About a year and a half ago, I found myself standing atop a cliff in Death Valley National Park, preparing to walk backwards over the edge. No, I wasn’t suicidal. I was on a canyoneering trip with my friend Charlie and three other guys, who were all experienced rock climbers. I was the least experienced rapeller in the group, having not been on a rope since I was about 12 years old.
Charlie and two of the others had already made the descent, which was about 110 feet. I was clipped in, and the belay was ready. All I had to do was lean back into my harness, and back over the edge. Craig, who had helped me get roped up, was watching me closely. “Just lean back, and relax,” he said.
Relax. Right. It’s only 110 feet. What could go wrong?
I took three deep breaths, leaned back, and walked over the lip. I don’t actually remember the first 5 feet or so. But once I was past the brink, and fully committed, my fear very quickly changed to exhileration, and by the time I was 20 feet down, I was actually making an effort to slow my descent, so the fun would last longer. When my feet hit the gravel at the bottom, I was smiling from ear to ear, and looking forward to the next drop.
The key to the whole thing was not over-thinking the initial few steps. It would have been easy to stand there for the rest of the afternoon, frozen with uncertainty and fear, while my buddies got quickly irritated with me. Instead, I tried to rationalize it: “Three other guys just trusted themselves to this rope and survived, why would I be different?”
Making the jump from an advanced amateur to a professional photographer is like that. A lot of talented shooters have an incredibly hard time dropping the day job and taking the plunge. And the longer they spend agonizing about whether they’re “ready”, the harder it gets to just do it. Plenty of people ‘make it’ as photographers; and some of them are woefully unskilled shooters, too!
When I quit my job as a general manager for Kinko’s, in February of 2005, I was as unprepared as I could be for a career as a photographer. I had done little or no research, conducted no informational interviews, assisted no working photogs. I had never been in a studio. I had no friends that worked in camera stores, and had never actually met a professional photographer. I had never taken a photography class. I did own a camera, an Olympus OM-G I’d purchased in 1994, used. And I had a Fuji 3.2-megapixel point and shoot, which Kinko’s had given me in recognition of my 15th anniversary with the company a few months before.
How much more foolish can you get? For years afterward, I told people who asked me about it that I had “done it” in the dumbest possible way, that a more reasoned and rational approach might have made the transition easier.
But lately, in re-examining this, I’ve come to conclude that I did it in the only way I could; that the course I took was the only one that would ultimately bring me to realize my dream. Had I followed the conventional wisdom (assisted a working pro, gotten a job at a camera store, taken a class, or in other words done my homework) I would probably never have left my awful corporate job for fear of failure.
I mean really: spend any time at all on an internet forum where Pro’s and Am’s come together, notably on the Flickr Strobist Forum, and you’ll hear nothing but discouraging words from the Pro’s. And the advice from the pundits is often even more gloomy. Ken Rockwell, for example, offers this in his article titled “How To Become a Professional Photographer”:
Would you like to photograph anything you want, anywhere you want, anytime you want, any way you want, with a great professional camera system? Would you love to travel to luxury destinations and photograph whatever, whenever you want? The only way to do this is to keep your real job and do photography on your own time.
Making a buck in photography is a lot tougher than keeping a real job. The photo jobs and locations that pay the most are the most boring. Think you’re going to have people hiring you as a travel photographer? Guess again.
Hmmm… not exactly encouraging. He carries on in a similar vein for several more paragraphs.
I have absolutely no doubt that the slow, test-the-waters, careful approach has worked well for some folks. But it would never have worked for me. Taking a plunge is all I know.
The two years were tough. I had a couple of setbacks that were pretty devastating (my car broke down catastrophically, forcing me to blow almost all my savings on a new one; the following year my new car was broken into and I lost my laptop; my only computer.) I lived for months at a time on a budget so tight I had only $20 per week for food. I ate a lot of potatoes and oatmeal. I was perennially behind on bills. It was hard.
I think if I’d had a single, strong mentor that believed in me, that gave me a consistent message and offered consistent support, I might have followed that path and had an easier entry. I’m not sure. But those people are few and far between, and it isn’t clear to me that it was really an option; I had to play the hand I was dealt. Which meant I was on my own.
Had I researched the field sufficiently to have a clear idea of what was ahead of me, I’m quite sure that I would have concluded that the entire idea of photography as a vocation was simply preposterous. In fact, I was fairly sure that it was preposterous without doing the research.
But I was wrong. The difficulty of getting here only makes the reality sweeter. It’s good being a photographer. Being self-employed is a completely different existence. And when I say I’m “here” — what do I mean?
Stay tuned. That’s another post.