Ecosystems 101: Who Are You and What do You Want?

Dan Swift, of Buffalo, NY sits in the Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica where he is studying biodiversity at the Monteverde Institute. (From an OA post, here.)

I married photography at a very young age.

That's a pretty loaded statement, and one that carries with it many connotations. That's because we all intuitively understand the risks in getting married too young. But the analogy holds true for photography, or at least my path in it.

Long story short, I shot my first photos at 7 years old, had a darkroom a few years later, shot for my high school yearbook/newspaper and was stringing for a local daily before I graduated. In college I was nominally studying engineering but was pretty much full-time into photojournalism.

Changed majors, test-drove a few newspapers via internships and was lucky enough to land a great first job right out of college. Then you blink your eyes and realize you have been shooting professionally for 20 years.

In 2007, when the demands of my job shooting for a metro daily combined with the fast growth of Strobist made it obvious that I was going to have to choose one of the two, I decided to see what I could do with the blog and a self-directed life in photography.

Almost immediately, it struck me that I had absolutely no idea who I was as a photographer. I literally had married the first sub-genre I had dated (photojournalism) and had suckled at the assignment desk teat ever since.

As a newspaper shooter your days are both scripted (assignments) and improvisational (how you react to them in real time). And it all happens in such a nonstop way that you never really get a chance to figure out what you want to do and/or why you want to do it. You're on someone else's dime.

If I could go back and do it all again, I'd take some time as a young, unattached, no-responsibilities photographer and do some tough self-examination.

What is it that attracts me to this black box that records what I see? What could I do with it? What kind of difference could I make? Are there types of photography that can both make me happy and be meaningful at the same time? Is it possible to make a living doing that?

If I decide to shoot professionally, will it change what I really want to shoot (and why I want to shoot it) and is that a good thing? And if so, is it better to be a professional photographer who shifts his approach to be able to make money, or to do the photography you love and find another way to make money?

These are questions I never asked myself as a freshly minted 22-year-old news photographer.

And that is just scratching the surface. What am I giving up to become a photographer? Am I just a gear nut? (I kinda was, and still can be if unchecked.) Do I have the opportunity to do something lasting and meaningful as opposed to shooting 2.3 assignments a day, five days a week? Is shooting a dozen assignments a week for a something with a one-day shelf life creating something lasting, or meaningful? Will devoting my life to newspaper shooting affect my ability to marry and have a family? (Yes, but less so if you marry a reporter as it turns out.)

In the end, I did eventually have that conversation with myself. It just happened 20 years later than it could/should have. And even then it was mostly because I was overwhelmed by suddenly having too much freedom and too many options. So it wasn't even my choice—I was forced into it. I spent a lot of time walking, and a decent amount of time being confused.

In the end I decided that I loved the process of photography. I loved how it facilitated my meeting other people. I began to understand my camera both as a visa and a shield I tended to hide behind.

It dawned on me that I didn't really have any "personal vision," nor was I particularly visually creative. A quick check of my wardrobe would confirm that. The camera had just been the tool I used to experience my life a little better, and I was lucky enough to get paid to shoot.

I began to understand how it wasn't the photos themselves that were important to me, but rather the change the photos could affect. And the experiences, of course. I don't know if that perspective led me to be a photojournalist, or if being a photojournalist nurtured that perspective within me.

Okay. So I was a competent photojournalist who was more interested in photography as a catalyst than in photography itself. I wasn't visually creative. But I was creative in other ways. I understood how symbiotic systems work and how to create them.

After chewing on that for awhile I decided I would (mostly) separate love and money. I would still shoot a mix of editorial and commercial jobs while I tried to crossfade my career into things that were related to photography, but not directly shooting for money. And if I got good enough at that, eventually I could separate love and money entirely. Photographically, that was someplace I hadn't been since age 17 when I started stringing for local papers.

I'm not quite there yet, and I think there may always be some commercial overlap. But I understand that overlap now, and it is something I am always mindful of. As a result, photography rarely feels like a job anymore. It feels more like a tool to make cool things happen.

And because I have much better understanding of who I am as a photographer, what I am doing actually feels like it gels with who I am and what I want. Which erases a lot of stress and confusion and conflict.

I can't stress how much I wish I'd had this conversation with myself 20 years ago. I know my career would have been different. How, is anybody's guess. I might not have chosen photography as a profession. I might have gone pure freelance and worked more in areas that were particularly meaningful to me. I might have gotten in with an NGO instead of newspapers. I thought there was just one path—newspapers. But there were many, many other paths that were at the time hidden to me.

Either way, I am pretty sure that I would not have spent 20 years on the treadmill shooting another person's agenda. In retrospect, that now feels like I was renting a house when I should have been buying. Or building.

The realization is so strong in retrospect that I spend a lot of time wondering where I would have gone with it as a young photographer. It's also pretty obvious that many of the people I consider to be great photographers somehow knew to begin that self-conversation/examination at a very young age and to never let it stop.

That, frankly, is what is so amazing about the The Road to Seeing. Dan Winters, who embodies the intense potential experience available to the thoughtful photographer, took his lifelong internal conversation and wrote it all down. Initially intended to be ~250 pages, it grew to nearly three times that length before he stopped.

That doesn't surprise me. My conversation started out as an afternoon walk and has lasted over five years now. It's one hell of a rabbit hole, but one well worth exploring.

And if you haven't stopped taking photos long enough to figure out why you do it, I can promise you that you don't even know what you don't know.

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