Photographer Interviews

Notes to My Younger Self

April 30, 2018

© Harry Eelman

Danielle Levitt, center, with crew and talent on set. Levitt says once she stopped being overly self-critical, she improved the atmosphere on her sets, felt more connected to her subjects and made better portraits.

The continuing success and creativity of photographers featured in PDN’s 30 issues through the years makes us proud. We asked some past PDN’s 30 about the lessons they’ve learned and what they wish they had known when they were starting out.

Danielle Levitt

I could’ve put less judgment on myself with meaningless ideas of what progress should look like in a career. I was really hard on myself. I felt like I wasn’t making work that was good enough. I never assisted and I didn’t go to school, so I had to learn on the job. But everyone goes through this learning and I’m thankful that I know now that it was OK to make bad work or struggle.

I’m not sure it was conscious at the beginning, but there was a point that my work turned a corner, and that had everything to do with letting go of that nervousness and that hyper-critical point of view. I found when I felt and expressed confidence, when I was out of my head, I was inherently more relaxed and, by extension, much more connected and in it with my subjects. My sets 
became fun, inclusive and celebratory. I thoroughly enjoy myself [on set], and I really like people to enjoy themselves as well. I simply like the way that it looks in the pictures, and so that continues to feed the cycle of pride.

Emiliano Granado

The most important thing is to try to figure out what kind of photographer you want to be and want to be seen as. With that in mind, do everything possible to follow that trajectory and not get distracted with tangential aesthetics or endeavors—chasing visual trends, or shooting more commercial stuff, or shooting portraits if you’re really a still-life person. Identify your strengths and interests, and really focus on those.

Misty Keasler

Always consume photography. Make sure you stay immersed in art that you love. It will make your work better.

Understand that photography is a fairly cyclical profession. There are times you’ll be pursued and really hot and times when it’s quiet (and more than a little scary). A career in photography isn’t much different than a career in any of the arts and if it’s just something that you have to do one way or another you’ll find a way to make it happen. Take every assignment you physically are able to do and treat it as though it’s personal work (in terms of approach and passion).

Always make personal work. Always have something you’re thinking about making or taking steps to make. When it’s quiet pursue the personal work and throw yourself into it. Personal work and long term projects have enriched my life in ways that are surprising and complex – they have allowed me rich experiences and to make larger statements about cultures or the world. This can be stabilizing as an artist since some assignments can be tough on you and the work can have such a short life span.

Avoid jealous people.

Tomas van Houtryve

One piece of advice would be to read the biographies of accomplished photographers before you set out. For example, I just read the biography of Edward Curtis—Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, by Timothy Egan—and I was shocked by how many of the things he did are still relevant to contemporary photographers.

The way he funded his projects was [by] pre-selling books, like modern-day crowd-funding, and he got the patronage of J.P. Morgan, who was at the time the wealthiest person in the U.S. Then he fell into a trap, which many photographers did: He never put in a margin for himself. He just invested everything into the production of the work [and] ended up completely broke at the end of his life.

I would have loved to have read this information when I was establishing myself as a freelancer. I think a lot of young photographers think: If you get your name out there, and work really hard and publish for free, eventually it will all circle back and pay off. And in the case of Curtis, it didn’t. He set this pattern very early in his career of not asking for enough to sustain himself, and only asking for enough to sustain the project, and that ended up plaguing him for his whole life.

Publishers and funders are going to try to [pay you] the minimum amount of money….So I assume I’ll have to educate [publishers and clients]: This is my livelihood. I’m not supported by other things. This is not a charity operation. And then I ask those who expect me to work for extremely little or for free: Who else in the project is giving away their labor for free? Is your print shop doing it? Are your PR people doing it? Is your accounting department doing it? Then you say, OK, I’m willing to take a hit on my [fee] if everybody else takes a hit on theirs, but until then, put me on the same pay scale. And that also means sometimes just saying No.

Wayne Lawrence

For the most part being included in the 30 has helped to open a lot of doors for me personally and I hope it has at least inspired other photographers with a similar viewpoint to keep pushing in spite of the obvious challenges we face. When I started out, almost 20 years ago now, I remember an article PDN did about diversity in the industry, and it is a little disheartening that we’re still having the same conversation now. When my Orchard Beach work was published three years after PDN’s 30, I didn’t anticipate that I’d be pigeonholed because of the subject matter that I focus on primarily. For a long time I would only get calls from editors when they had a story that focused on the black community or in situations where people were struggling. Not that I have a problem with that type of work but I guess I expected more. Photography for me has always been about finding clarity within the work and I felt that my way of communicating visually would translate to more diverse assignments regardless of subject matter. It’s definitely gotten better with time but the industry’s aversion to risk taking was and still is very disappointing.
Knowing what I know, I can’t help but wonder how that body of work that I sacrificed so much to create would’ve been received had it been done by a white photographer. I don’t know that doing anything differently would have made much of a difference. I’ve always done the work that I felt inspired to do and I’m thankful for that.

Ziyah Gafic

I really wish someone told me being a photographer doesn’t get any easier with age. I wish I’d known that so much doesn’t depend on you: There are so many variables that are beyond your control. Photography has a very long incubation period. Sometimes it takes decades before your work and personality get appreciated. [The] notion that so much is out of your hands brings a certain calmness and perhaps even devil-may-care attitude which is essential for creative thinking and it may release creative energy subdued by [the] anxiety of the keeping things under control.

Making meaningful imagery is unfortunately not enough. You have to become a cultural operator, someone who moves between different areas of culture using his visual storytelling skills and experience, from providing content to lecturing. Sometimes it is more important what you do with your imagery than how good it is.

Photography in particular and visual communication in general is an essential element in any culture. Thus we have to consider that our images may be relevant outside of usual venues where they are shown, that offers other sources of support. Traditionally those would be the media. However, the shelf live of images in the media is largely very short given the relentless rhythm of the new media. Images should have their other life, be it as a means of advocacy or continuation in a book form.

Try to savor that gut-wrenching feeling of first assignments, that feeling of palpable insecurity close to being in love. Very quickly it will drown in routine. If life is not a sprint but a marathon, then photography is a triathlon.

Joseph Sywenkyj

If I could travel back in time to advise my younger self when I was just starting out as a photographer I would offer three pieces of advice:

1. Early in my career I was a bit of an idealist. It was not until commercial clients searched me out and began offering jobs that I began to take commercial work seriously as an option. I would advise my younger self to pursue commercial work early on.

2. I would advocate taking a stronger stance when dealing with publications that take too long to pay me for my work. It is beyond frustrating to shoot an assignment for a noted publication and to be put in a position of waiting and arguing for six months to a year to be compensated.

3. I am not an extremely active social media user. I would tell my younger self to hop on that bandwagon at the beginning 
and embrace certain aspects of social media to promote projects more effectively.

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