I’ve had jobs and I don’t like them. I define a job as working for someone else. The first victim of a job is creativity, followed closely by integrity and character. I love the art of photography but I don’t care much for the job of photography. The art is self-based where the job is client-based; when you work for someone else you will compromise your work—the client’s (boss’s) vision will differ from your own (and they’re paying the bills). The sad fact is to make a living with photography you have to offer what the client wants and not what you want; at that point your art can become formulaic and you’re really stuck. In Hollywood they call it type-casting, in writing authors tend to become genre-specific (a mystery writer, a science fiction writer, a romance writer).
When you compromise your art (to please a client) you kill creativity, and in so doing the result lacks integrity (both the work and the artist). Without integrity our fundamental character changes, we are no longer the person we once were. That’s why the corporate meat-grinder is a serial killer—it kills creativity, integrity, and character. A life lived without creativity, integrity, and character lacks soul and vibrancy (it becomes both mundane and inane). I think the term starving artist probably originated from this double bind (you can’t make a living staying true to your art), and artists would rather starve (literally) than compromise their vision. There are notable exceptions to the rule, those whose work or fame allows them creative independence, but they are very much the exception.
I worked jobs for almost fifty years and they took their toll. I tried photography as a job (as a staff photographer/photojournalist for a newspaper) after retirement and didn’t like it—so I quit. I now devote my time and energies to the art of photography and not to the job of photography. I like the art and business aspects of photography, but not the job aspect of photography. The difference between the business of photography and the job of photography is that I do the art/business for myself (self-based) and the job is client-based. It may seem like splitting hairs but there is a huge difference. I now produce work I like (not necessarily what a client likes) and sell it (or not); I’m not compromising the work (robbing it of its integrity) to be commercially viable. It’s not a path to riches but it suits me.
I will reiterate (to forestall the inevitable disagreement from other photographers) that a few professional photographers remain creatively independent, but most find they have to compromise their professional work and seek creative satisfaction through their personal work. When your art becomes just a job is when the dissatisfaction sets in. What once was fresh and exciting becomes dull and routine and the pleasure of creation dissipates. Aspiring to be a full-time professional photographer is a fantasy (and goal) for many recreational shooters, but the reality if often different from the fantasy. It’s possible to do it all if you’re determined and focused enough, but it’s not easy (but what in life that’s truly worthwhile is easy).
Another question to ask yourself: what does success look like? Is it fame, fortune, recognition from your peers, or something else altogether? I constantly ask myself that question because I’m very competitive by nature, and my matrix for success often includes those accepted benchmarks. I have to remind myself that I’m not pursuing my photography for any of that, rather I want to live simple, live cheap, and live free; I want to take my pictures, write my articles, and travel the world. I want to be free to produce art that I’m proud of, and if I can sell some along the way so much the better. So my photography business Indochine Photography is self-based and not client-based, I do it for me. I’ve tried client-based shoots (newspaper, real estate, family/portrait sessions) and it’s not for me. Maybe it’s for you (but then again maybe it’s not).
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Stephen F. Dennstedt
Photographer, Writer, World Traveller