This post is in part a response to an article on the United Nations of Photography blog on the photographic mid-life crisis. It’s (The post not the crisis) an interesting take on the industry today and the position career photographers find themselves in as they progress. That article addresses commissioned photographers in particular. I’d like to focus instead on the connection between poor mental health and unrealised ambition.
What is a Career Photographer?
There is a direct connection between poor mental health and unrealistic ambition and nowhere is that mismatch more evident than in the Arts. Universities and colleges churn out photography students at a rate much greater than the industry can support.
Many of these people have totally unrealistic expectations of success, which often butt up against reality very quickly indeed. I’ve seen a newly graduated student’s work judged as cliched and trite by a grizzled old pro at a camera club. He was right. What was not right was the reaction of the photographer who stormed out of the hall protesting they had been awarded a first-class degree.
Photography is a hard and unforgiving career. Competition is cutthroat and for every Sebastião Salgado there are thousands of less extravagantly gifted photographers who simply fail to progress.
Most photographers aren’t commissioned, the vast majority are hobbyists, but there are also wedding photographers, commercial photographers, portrait and pet photographers making a tenuous living through their own efforts. Very few of these types are waiting for the phone to ring with a handsome commission on the other end of the line. All of them suffer some kind of photographic mid-life crisis, the most obvious symptom being Gear Acquisition Syndrome, that mistaken belief that the next bit of equipment will make us better photographers.
Gear is there to support the realisation of an image from concept to print. It does not in and of itself turn us into better photographers.
What is a Mid Life Crisis?
According to Wikipedia a mid-life crisis is a transition of identity and self-confidence that can occur in middle-aged individuals, typically 45 to 65 years old. The phenomenon is described as a psychological crisis brought about by events that highlight a person’s growing age, inevitable mortality, and possibly lack of accomplishments in life.
It’s easy to see how photographers may fall into this malaise, after all, it’s a notoriously solitary occupation with few rewards other than recognition and the satisfaction of mastering a craft. The first of these is often quite arbitrary. There are thousands of master craftsmen who have gained little or no recognition. My own modest achievements in competition have invariably been gained by photographs I’d describe as snapshots. I guess you have to be there to take the photograph.
Lack of accomplishment is entirely subjective. If I had set myself a goal of winning a Pulitzer prize then my clutch of minor competition awards looks very much like a lack of accomplishment. If my goal was to get a gold medal at camera club level then the same achievement looks like over achievement. In protecting our mental health we need to be both mindful of our goals and humble in our assessment of a job well done.
It seems to me that these days a narrow career is in most cases to be avoided. Progress is simply too rapid.
What is a Career?
Like many working photographers these days, I am a commercial photographer and a technologist by trade, I run a marketing agency called Helter Skelter Digital and although I did my photography degree at the excellent London College of Printing, I was a good ten years older than my classmates and my first love in those days was music. So I didn’t hurtle into a photography career, instead, I immersed myself at first in the music industry, promoting bands and clubs, making videos and pursuing what I believed to be the cutting edge of the art.
And this experience led me to design my own career, I was never interested in following the path of the career photographer. Fine Art photography was never lucrative and as a survivor of the music industry, I already knew that the ratio of success to also-rans would be stacked against me. That’s life. I graduated in 1984 and digital was a novel concept back then. I could see that things were changing, but not by how much. Social media has turned out to be a great leveller. Nonetheless, I poured my energies into music and video and enjoyed a 15-year career that was both profitable and exciting.
When the music changed, I looked to digital to reboot my career and after taking a conversion course in IT followed by an MSc, immersed myself in the newly arrived internet and enjoyed another 15-year career including teaching multimedia computing at the University of North London and consulting with IBM on large scale websites for the BBC and BSkyB amongst others.
Six years ago, I founded my own company Helter Skelter with my partner, documentary film-maker Vivianne Howard and we set up initially in Birmingham at the Custard Factory and later in Shrewsbury. We now run a successful commercial photography and video business with regional and national clients and have expanded the operation to become a full-service digital marketing company.
So my situation at the age of 65 is a little bit different. The concepts of lifelong careers and elder statesmen seems to me to be a relic of a bygone age. I consider cross-skilling to be essential to a healthy mind and a lucrative lifestyle in the modern western world. Traditional careers are breaking down and it’s not just down to the energy of impulsive youth displacing seasoned professionals, It’s baked in – progress is too fast to bet on any industry not metamorphosing into something entirely different.
Surviving a Photographic Mid Life Crisis
Feeling Blue? Take some photographs. Study them, Work out how they could be improved and take them again.
When Darwin wrote about evolution that only the fittest survive he wasn’t talking about gyms and weights he was talking about “fit for purpose in changing circumstances”. The task a young photographer faces these days is to work out where their energies are best applied and to assess whether or not that particular niche will be disrupted or not in the near future. The key is to keep learning. The day we stop taking in and analysing new information is the day profound disillusion sets in. These days of disruptive technology offer an opportunity to continue growing as individuals and photographers.
A Disruptive Technology
Disruptive technology in the context of photography includes Digital as the most obvious example and more recently, artificial intelligence or AI. Now I suspect that AI is vastly overhyped at the moment, many of the applications boasting an AI component are not really using AI at all. Photoshop, Luminar for example. AI is about applications that learn. Changing skies in an image is not a problem that is resolved using AI. However lighting in an image, characters in an image are things that very definitely could be vastly improved by AI, if there were a sufficiently large database of images being edited by humans in real-time.
A real AI application would learn from the way the user edits photographs. In the current situation, there is a danger that all photographs edited in say Luminar will start to look the same. They’ll pull from the same limited collection of skies. This is not to criticise Luminar, you don’t get from A to Z without traversing the rest of the alphabet. Luminar is a work in progress.
The key to AI is the training it is given. The apparently inoffensive Captcha process requiring a user to identify a fire hydrant in a series of photographs is an excellent example of how an AI program can be trained with very large datasets.
There is a photography project, that leverages real AI, created by Magnum photographer Jonas Bendiksen called the Book of Veles – it’s a favourite project of mine because it includes a number of ideas that I’ve always found fascinating. The tradition of the literary fake goes back beyond the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges and includes lighter touches such as the entirely fictitious academic de Selby whose ludicrous pronouncements on the nature of darkness pepper the footnotes of Flann O’Brien’s Third Policeman. Orson Welles’ “F for Fake” is a more modern take on the same tradition, in Film.
I digress, these are my own enthusiasms, but the point I was trying to make is that a Magnum Photographer has delivered a fine art project that includes a variety of difficult technical skills that come from outside the photographic tradition. Innovation doesn’t come from thin air, or inspiration, it comes from experimentation and cross-fertilising ideas across genres. I spoke on this subject many times while I was working for IBM. The example I used then was that of the culture collision Brain Eno brought to Talking Heads, turning them from an interesting new wave act into a cultural phenomenon by fusing African music with their own twitchy oeuvre.
So my message to young people entering the photographic industry is, if you want to avoid a photographic mid-life crisis then check out my post “What Makes A Good Photographer” and don’t follow the photographic or any other tradition. Look outside. Explore your world and follow the paths you are really interested in. Because these days it’s about discovering and creating links between the things we already have that fuels the next wave of innovation.
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