City Inside Paris © Hugo Aymar
This past Sunday, I took part in the portfolio reviews offered in conjunction with the Circulation(s) festival in Paris. In the span of four hours, I met 11 different photographers. They ranged in age, experience, and interests: from a young, recently graduated photojournalist, to a middle-aged hobbyist who had become deeply invested in a single project. Despite their diversity, there were a few themes which ran through many of my discussions. Although no advice applies to every photographer, I hope that different bits might be helpful to people in different stages of their photographic passions.
1) Do it for yourself.
Many of the photographers I met were anxious to learn how to “make it”. They wanted to know how to find a book publisher or a galleryist. They were focused on supporting themselves solely as professional photographers. I told each of them: do it for yourself.
The happiest person I met at the review began pursuing photography two years ago after a career in publishing. She showed me the beginnings of several different projects: a documentary series, conceptual self-portraits, photographs of caged animals. She was exploring the field and exploring herself. To support herself, she had found a part-time job. Before quitting her publishing career and pursuing photography, she had been nervous about living on a part-time salary and dedicating so much time to something that wouldn’t make any money. She discovered she could support herself comfortably and was happier than ever. She knew that she had a lot of work ahead of her but she didn’t seem in a rush to “make it”. She was doing it for herself and loving it.
I also met a photographer who had just published his first photobook. How? He bought a small black journal from a stationary store and pasted in an entire series onto the small pages. Presto! Photobook. He was very pleased with the book’s intimacy and its obvious hand-made feeling. Again, a project he did for himself.
Everyone needs to make enough money to support themselves — and that amount can vary a lot depending on an individual’s circumstances. And for many, photography will not provide that money in the short run. In fact, financially self-sustaining photography might have to wait for one, two, ten years. It might never happen. In the meanwhile, the daily goal and motivation shouldn’t be the big financial break — it should be about finding ways to pursue your creative expression and doing something for yourself, regardless of the financial gain.
Automne 2013 © Jimmy Seng
2) Look at other photographer’s work.
Many of the photographers I met were coming to the field from an amateur background. Some were nervous about their lack of formal art education. I told them that a university degree is not a requirement for a career in photography. But I did notice one thing: many of these people were lacking in a photographic vocabulary. The best way to begin building your sense of the language of photography is to look at other photographer’s work.
Even if you find your inspiration comes from cinema or literature or your personal experiences, it’s essential to look at other photographers’ work. Even if you don’t feel directly influenced or inspired by them, it’s important to understand what others are doing and how they’re doing it. If you have any hope of sharing your photographic expression with others, it’s important to understand the ways in which other people are communicating their ideas through photographs, in the photographic language.
There are many ways to begin learning more about photography. Of course, there’s LensCulture, a daily dose of the best in contemporary photography from around the world. Besides, there are a host of other great websites that focus on more specific genres. It’s also important to see work in person, in printed form. Go to museum exhibitions or gallery shows whenever you get the chance. Although these tend to focus on bigger names, they are important for giving you a sense of the history and development in the medium. To look at work more intimately, try to find photobooks. These might be at a bookstore or a museum gift shop. Wherever you can find them, photobooks are an essential way to understand how established professional photographers conceive of their finished projects.
Boy Toys © Alex Morvan
Throughout my day of reviewing, photographers told me again and again how happy they were to talk about their work, even if only for 20 minutes. This told me that a lot of photographers lack for opportunities to share their work with others. This is especially true for those who didn’t have the opportuntiy to obtain a degree and work closely with a small group for a long period of time.
This is where photography workshops can be very valuable. These workshops, offered by photography professionals all over the world, on all sorts of different subjects, create the feeling of a full-time university course while demanding a much smaller investment of time and money. The workshop gives you the chance to collaborate with a small group of people who share your passion in the span of a week or even a few days. The benefits of a workshop do not have to end when the workshop is over. The lasting effects are that you meet other people who share your love for photography and who you can continue to collaborate with after you’ve returned to your daily life.
Although a lot of artistic work feels like a personal journey and an intensely introspective process, it’s invaluable to talk about your ideas with others. These conversations bring you different inspiration and keep the ideas fresh and alive in your mind. Pursue collaboration and stimulating relationships wherever you can.
Finally, portfolio reviews are an excellent way to push yourself. At Circulation(s), each photographer had the chance to meet 3-5 reviewers in a single day — magazine editors, gallery owners, festival curators and so on. In a few hours, they received intense but varied feedback on their work from many different perspectives. Every participant I met was so happy that they took part.
The photographs in this post are just a tiny fraction of what I saw while reviewing portfolios — and only in the span of a single day! So, look out for portfolio reviews near you and share these tidbits with other impassioned photographers out there.
10 Years After Kabul © Sandra Calligaro