I recently had a portfolio of my work published in a wonderful Czech photography magazine PhotoArt. I received a very kind and inquisitive email from a young man who asked a question I get quite often. Here is an excerpt from the email (It was written by a non-English speaking person so I fixed some of the spelling and grammar.)
“I have one question that your homepage doesn’t answer.
How did you become a professional photographer?
It would be very interesting to know how you began.
I recently bought a magazine called “PhotoArt” and I read an article about you and your work and I was fascinated.
Why? Because I want to know how to become a professional. I want to know the first step to becoming a professional photographer.
I am just a beginner, but I have been fascinated by photography since I was a child. Next year I will study in a German college. Do you think communication design is a good first step?”
I also used to ask this very question to any pro I could when I was first starting in the business. How does one begin to be an editorial or travel photographer? In most professions one goes to school, gets the grades, passes the tests, and pops out ready to become a paid lawyer, doctor, or whatever. Not so in photography, especially not so in journalism or other kinds of editorial photography. Yes, one has to be a creative, visionary photographer to make it in the upper echelons of the business and that takes talent, perseverance, and practice (just like any profession). However, the question is how? How does one get in that coveted “upper echelons”?
I could spout answers like: “Become an assistant for another photographer” (but most editorial photographers only have office assistants). “Get a job with a newspaper (actually that would be a very good idea. I worked for my local paper for a year.). “Take workshops with photographers whose work you admire” (another good idea). Or, “Marry someone with a MBA who wants to manage your business, especially if he/she has a trust fund. (This is my very best suggestion. I wish I had hung out with business students instead of rock climbers and river rafters!).
However, the people I know who are photographic professionals have something else besides great talent and business sense—they have what I call “the tenacity quotient”. They want to be a photographer; they live to be a photographer, and they will die being a photographer.
There is no pathway in the field of photography with sign posts, hints, or Get Out of Jail Free cards. It is like being dropped blindfolded in the middle of Alaska and being told to find your way to Seattle. Someone who wants to be a photographer will find a way to make a living in this convoluted, underpaid field. And, that is what it takes to be one. No one can tell you how. Each photographer finds a different route to becoming established and solvent. You have to figure it out on your own. All the photographers I know did this. And, you will have to also. It feels rather mean to say it this way, but it is true.
Note: However, I do think having a background in art, graphic design, and digital imagining helps. As well as having business acumen and technical know-how. I personally think I do very well as a travel photographer because I can eat anything and never get stomach problems — and I can hold quite a few drinks. I can also sleep anywhere, on any surface. And, I do not have a very good sense of smell, but I like to think I have a good sense of humor.