An Open Letter About Photography
Life story time!
I've been doing photography for a long time.
My toy of choice as a child was a plastic Minolta camera that I believe my Aunt Janie gave us. If I was good, mom would buy me a roll of film and take me to the drug store to get it developed when I finished. When I was old enough to hold a "real" camera (and they were reasonably sure I wouldn't break it) my father gave me his Pentax K-1000 so I could learn to use it. It is sitting 6 inches from me even now.
I took a photography class in high school because even though I knew how to get a great shot, I didn't know any of the vocabulary. "What's an f stop? Isn't an aperture some kind of medical condition?" My high school photo teacher picked up on this after we turned in our first assignment and mine stood out amongst my classmates work. I poured my heart and soul into collecting images of my friends and family that week, laughs and smiles, and proudly displayed them on the critique wall next to everyone else's photos of buildings, flowers, cars, and trees. My photos brought me so much joy- I knew this was the kind of thing I needed to keep doing, and at age 35 I am still in love with pointing my camera at people.
I worked for big corporations, I worked for photo studios, I worked retail, I did the awful jobs people sometimes have to do to get the bills paid. (Roller skating Carhop '03-'04 y'all) I eventually opened up my own company and I am truly thankful that it has been so successful. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be sitting at a desk, next to my old Pentax, and my new Canon, sipping a cup of coffee with three weddings, two families, an anniversary, a corporate party, a newborn shoot, and my volunteer photos to edit. (That's just the last two months!)
I have been truly blessed. I truly believe my success comes from the genuine and heartfelt desire to capture those smiles and moments that happen when no one thinks I am looking. I have gotten so many hand written notes genuinely thanking me for taking the time to experience what was actually going on around me, and searching out the people behind the laughter across the reception hall to take a photo of what is making them so happy.
I don't have the best equipment, I mean it's pretty good, but from the letters I get and the posts people make about me, they don't care. They care that I got that shot. They care that I care. I do care. I don't have a big family. What family I have has been tested by illness, circumstance, and distance. I know that if they are all in a room together that they mean infinitely more than whatever food we served that day, whatever flowers we have, whatever building we are in. This is how I know what is important.
I feel like photography has gotten too commercial.
I know, that sounds insane since I use my photography to support my little family. I see other photographers shame newbies just starting out, I see them shame moms who couldn't afford some $2k newborn package so they did iPhone photos instead, and I could go on. On and on. It makes me so sad! Social pressure makes families think they aren't good enough parents if they don't have loads of milestone images taken by a pro.
Don't worry parents, snap away with that iPhone. Get those shots. If you are lucky enough to hire a professional, awesome! But don't think you're any less than incredible just because your newborn shots don't look like Anne Geddes took them. (She's the lady that flipped the newborn industry on its head by cramming chubby little bundles of love in flower pots in the 90s.)
Guys. The photo is about the moment captured. It doesn't matter who took it, or on what camera, or in what setting.
If the photo brings you joy when you see it, it's a good photo.
As a professional, it is so easy to get sucked into this set of industry measures of success. How many magazines you've been in, how many features you have, how many awards you've won... Again, I have all of those milestones to define my success, but those aren't the things that keep me going. My measure of success is the joy a client feels when they see the artwork I create for them.
Today, one of my brides posted an image from her wedding day. I did gorgeous shots of her heirloom rings, all the flowers- every last detail. Sunset that day was straight out of a movie, and their post ceremony couple's photos are seriously incredible. She didn't post any of those. Her chosen photo was a private moment she shared with her groom in the early part of the day. Overwhelmed by emotion, it's a photo before hair and makeup, in little patterned yoga pants and a tank that said BRIDE! I noticed they stepped outside together, so instead of following them I hung back a bit. Through the windows in the reception hall I was able to see this whole moment without interrupting any of it. I took a photo and left them to it. This is the photo she chose.
I'm not going to win any awards for this. It probably will not get featured on any blogs. Did it bring joy? You bet your sweet ass it did.
A magazine cover does not a photographer make. A blog post does not a photographer make. A teary eyed, smiling bride that gives you a probably-too-long-hug-but-that's-ok-and-genuinely-appreciated after you show her the wedding photos is what makes a photographer.
I have always been one of those people who hopes that when I am old that I lived. Not got by, not had the right house or the right car, but lived. I know that as long as I can walk down the street and take pleasure in spotting a gum spot on the sidewalk that looks like a heart that I am living. I photograph because I love it. I made a whole company around photographing because it makes me happy, and it makes the new friends that hire me happy.
Early in my career I stumbled across a fellow photographer named Brett Birdsong. He speaks very openly about what motivates him, and I connected to his words immediately. His Photographer's Oath is as follows:
I will show each of my students, and each of my clients. Anyone who asks will know that this oath is what really matters, and that I am grateful that the words aren't mine, but from another photographer. It makes me happy knowing others out there actually care.
I am grateful every single day for the opportunities I am given. I shoot what matters, and I love it.
The good news is, so do you guys!
Thank you, all of you, especially the ones who read this novella sized post. I appreciate you, and I hope that everything we do and everything we make together brings you joy.