Ask any South African photographer you meet about how they are able to crack it within the rigid art industry and words like passion, focus, hard work and determination are quick to surface. What I have learnt though, is that these effervescent words can be meaningless or outright confusing if not put into context. That is why I decided to ask a different question to some of the most seasoned South African photographers I have met through the site.
If there was one thing you wish you knew at the start of your career, what would it be?
Simple as it may seem, the question is a doorway into the minds and the explorative journey that each photographer has taken. It leaves us concrete advice we can add to the old “be passionate, focused or hard working” platitudes. Here is a list of 7 things 7 South African photographers wish they knew at their start of their career.
1. Don’t Become a Professional Photographer
I posed this question to Roger Ballen – arguably one of the most prolific photographers with a keen interest and focus on South Africa and its history. For Roger– also a Geologist– the best advice came from his mother who advised him into taking up another profession instead of photography. His mother, who was a member of the Magnum Photo Agency, had seen the toll photography took on professional photographers and icons such as Elliot Erwitt and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
“… the best advice I can give you is; if you want to be an artist/photographer, just find yourself another career. It’s almost impossible to survive as an art photographer. You have better chances selling banana on the streets than making it in this business.”
I wish someone told me this back in 2013 when I quit my job at the airport to pursue photography with my life savings. Not that I regret the decision, but I just wish I knew that the kit lens I had would need an upgrade or that new lenses with that 1.4 depth of field can cost an arm and a leg unless you have some other source of income. Also, I hate shooting weddings, events or similar odd photography jobs where you’re just a camera for hire. That side job would’ve definitely been something to ease the journey that photography has been. It’s very frustrating having an idea in mind only to realise the mammoth task that funding it will be, even if it’s a passion project. Money does help ease the tension that building an art career can present.
2. It’s not always about the quality of your work.
Because sometimes, even if photography and art are your passions, and you put countless hours into both, there will always be some other photographer you look at and think “but your work is under-par” who is still making it within the industry. These sentiments are shared by renowned travel photographer TC Maila who warns that this may puzzle you throughout your career as he shares his reflections:
“I thought photography was about the quality of the work and little to do with the person behind the work”
This reminded me of history books filled with great artists who were discovered late in their careers or after their deaths. If you think of the likes of Van Gogh and Vivian Meir, you clearly see that sometimes the personality and character of the person behind the art can play a huge role in the speed or direction their career can take. However, developing your own aesthetic/style to the point where brands and collectors will want to seek it out in a crowd will always be the best way to go about it. It may take longer but when the rest of the world finally wakes up to your work and potential, your career can go from 0 to 100 real quick…let’s hope you won’t be dead by then.
3. Your Network is your Net-worth, Market Yourself.
I think South African-born French reconstructive photographer Jonathan Hindson’s answer puts an exclamation on both points above. Like Roger, Jonathan has had other jobs throughout his career to help sustain himself and his family while he pursued art. And even though Jonathan chose the work/art route, he knew that he couldn’t escape selling.
“…the art market is a market, and you need to sell yourself.”
Moving within the right circles and knowing the industry’s key role players means the difference between being another average photographer or a globetrotting artist. Knowing the industry’s movers and shakers can come in handy because you have friends and acquaintances in the right spaces. These are the people who will alert you to pipeline projects they heard of or call you up when the right project comes their way.
4. Be Patient.
While networking is a great tool to have in your arsenal, patience is key. The journey from novice to professional is not always linear. If you lack the quality of patience, then you open up room for temporary defeat to become permanent failure. Patience is nothing but a state of mind that puts everything you do into perspective, because at the heart of it, it is acknowledging and accepting that some seeds can be planted today only to germinate and bear fruit later.
Gallery MOMO’s photography extraordinaire Andrew Tshabangu is a fine example of how patience can be one of the most enduring factors to shape your career. Reflecting on the journey of his which began after a failed audition to study theatre at Wits, “Be Patient” is all Andrew could say as he eased himself back into his chair.
5. Don’t Stop Learning.
We all know that patience is sometimes a hard quality to develop, but the process can be fertilized by remaining open to learning and unlearning. The importance of learning cannot be overlooked, especially because most industries have become so fast-paced and undergo rapid, constant, change. In the photography industry for instance, new pieces of technology like the Kodak Brownie camera, 35mm film and cellphones have changed the whole entire course of the industry. These technologies have moved the camera from a once rigid chemical process to a more accessible and portable medium because the brands behind them understand that photographic technology is a fluid science which changes every so often to meet the needs of the photographers of the times.
I should mention however, that learning aesthetics and camera settings can help you as you develop the quality of your work, but it is also important to learn other things outside of photography. Because although the camera can be wonderful tool for self-expression and documenting events, at some point you will realize that all of art is about communication, and sometimes how you communicate will not always depend on the camera settings. Omar Badsha shares this important lesson as he reflects on his career:
“my biggest regret is not learning and mastering IsiZulu. I think that if I had mastered and been able to read the literature, listen to people more and talk to them in their own language, it would have enriched my work better or my life even better.”
This reminded me of a Sebastião Salgado interview where he shares his advice to young photographers today for Medium. In the interview, Salgado advises that:
“if you’re young and have the time, go and study. Study anthropology, sociology, economy, geopolitics. Study so that you’re actually able to understand what you’re photographing. What you can photograph and what you should photograph.”
6. Forge your own path
While it is important to learn, we also need to remember that mavericks always have a way of changing their industries as they grow through them. The path frequently travelled will continue producing artists that think of a certain way about art. It may be important to seek advice and wisdom from those that have come before us, but it is also important that we forge our own paths, which brings me to Jodi Beiber’s answer.
When I asked the same question, the World Press Photo award winner suggested that her naivety and freshness worked to her benefit. She notes that:
“when you’re fresh, it’s a good thing (…). I think after 20 years, it was great to be more naïve and more open. I think it was, to my benefit, being more naïve and less scared and therefore could walk into any situation and not fear…”
7. All that you know now is the best time to know it!
We’ve heard from some of the finest South African Photographers, but I intentionally saved Sipho Mpongo for last, and it’s not because he’s the youngest of the list, but because his reflection echoes something we all sometimes feel.
“All that I know now is the best time to know it.”
Truth is, we don’t always have the answers when we start out. We can only see further with each step we take and with each person we meet. However, it always helps asking for wisdom and guidance from those that have come before you. There is a plethora of things I wish I knew at the beginning of my career, and I suppose that’s why I always ask this question to every photographer I meet, professional or novice. You never know when you might meet or hear some unexpected advice that could change your entire perspective, aesthetic and direction of your entire career henceforth.
I hope these tips have opened you up to some of the most honest advice one could get as a photographer, especially emerging talent. So visit our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or the comment section to share what the one thing you wish you knew at the start of your career.