(This was written as advice to sixth form students who are looking to embark on a career in photography – along with accompanying £30K min student debt. It can be applied to any artistic profession: photography, writing, fine art etc etc.)
(Our model today is Alexis Summers.)
I don’t think that it is an understatement to say that many, if not most photographers are, shall we say, less than optimistic about the state of the photography profession. With the demise of traditional printed media and the exponential growth of the internet, combined with the proliferation of cheap but sophisticated digital cameras, this means that it is extremely difficult to get a regular paid job as a professional photographer. Those who are lucky enough to secure a job are being paid less and less as time goes on. No matter what your going rate is, there is always someone who will do it as well as you and for a rock-bottom price too. Modern photography is a race to the bottom.
For a young wannabe photography student who is contemplating his career choices, does this mean that choosing to become a photographer is the wrong decision?
Well, not necessarily. There is no doubt that making a decent living out of photography is way harder than it used to be, but it is certainly possible. My oldest son’s photography teacher certainly brings home a tidy wage, likewise our new P.M.’s personal photographer earns a small fortune. So success is possible. But the budding young photographer would do well to think twice before he commits to a three year photography degree along with all the student debt entailed therein. Thousands of photography graduates enter the profession annually. Few make it beyond their first year. Only the strongest and cleverest survive.
Succeeding as a career photographer is hard. You will be tired from long hours, you will constantly worry about money, you will almost always have irregular income and some months you will earn nothing at all. This is not the career to embark on if you want a nice stable job and a cosy house (with accompanying mortgage + 2.2 children.) The highs of your new career will be stratospheric but the lows will be more common. I know of many photographers who have ended up bankrupt. This is simply because it is difficult to be successful in a saturated market that pays very little to start with.
I meet a great many young art and/or photography students who are phenomenally talented but who lack the life skills they need to make money. They just can’t (or won’t) hustle. They won’t take the dross jobs (especially non-photographic jobs if need be) in order to pay the rent. They want to stay pure. They are in love with the ideology of a lifestyle rather than the reality of the profession.
All this sounds like I’m trying to put off potential photography students from following their dreams.
Well, no, I’m not, but I AM saying that they should have a good hard look at what their lives will be like before they make that commitment.
If you want to become a professional photographer, then it IS possible to make a decent living but you have to really REALLY want to do it and to be flexible enough to adapt to constantly changing circumstances. In fact I would go as far as to say that you have to be really really sure that photography is your “calling” in the same kind of way that a priest is called to his vocation. The voice inside you has to be so strong, so deafening that you can’t begin to contemplate doing anything else. You have to want to be a photographer so darn bad that you don’t care if you will always be poor. You have to be so excited, so passionate, so fired up about your work that you will do ANYTHING – even crap jobs – so that you can follow your dream.
As with all vocations, you get back what you put in. Ultimately it all comes down to effort. You have to live and breathe your calling day after day, year after year, no matter how broke or despondent you get. You must sell your soul for your profession. There are no other options if you want to succeed.
Should you do it? Only you can decide. But for those who do “make it” as successful professional photographers, then the rewards (almost always not financial) can be huge. You will see beauty beyond your wildest imagination, you will find aspects of yourself that you never knew existed and you will push yourself beyond your limits to create wonders that you would never have believed yourself capable of. You will grow because you believe in yourself as a person. You will be forever poor, but you will be happy.
So do you still want to be a photographer?