For a minute there, I imagined that I could be a real photographer. It might be me at the head of a billowing trail of Saharan dust, my driver beside me wrestling our Land Rover between towers of desert grass as I meticulously track and frame the cheetah’s hunt at full speed. I’d have a handsomely weathered face, lined from years of sun and wind, a tan punctuated by my piercing blue eyes. Unfortunately, my eyes are brown. And as it turns out, I’m just a hobbyist photographer.
It’s a weird thing we do, as hobbyists – take pictures. If we’re not making money at it (which most of us aren’t) and we’re not getting meaningful recognition (and most of us don’t), why do we do it? If my archive of photos are seen by nobody but me, what’s the point? This question eventually comes to torment many of us hobbyist photographers.
I actually have the answers to this question, because I’m thirty-six years old and I’ve spent the last damn-near-twenty of those years engaged in pursuits that nobody cares about. I’ve written countless unpublished essays, so many short stories that I can’t remember many of them, and one big-honkin’ novel, and not a single word of any of these has ever been read except (maybe) by an editor with his hand suspended delicately over the edge of one corner of his desk, paper trembling above the inevitable trash bin below. Show me your favorite well-respected magazine and I’ll show you the stationary on which they print their rejection letters.
At this point, I write for the process. Each good sentence is a win, even if no one ever reads it.
Yesterday, a friend of mine seemed to be struggling with the existential question of the hobbyist. He sent me a screenshot of a popular Instagram film photographer’s most recent photo – a photo of an empty gas station, with an off-level horizon, poorly framed, badly exposed, and scanned with borders so that everyone would immediately know that this was a film photo. For me, the photo could have been objectively described with any number of adjectives – bland, vacuous, thoughtless, uninspired, insipid, derivative – I mean, I could come up with more. I wouldn’t even need a thesaurus.
Thing is, that boring, lazy photo had generated more Likes, the currency of Instagram, than any of the photos my friend shares. Worse yet, the engagement! The photo enjoyed plenty of comments applauding its “dope tones.” I saw a lot of flame emoji. People loved it.
And for my friend who makes and shares classically beautiful and technically sophisticated photos which garner comparatively few accolades, this straw, added onto the enormous pile of similar straws (in this metaphor the straws are copycat photos lacking in technique which are incongruously popular), broke my friend’s proverbial back.
He said “I’m becoming desensitized to what is good and what is bad. Not that I’m an artist or anything. But it’s like, why do I spend time sharing photos or even looking at photos? I sometimes think about just never taking a picture again. I just don’t always find comfort in the trite answer that we should just make pictures for ourselves.”
Here, students, is the existential crisis.
For the record, my reflective friend went on to admit that his lamenting the popularity of photos he considers to have less value than others is equally trite. My takeaway was that he was frustrated. Generally speaking, his struggle isn’t unique. I receive random Instagram direct messages every few days from people complaining about the state of popular film photography (which is exhausting – please stop). Point is, there are a fair number of photographers who grapple with why they’re doing what they’re doing, whether or not it’s good enough to just shoot pictures that they like, or pursue the craft for their own edification, without recognition or reward.
I think that the answer lies in the work. It’s there in the process. It’s also in the answers to smaller, more personal questions. These answers will be variable among individual photographers. Your personal existential crisis is uniquely your own. That said, I can at least offer a framework of questioning prompts to get you started. Sadly, nobody can answer the questions for you. Yeah, this is life. Life can be confusing.
If you find yourself wondering “What’s the point?” Ask yourself – what’s your goal as a photographer? Do you want to make money making photographs? Do you want to be a wedding photographer? Do you want to be that idealized Nat Geo warhorse that I imagined in this article’s first paragraph, traveling the globe on the company dime to shoot beluga whales one month, Machu Picchu the next? Do you want to wear oversized white tee-shirts and shoot film and hashtag the hell out of your photos on Instagram so that you can eventually sell your bloated account to a Chinese company who’ll then sell it to a would-be influencer? Do you want to have your work hung in stuffy galleries so that strangers with cheeks full of cheese and cracker can tell you that your photography transports them? What do you want out of this hobby? Answer that question, and then take the steps.
You can be any photographer you want to be. You can mimic what popular photographers are doing and get popular yourself (there is, after all, no editor’s rejection stamp on the free internet). You can shoot for National Geographic if you want to, you just have to want that enough to sacrifice other things in life. You can be a street photographer, though it’ll be hard to make money. You can be a wedding photographer and make a good living, just try not to get mad when some “art photographer” with 107K followers on Instagram makes fun of wedding photographers. You can agonize that your photography’s not good enough and buy gear to make it better (though it won’t). You can take photos of your family and be happy and content when one shot out of a hundred looks pretty good.
There’s no reason to take a photo, and there’s all the reason in the world.
When I said that I have the answer to the existential question of the hobbyist photographer, I wrote with insufficient clarity. What I meant was that I have the answers for my existential question. I can’t tell you why you should take pictures. I only know why I take pictures. Photography helps me be alive and present at whatever place and in whatever time that I happen to be at any given moment. I get nothing else from it, but that’s all I need.
I take pictures so that someday when I’m dead and my daughters are going through my things, sifting through tens of thousands of bad photos and hundreds of good ones and dozens of great ones, one daughter might pause for a moment and say to the other, “You know, Dad actually took some pretty nice pictures.” And my hope is that the other will reply, “Yeah. He was pretty good.”
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