera it can be hard to understand how tough it can be for those trying to do this while fitting it in around the edges of their lives. It’s tough enough doing this stuff on a daily basis when it’s your profession. now, suck out another 50 hours a week for the non-camera profession and try it. So some of the advice goes sideways and i think it can be damaging to photographers who try to follow it despite it being unrealistic in their situation. It took me a good while to back off and realize that a lot of my frustration was because I was trying to squeeze blood out of a turnip and that I had to make it work in the context of my life and my available time. Once I did that, things got a lot less stressful for me.
A final reason I put down the camera: A year or so ago, I sat myself down to have a long talk with myself. I asked myself the question all photographers shudder at: “how do your pictures differ from those snapshots everyone is taking with their point and shoots?”
I couldn’t answer it. And answering that question is the core of finding that voice, that vision. Wtihout it, I’m just taking holiday snaps. And that isn’t what I wanted my imagery to be. so while I was struggling to find an answer to that question, I went off and worked on other stuff instead.
and I must say, fighting out what seems like a simple question was a real bastard, because I had to go down to the core of my motivations and drive, and I didn’t like some of the things I found down there in the sub-basement.
And now I’m back. And maybe I have the answer. Only time will tell…. and it was worth it.