Creative: Is Photography Still Worth It?

I have no special right to question the validity of modern photography outside of the fact I have basic rights to question almost anything, but this particular idea is front and center in my mind because I’ve had some time to think about this over the past few days. This topic came up with both an attendee at a trade show and a secondary conversation I had with a waitress at the hotel.

To get to the meat of the question. Is it worth it? Is it worth it to get into photography as a profession? My honest opinion is “no.” It’s not. Based on the numerous and frequent conversations I have with photographers I would say that things are not trending in the right direction, and economic realities are already far worse than most people admit, at least publicly. Behind closed doors the conversations are dire and they have been for over a decade. This is not to say there is anything wrong with photography itself. This is not to say there aren’t photographers doing well, making legitimate income and living the photography dream, but these situations are disappearing in rapid order, and a certain percentage of people who appear okay are in fact not doing well but have learned to live behind the facade, at least for the short term. You also have a significant group that would tell you they are doing fine but “fine” is month-to-month, no health insurance, no official biz license, no tax strategy and something or someone else allowing them to live the online look of someone who is doing well. You could throw thousands of Instagrammers in this category. But this isn’t really what matters to me anymore. I’m not actually interested in the industry because I moved on a long time ago.

Here is what I find promising. The IDEA of what photography represents. An attendee came to our booth at a show and talked about making commercial books for her clients. For the most part this was a sterile conversation. Typical. Not bad, just nuts and bolts. But the passion wasn’t there. Then, I watched as this same person froze and began to enter a deeper level of thought. She froze, stood motionless and didn’t utter a word. I was close to her and watched her eyeball. It never moved, and she never blinked. A deep thought trance. “You know,” she said. “I just realized something,” she added. “I can make a book for my family.” “I can use the photos we’ve had our entire lives.” I waited without saying anything. Very slowly she began to look around once again and a smile emerged and took over her entire being. “THAT,” I said “Is the most important book you will ever make, and those are the most important photos you will ever have.” On the surface modern photography gets SO much publicity. We are deluged with more imagery than we can possible consume, but most of it isn’t good. Content isn’t photography. But the buzz is powerful, and at times the noise almost feels real.

Later in the day I was having a strange and painful meal in the hotel and the waitress noticed my camera on the table. “Are you a photographer?” she asked. “I was,” I answered. This began a long and astoundingly interesting conversation. Her idea of what a photographer does was so profoundly exotic(based on phony IG content) it was hard to comprehend, but I wanted to make sure to keep the conversation positive so I kept asking questions. Turns out her father was the one who planted the photography seed and was someone who fancied himself a photographer but only as a hobby. She began hinting about attempting to be a pro, but admitted her work now was simply for fun. Being a pro to her was as simple as making the declaration then begin to build the largest IG audience as possible. No study, no training, no website, no knowledge of the history, no understanding of agents, agencies, rights, contracts, day rates, usage, etc. “My personal opinion is that you should keep it personal,” I said. “The only thing that matters is making your own work, and you are much more likely to be able to accomplish this if you remain with photography as something you love.” “Keep it pure.”

But I began to think about something else. Photography is totally worth it if it triggers someone’s ability to be creative and this ability allows this person to contribute to our culture and society. I don’t mean magazine articles, IG followings, book deals or gallery shows. I mean simple information exchange or idea presentation. I don’t think it’s healthy to look at modern photography with the same filter we’ve been using for 100+ years. Photography is now part of the tapestry, and is far more powerful as a smaller part of a larger idea than it is on its own. The novelty is long, long gone, so now what? How does it survive? What will it become?

Is it worth it? Yes, of course.

20 Comments on “Creative: Is Photography Still Worth It?”

  1. I was looking at “Decisive Moment” yesterday. My thought is that most of the pictures in that book HAD to have been taken as an amateur…as in for no money…HCB was the child of a rich French family. I don’t know if his family fortune survived the war but if he made any money as a photographer, it probably all went to help float Magnum in the poor early days.

    1. Jim,
      I think you are right on the money. The best work photographers make is when they are on their own. Always been this way, always will be.

  2. I regularly flog the idea that the old ideas of “making it” are dead. It’s not about global recognition, even on a small scale. In a world of 7 billions people, many of them on the same Internet, that’s just absurd. I literally run across yet another Important Photographer (like, the real thing, someone whose work is exhibited at The Tate and collected by millionaires) almost every week. Someone I never heard of. There’s 1000s of these jerks out there!

    At the lower echelons it’s even more out of control.

    No, the new “success” (monetary or otherwise) is more along the lines of 1000 true fans. Or 5 true fans. It’s about finding a few people who you can really make a difference for. That might be your family. It might be a tight little IG following. It might be something else. But it’s a small group of people you can genuinely *reach*.

    Yeah, I know how to monetize 100,000 IG followers. I even know how to GET 100,000 IG followers, at least in theory. It’s just work. It’s not art, it’s definitely not Art, and it most certainly has nothing to do with Photography.

    1. AM,
      Ya, that’s an interesting point. Your circle. Whatever diameter. Whatever size. Whatever head count. I actually think Flickr was good at this, years ago, but now the idea is scale and profitability, and with the ushering in of these ideals came the end of meaning. Oh well. There’s always Family Feud.

  3. I do think photography still matters and is very much worth it. It’s provided a glimpse into the world that for me would have not been otherwise available when I was a kid. And into my adulthood, if one could call it that, photography still provides a window into worlds that allow me to understand them much better than I would get otherwise. I think it might still be that way for a young kid anywhere in the world.

    And like Andrew, I think success is defined in much smaller ways with people you do make a difference for. I’m still a firm believer that a single person can make a difference in the portion of the world they play in. Your interactions with human beings day to day can make a believer of another in a positive way or a negative way. With photography, I am choosing to be more positive and less negative. One persons viewpoint might help change another persons perception about those that are different in culture, lifestyle…

    I’ll never make a dime from photography. I made that choice long ago. But it’s still something that I think matters in my life and maybe in the lives of those small groups that are around me. Beyond that, I have no idea and I think I like it that way.

    Just one man’s thoughts.

    1. Larry,
      Sorry, did you say something? Just kidding Tucky! Good points. I think using photography to feed your own, internal coal powered power plant is a good thing.

    1. Reiner,
      Good stuff. The layer we haven’t discussed is what is means to be a professional. This varies person to person. It’s also interesting to see photographers today think something is normal, like working for free, which never happened in my career until the last few years.(I wouldn’t do it.) Or work for hire contracts, stock images selling for less than one dollar, or a client who has the singular goal of an image on social media.

  4. You know the older I get the more I want my pictures to be me. You know? I want them to be about how I feel about what I see. The minute I start trying to make for others’ approval, the magic flies away .

  5. Pingback: JSP Visual Week In Review ~ 12.09.17 | JerseyStyle Photography

  6. Ah! Love this. A few weeks ago I found an old photograph of my grand-mother, whom I don’t remember meeting because I was 3 when she passed away, and it was so magical that I started thinking about what my daughter (4yo) will remember of my parents. I decided to make a portrait of my parents so that we can all have something to remember. Now for me that’s what photography is about; people, emotion, memories, sharing, connections.


    1. Mathieu,

      I look at that work as snapshots, which I used to kinda not think much about but now realize is probably my best, most important, work.

      1. It becomes much more important when you think about it with the idea of creating a project which your kids (and grand kids one day) will be looking at in the future. That shift in perspective is key, I take plenty of photos of my daughter but that’s my need, it’s selfish. I look forward to capturing moments I’ll be able to share with my family. That’s motivating.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *