You Don’t Have To Be A Professional Photographer

I have somewhat of a gripe with the modern, or perhaps digital, photography arena, to indulge in a gross generalisation. The digital photography arena and popular culture seems to have a predisposition towards insisting that if you are a photographer, you must want to be a professional.

Numerous articles across the internet claim to have the secrets to success as a professional, or the reasons why you’re failing, or what you need to do to grow your business and succeed. Rarely do they talk about the simple desire to make art for yourself, and how to learn and grow and achieve your own personal goals.

Why does digital photography seem so obsessed with “making it” as a professional? Whatever happened to people just wanting to pursue it as a personal means of expression?

Simon shooting a portrait on 4x5 black and white sheet film, 2016.

Less than a year after opening the box of my first real camera, I was offered a job shooting candid photographs of students throughout Griffith University’s Nathan campus for marketing purposes. I can’t remember if I was nervous or not, but the shoot went well and I was paid well enough for a novice photographer.

Throughout my photographic journey, I have been offered many opportunities for work revolving around portraiture, events and weddings. Parties were a specialty of mine some years back. Wielding a Canon 5D Mark III, a 24-70mm F2.8 zoom lens and a bounce-card flash setup, I had the party look nailed. Portraits I would accept on occasion, sometimes for groups such as bands, and I even have a small number of weddings under my belt.

From 2014 onward, my lounge was home to a small portrait studio and I would often invite people around to hang out, have fun and shoot some portraits, all for own passion. I fine tuned my lighting skills over about two years and produced some portraits that remain on my portraits gallery to this day.

And yet ever since that first commission, I have consistently struggled against the notion that to be a photographer means I also should be a professional accepting commissions with entirely different goals than I.

Jodie in the lounge room studio, 2017.

The problem I have faced is balancing the personal work with the professional while also maintaining a normal day job. Several times over the years I have been inspired to begin to work on a professional freelancing career only to find myself losing the momentum within a few months.

Not only is the reality of freelancing is very different from what one dreams it might be, the fact remains that I already have a well paying career in other, somewhat related fields that are satisfying. I have financial security and stability, and I have a great situation with my current employer. Why give that up, especially when you know deep down that working on other people’s photographic requirements is not why you want to make photographs?

Leica M7, Voigtländer 35mm F1.7, Kodak Tri-X 400. Shorncliffe, 2018.

It’s a tough question, and one that I don’t think I could answer for anyone else than myself, even when my own answer is still grey. The fact is that unlike other people, I don’t and never will have the spirit of an entrepreneur or freelancer. Time and time again I have realised that photography is something I do for my own peace of mind and my own ambition — in other words, for my own artistic passion.

Shooting with film in such an age of technology as we live has taught me some fundamental lessons about why I want to make photographs. It’s to connect with people and the world around me with open eyes. It’s to appreciate everything that the world is and to find the beauty in the most normal of circumstances.

By reading photo books such as Fred Herzog’s Modern Colour, Bystander by Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz, or William Eggleston’s Portraits, I have gained a much greater understanding of not only what photography was, but truly is and can be. It is an aspect of surrounding myself around film photographers that I find is all but forgotten within digital circles and popular photography websites.

Photography can be simple documentation, or artful interpretation of a scene by a particular choice of film stock, or a way of commenting on aspects of humanity through curious observation and a camera on hand. It never had to be about working for a client, capturing the most intense sunrise, or one-upping the next guy.

I feel as if I am venting a little. Maybe I am, so what is the takeaway?

Hannah in Bali, 2016.

I’ve been making photographs since the 2010 and it wasn’t until this year that I finally realised that I was much more of a fine art and documentary photographer than any kind of working professional. I gave myself the permission to simply be an artist and a documenter of life and nothing more.

Pay attention to how you feel about accepting commissions. Are you inspired to do so and willing to say yes and dive right into the client’s needs? Perhaps professional photography is for you. Embrace it and find out where that leads you.

But if you keep resisting — if you start to feel guilty about saying no and keeping photography “to yourself”, perhaps give yourself the permission to do just that. These days I am much happier to have exposed a single frame of someone’s portrait in the midst of other activities than when I am obliged to plan, prepare and execute on a photo shoot with client expectations in the back of mind at all times, no matter how capable I am of pulling it off.

Be an artist if you want… and read about some of the great photographers that came before us. They changed my approach to not only photography but in living a photographic life.