ASMP — American Society of Media Photographers

Why did YOU become a Photographer?

By July 30, 2016 October 5th, 2016 Member Spotlight

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That was one of the questions posed to me during an interview this past weekend. A young woman had asked to interview me for a college paper she was writing. The call and the questions started out somewhat clinical, most likely another task or paper that she needed to check off her list. She proceeded through the usual list of questions: “Did you go to photography school?” “What type of photography are you interested in?” So on and so forth.

I could hear her typing my answers so I paused to let her catch up. Then she asked a question that really struck me on many levels. “Did you get into photography because it was cheaper?” I asked her what she meant by that – did she mean the tools of the trade were cheaper? When she responded “yes”, I told her that was somewhat of a misnomer and that the first cameras I bought (mechanical ones) I had used for 10 years. I added that now, because of the exponential impact of technology on the profession, my cameras and the software I need on the post end have to be upgraded at least every two or three years, and that was only part of the investment required in the “tools of the trade.”

As she typed my response, I felt myself getting a bit anxious and started speaking rapidly. I told her that even if that were true – meaning that I got into the photographic profession because it was cheaper – that would have been the absolute worst reason for me or anyone else to choose photography as a profession. I went on to say that you need to be passionate about some aspect of photography; something that makes you want to do it more than anything to have a chance of sustaining yourself financially. Pursue photography because it brings you joy. If you are getting into it because entry level costs were “cheaper”, you’ll simply be competing with thousands – or tens of thousands – of button pushers.

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I went on to tell her that I became a photographer as a means to an end. I had been studying architecture in college and after two years left school to travel. I traveled the world for a year and came back knowing that I wanted to pursue a lifestyle that would incorporate travel but more importantly fill my endless curiosity of people and cultures and exploration. I wanted to become a storyteller, and so became a photographer as a means to that end.

As the interview progressed I noticed the typing started to diminish. I told her I have never separated my business from my pleasure and that they have always been tied together throughout my life. Simply put: my business is my pleasure. I talked about my frustrations starting out as one of a handful of women in a man’s world and for the most part a man’s profession – at least in the early days. I talked about the endless stream of rejections, and about the “wins” that seemed to pop into my life when I needed them most, rescuing me in the knick of time, just when I was thinking of quitting and moving into another career. I told her that unless she really wanted to do photography, she wouldn’t survive in this profession. I talked about my mentors when I was her age and how grateful I am I had those people in my life. I relayed a couple of anecdotes about things my mentors had said to me and how those words had been pivotal moments in my life, and that when things got tough, I drew upon those words of wisdom to get me through the day.

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Then I heard a loud, audible sigh followed by a long period of silence. My mind raced through the various things I had said to her. Was I too harsh? Did I paint too bleak of picture? Or worse yet – did I make it sound too easy and that all she had to do was “just do it”. I felt this overwhelming sense of responsibility that maybe I said something that was going to dictate the rest of her life. I kind of panicked in that moment of silence. And then she said “thank you so much for talking to me today, I started out just wanting to write my paper, and I’m going to have a great paper, but you have no idea how much talking to you has helped me.” She went on to tell me that she had been struggling with a decision that she was trying to make between going to law school and going to film school. I told her that she needed to make that decision all by herself and that it wasn’t a decision that anyone else could make for her – not I – not her parents – not anyone else. I told her to dig down deep into herself for the answer, beyond the influence of others, the dogma of the day, and all the noise. And most importantly to remember that it was her life, and that she got to choose how to live it and that she had every right to change her mind along the way.

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Quite honestly, it has been one of those “onion” months for me, with layers of setbacks and second-guessing myself. I got off the phone feeling good about paying forward what I have learned along my way. In that moment, I realized that this might be my “purpose” at this point in my life. The day had turned into one of those sweet “strawberry days”. She didn’t know it, but she had helped me as much as she said I had helped her. It’s those conversations and those little moments that keep me going, and come to my rescue, just in the knick of time.

I would love to hear from you all – why did you want to become a photographer? Something you say or write just may help someone and paying it forward is the best feeling in the world.

Gail Mooney is a partner of Kelly/Mooney Productions in the NYC metro area. Check out Like a Woman, her current project about women working in male dominated professions.