I came across an interesting website today, visualpeacemakers.org.
There is a lot of interesting articles, interviews, photos and documentaries on the site, and one that really stood out to me, considering the direction my photography is taking me is the following by photographer David duChemin.
David duChemin’s Thoughts on Starting Out.
1. First, you don’t need to get paid for your images in order to create great, world-changing stuff. It helps, but it’s not necessary. Thinking so creates a trap and makes your images more about money than about truth and beauty and witnessing to what is and what should be. Money can be a means to an end, but is not the end itself. If it is, you’re in the wrong line of work. Consider commercial photography.
2. Shoot what you truly love and do it so much you know you truly love it and could shoot it for the rest of your life. The more you shoot, the better you will be and people will come to you begging you to shoot for them. Again, they may not pay, but that’s not the point. The point is that these relationships give you opportunities to shoot off the tourist track and to see stories you wouldn’t otherwise.
3. Don’t assume that you’re talented just because your friends say so. Everyone has a boat-load of fans that will praise their mediocrity. Don’t seek fans, seek critics. Seek people who will tell you how to be stronger, not people who will stroke your ego. Of course it can take years to develop an eye, but align yourself with some talented people, not necessarily photographers, who will speak the truth in love and either help you get better or point you to another direction.
4. Find your niche. What are you most passionate about? Children? Orphans? Widows? Environmental issues? Human Rights? Race relations? A particular place or issue? The more specialized you are the more compelling and specific your images will be, and the more accutely you can tell the stories that most compell you.
5. Get a great looking website and fill it with great looking images. Don’t cheap out. Do it right. Avoid Flikr and other photosharing sites for your portfolio. Now make sure your website gets seen. The more active you are online the more chances people will find you.
6. Make a list of your top 10 or top 100 – the people you really want to work for. And, assuming you have work of the calibre they want, start doing your research – who does the hiring, do they accept unsolicited portolios, etc. (The Photographers Market Book is great for this) – and chase down your top 100. If you aren’t there yet find some groups to do pro-bono work for until your portfolio is where you want it to be. If pro-bono work is where your passion lies then don’t make the assumption that every NGO will want a piece of you just because you’re shooting without a fee. They get plenty of offers and many of them still pay well because it insures they get the best images they can. You’ll have to work just as hard to get meaningful pro-bono work, and so you should. If you get no takers then find a way to join your favourite NGO for a short term trip and shoot while you are there – create a self-assignment and create a piece of work that you can publish, show, use in your promotions, donate to the NGO, or just post somewhere to tell the story.
7. If travel is your thing – do a self-assignment. Set a destination, give yourself parameters, do the research, pack your gear and get going. Don’t wander aimlessly – make it a specific assignment – for example – Double Amputees in a soccer league in Sierra Leone. Or Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda or finding and shooting the Tuareg in the Sahara and coming out alive. Self asignments are an excellent way of training for the moment when an actual client comes knocking and you suddenly need to budget, itinerize, and come up wth shot lists etc.
8. Learn another language or two – very helpful. And then when no language skills you have are helpful learn to get by with smiles and hand-gestures and reliance on good old fashionned kindness of strangers. I have a friend who is a JAG attourney and on a recent trip to Africa he spoke to people in english like they’d been speaking it their whole lives – even when they didn’t know a word of it – and I am convinced he communicated volumes to them as he joked with them and showed them he cared.
9. Learn to travel well, to be prepared, to deal with contingencies.
10. Learn to be a people-person at all times – there is no room for arrogance and imported western senses of entitlement in the airport or on the field. Smiles and laughter and genuine kindness will get you further than shouting ever will.
11. Become a master at your craft. Shoot thousands and thousands of frames, seek criticism, attend workshops, read books. Find mentors. Study the work of people like James Nachtwey or Steve McCurry. I’m a huge fan of Olivier Follmi and Phil Borges. Read anything they’ve written. Watch War Photographer, the documentary about James Nachtwey. Listen to Nachtwey’s speech linked in the post following this one. Allow this work and these thoughts to inform your own unique style and passion.
12. Don’t wait for someone to hand you an opportunity – seek it. Knock on doors. Fund it yourself. Find a patron. Sell cookies until you can buy a ticket to ____________. But waiting for someone to hand you an assignment might be a wait for a train that never comes. You have to want it badly enough.