At least once or twice a week in an email – or a Facebook or Twitter private message – I’m asked to give advice on how to become a professional nature or travel photographer. Should I go to school to study photography? Should I fully commit and quit my job to “follow my dream?” How do I even get started? Those sorts of questions.
My response is usually none at all or I say that I really don’t know how to answer the question. Aside from my discomfort with giving anyone advice on what they should do with their life, the overriding reason is that I really don’t know. What is this person’s strengths and weaknesses? Is he or she really passionate? What drives them? Are they even driven at all?
I’m an extremely driven person and it would be unfair to assume that their drive and intensity would or could match mine. What has worked for me, as well as the lessons I gleaned from my own experience, might not work or be relevant for someone else – particularly a total stranger. I concluded that my advice would be unhelpful at best, or possibly even harmful.
Then my conscience got the better of me. I felt bad that I wasn’t even trying to be helpful. I could offer platitudes: work hard, stay focused, dream big, etc. but platitudes alone are usually hollow and empty. I might as well say nothing.
So I’ve had a lot of time alone up here in Iceland and a lot of time to think. This question, and my lack of a response, has been weighing on me and I believe I’ve finally come up with something that might be helpful. What you’re looking for can be found in how you answer these two questions.
1) How passionate are you?
I’m not talking about every day, garden-variety passion here. I’m talking passion bordering on insanity. I really think you have to be a little insane in order to make it in this business, I really do. This is hard work, despite the mythicized fantasy that persists. I’m not saying photography is hard work, although to do this seriously, it ought to be. What I’m saying is that making a living as a photographer is hard and incredibly difficult at times.
So why is passion important? I personally believe that passion is important in every aspect of life and that includes your work and career. If you do work that you love and are passionate about, you’re going to be happy and happiness is important. Period.
But beyond that, having passion is what allows you to persevere when things get difficult – and things will be difficult at times. While the casual practitioner simply quits when the going gets tough, the insanely passionate pushes on because he or she doesn’t have any choice. If you’re not sure in which category you belong, the former or latter, you probably don’t have what it takes. Sorry to be so blunt.
2) What are you willing to sacrifice?
If the answer isn’t everything (with the exception of your family, health, and self respect – and self respect is negotiable) don’t even bother. Seriously. You have to be willing to give up everything in your life that you hold dear. You like golf, you say? Be prepared to give it up – all hobbies for that matter. Financial security, a middle or upper class lifestyle, house, car, personal life, friends, vacations, sanity; all should be sacrificed if need be. You need to know this in advance, before you even begin. This is important.
Now none of these sacrifices might even be necessary. But If you’re not prepared to give up everything to be a success (or if you even have to think about it) please do yourself a favor and save yourself the time and trouble and keep your photography as a nice little diversion from the rest of your comfortable life. You’re not going to cut it.
Now if you are one of the insane, congratulations. You have an amazing adventure ahead of you. But you really didn’t need me to tell you that, right? In your heart, you already knew.
If you’re not one of those crazy, insane people, congratulations to you as well. I just saved you from making a huge mistake, and an expensive one at that. You can still have photography as a meaningful, rewarding hobby and refuge from stresses of modern life. Still, you shouldn’t give up entirely on being one of the insane. Find exactly what it is that you’re incredibly passionate about (it doesn’t have to be photography either) and go all in. When it happens, you will never be the same again.
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