‘How do I become a professional photographer?’
This is a question many of us have asked at some point or other. It really is the ‘million $ question’ and that’s because it’s incredibly difficult to answer. The number of variables is so large that every case really is unique:
What’s your situation now? We all start from a different place: are you 18 years old, are you a photography graduate, or are you 15 years into another profession that you’d like to escape? Are you experienced, do you have friends working professionally, or have you got an ‘in’ somewhere?
What about your financial position? This has a profound impact on pretty well everything….
There are also a great many paths that one could take between the exact same starting point and the same destination. I won’t even attempt to cover the huge array of routes to becoming a professional photographer. I will instead run through some questions I asked myself and which you may or may not have thought through in detail. I will talk about some of my own thoughts and considerations, as well as and how I took various steps.
Why Do You Want To Be A Professional Photographer?
The world is awash with photographers; amateur, semi-professional and professional. No matter where you look, the prospects are daunting, simply because there is a lot of well-established talent already out there. When you look more closely, it is usually very apparent that the most successful among them are three things:
- Highly motivated, hard-working individuals
- Genuinely passionate about what they do
- Effective at marketing and running their businesses
Imagine removing one of the three points above. It is easy to see how everything unravels, isn’t it? This is because almost all photographers are businesses, whether large, small, part-time or full-time. Passion/creative liberty and commercial proficiency are not mutually exclusive, although they do sometimes compete.
I personally believe that it has never been harder to be a fully-independent professional photographer than it is today, which brings me to a saying I have heard from Roger Hicks on a number of occasions:
Question: How do you make a small fortune from photography?
Answer: Start with a large one.
The point here is that if you are of independent means, you need not be concerned by the idea of being a professional photographer as it is commonly understood (obtaining the majority of your income from photography). You can simply be ‘an independently funded artist’, whether you ever reach profit or not. Assuming this does not apply to you, there is no escaping the fact that being a professional photographer means that photography pays the bills, pays into your pension and puts bacon on the table! It is therefore critical to draw a distinction between fantasy and reality. We all have dreams and they’re what keep many of us alive inside. However, we need tangible mechanisms for realising them if we’re to elevate them from mere fantasies. Perhaps most importantly, clear-sightedness is essential if we’re to avoid having our dreams shattered (especially when they might otherwise have been realised).
Before I embarked upon my journey, I thought a great deal about why I wanted to be a professional photographer. Tapping into a clearly defined motivation can also help with defining and remaining focused on the business element required to make it a success. It can help understand very clearly why you must make it work financially. Running out of money sounds like a great motivator, doesn’t it? I’m not convinced it is, however. This is because people with other career alternatives can usually slide across to doing something else (or what they did before). We can then throw your hands in the air and say ‘it wasn’t meant to be’. For me however, I was very clear that I had no choice but to make it work. None. Nada. I needed this for much deeper reasons and it is this that has kept me on track, when the rest of me has wavered.
Why leap from full-time security and risk management consultant to photographer?
I wanted to be a professional photographer so that I could channel my overwhelming passion for photography. I wanted it to become a positive force in the context of my mental wellbeing, my wider life and my ‘life of careers’. I wanted to stop living divided lives, where in order to begin to satisfy my creative self, I was unable to fully commit to my ‘real job’ and was therefore unable to realise my full potential. I would go into meetings and feel like an outsider, whose eyes were on a different horizon. At times it felt like there were two of me living the same moments; twins with shared DNA but very different needs. I felt like a man with a secret, with the secret being the real me.
The next point I am going to raise will sound big headed, but that is not my intention at all. I’m going to say it because I suspect it will be a challenge faced by a surprising number of people who would love to work in photography full-time: I was very good at my job. I was immensely conscious (and proud of) the responsibility entrusted to me and I gave my all to keep those in my sphere of influence as safe as possible. Yet there was always a part of me – a part right at my core – that continued to slowly dissolve. I spent not a moment thinking about my future security career. I did not think about ‘the next job’. I did not network. I did not research the sector. I did not seek further qualifications. I just didn’t associate my true self and my future with the career I’d made over the course of 18 years. What’s more, this drove me a little crazy. I didn’t know what would be wrong with a person who was doing very well in his field, who had the income to live a very good life, yet could not spend a moment working towards more of the same. Many a time, I wondered if I was just lazy. But how could I be lazy, when I worked hard and cared so much? There had always been a spin offs from my ‘real job’ that provided just enough soul food to keep me sane. I stumbled forwards and did well, somehow, but was always depressed about the future. I also felt ungrateful and guilty.
How many of you dismiss deeper needs because you are good at your ‘real jobs’…. you know, those jobs that everyone else tells you that you should be grateful for and quit jeopardising with your ‘pipe dreams’? It’s quite a cruel trap, because if you weren’t good at your regular job, otherwise talented people would likely have lots of encouragement to pursue their dreams. Success and conventional aptitudes continues to be most people’s measure of how you should live your life, which is very sad. ‘Succeed’ and you lose the right to express unhappiness.
In the early years, excursions out of Kabul sustained me, but they also fed the monster. As my interest and passion stirred, it took a greater degree of creative engagement to placate my desire to explore the world around me, to engage with the people in it and to create photography that spoke to others. I can honestly say that the first time I felt back on the jungle path was when Russians and Royals really took shape (around 2008). However, the project would end. I would leave Afghanistan. What would I do then? I knew that I needed to find a solution to this and my mind turned towards professional photography for the second time in my life (more about this later).
Having a Clearly Defined Mission
Given time, I knew that I would either have to turn professional or completely redefine my relationship with photography. With time, I was able to put a plan together and work towards it. At its centre, the goal was this:
To transition out of security consulting and develop a photography business that will sustain me mentally and emotionally and which will provide a good quality of life for my family. To build a photography business that I can be excited about, which will allow me to express myself, and which will allow me to indulge in the (less commercial) photographic passions that set me on this journey in the first place.
That goal sounds a bit like wanting it all and in some respects it is. I wanted a strong business. I wanted to be excited about my work. I wanted to be passionate about what I do and to share that with others. The one requirement I did not include in my goal was ‘make loads of money’, but this is an area where one can easily get confused. Of course I want to do very well financially, but the baseline requirement was to support my family and to feel whole and fulfilled. I knew that no amount of money would solve the latter part of that sentence, but having the right balance in life would. I also knew that not making enough money would cause the whole thing to collapse. Creative passion and financial success are mutually exclusive. However, I do think it is important to get a sense of what kind of financial outcome you need to feel you have succeeded in your own terms. For me, the minimum financial requirement for ‘success’ is to support my family well and to not struggle, with anything more being a bonus. It is obvious that if you do something you love, you’re likely to enjoy the extra work needed to make the jump from ‘making do’ to ‘doing great’! By building the right life and career, you build a kind of headroom into your prospects. In my previous line of work, there was none at all. I could not even imagine a ‘better future in security’, let alone work towards one.
Having a clearly defined overall ‘mission’ is very useful in many life endeavours. However, understanding the ‘why it is important’ part is perhaps even more critical. A ‘mission’ will help you to stay on track and keep your efforts focused in the right place, but it does not inherently provide the motivation to make a success of it. Being cognisant of why the mission is important to you will provide the determination to overcome the many obstacles along the way. And there are plenty.
More to come….