Being a Photographic Heretic (Part II of 2)


In my last blog entry, I wrote about my experience as a photographic “heretic” when it came to gear. I was thinking about this after the first annual California Photo Festival. Working alongside the thirteen other pros at that event reminded me of the amazing range of career paths different photographers travel from aspiring photographer to established professional. If I took one lesson away from my chats with the other pros, it was that no single career path is best for all photographers. I was also reminded how much of a heretic I am when it comes to my own career path. 



I mean heretic in the wider context of, “a person who holds beliefs in conflict with the accepted dogma,” rather than someone in opposition to any particular religious faith.

I have blogged a great deal about this idea of thinking outside the mainstream, hinting—more than explicitly acknowledging—my own heresy, in blog entries such as in part one and two of these postings. In that two-part entry, I explored old and new models for sharing information on best practices in the business of photography, highlighting a new model of openly sharing such information vs. the old model of keeping proprietary “secrets.”

In this blog entry, I suggested we reconsider the assumption that “going pro” was the singular pinnacle of achievement as a photographer. And in this blog entry, I explored my own evolving process of finding my place in the world of photography, both the “artistic” and the “commercial” realms.

Then there are my war stories (parts one and two). In these two blog entries, I explained my particular experiences as a conflict (war) photographer.

When thinking about “heresy,” conflict photography is especially interesting because it is frequently the path to the “top of the pyramid” for aspiring photojournalists. On the other hand, most of the actual practice of conflict photography is remarkably narrowly confined because:

1)    For safety reasons most conflict photographers wisely work in groups.
2)    Most publications using such work view the work of competing publications and expect their photographers to match (or exceed) the work they see from others.
3)    The aesthetics/grammar of most conflict photography is very tightly drawn, and photographers who push too far beyond that narrow definition do so at their risk.

I wrote a blog entry about the “journey” that Singaporean society as a whole is trying to take as it moves up the economic ladder from manufacturing to more creative businesses. To me, progress will only be made when individuals embrace the more unruly aspects of the creative processes. In this blog entry, I answered the query of one Singaporean who has taken on that challenge. To write about Singapore and creativity in the same sentence is seen by many (wrongly) to be heresy.

In this blog entry I talk about how most photographers chafe at the idea of working with editors, and how they think that impinges on their “artistic autonomy.” I also speak heresy and explain the importance of editors in my career path and aesthetic development.

A few other bits of my own heresy that have not been turned into full-blown blog posts include:

Quitting numerous “stable” staff photographer jobs at different newspapers on both coasts, in pursuit of a place to do the kind of photo essays that I wanted to do. History has shown that I made the right choice, because I have generally been able to do the photo essays I wanted to do while working as a freelancer. (And because the recent slow demise of newspapers has made those seemingly stable jobs much less stable.)

My biggest act of heresy may have been studying the history of photography in college, rather than studying the technology/craft side of photography at a more conventional photography school. My mother was quite clear that photography was “nice,” but being a photographer was not serious enough, so I instead studied the history of my beloved medium. Her insistence started a life-long passion that has served me very well as a photographer and as a teacher.

Another major act of heresy, which also turned out for the better, was moving out of New York City and going to Philadelphia to start my career as an editorial photographer. Credit for that move goes to the late photo editor Howard Chapnick and my first wife’s employer in Philadelphia. In hindsight, my work with the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday magazine was one of the biggest things that made me into the photo essayist that I am today.

PLEASE note that almost none of these career steps were taken because I had some clear, even brilliant understanding of how they would shape my career. Nothing could be further from the truth. Much of my career has been a series of happy accidents linked together by moments of sheer dumb luck. The one thing I am good at is looking back at my career and seeing patterns in my life (and in my choices). I have also been getting better at using those same analytical skills to look at the career paths of other photographers.

Some of my peers at the California photo festival were pretty explicit in explaining their career paths and the choices they made along the way. Others may not have been as clear in explaining/understanding the process of becoming known professionals. Just because they could not easily articulate the turns in their careers did not mean they did not make such turns.

If you listen carefully, you will find that many accomplished photographers are heretics in their own ways.  Sure, some of the best photographers went to “the” photo schools, assisted in New York City, and then went out on their own. As many, if not more, took different career paths. If I were starting out as a photographer today, I would pay more attention to those “heretics.” That is because their various successes have shown that there usually is more than one way to get where you want to go, whether in photography, or in life.