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Photographer — one of the worst jobs ever? Never!

“You may never become rich financially being a photographer. You will live a very rich life.” -Kevin Ames

The photo above is me in 1986 right after completing the photography of one of Atlanta’s landmark buildings. That is the face of a photographer who absolutely loves his job.

Contrary to current reports …

According to a post in SLRlounge.com, being a photographer as the 25th worst job in America. In the first line of the post, the article cites 24/7 Wall St. as saying that they believe the 2018 Jobs Rated Report from CareerCast makes photography in the top 25 worst jobs for income and job security. Out of 220 total jobs on the list, photographer comes in at the 195th best job, making it the 25th worst — meaning there are 24 more jobs considered worse by pay, stress and work environment/projected industry growth. Taxi driver, by the way, is the worst job on the list.

Take a look at the actual report …

CareerCast 2018 Jobs Rating
CareerCast 2018 Jobs Rating

It’s pretty clear that in this report, choosing to be a photographer has poor expectations for a growing, financially rewarding, low-stress career.

This must mean that all of us making a living with our cameras are appropriately disillusioned by our career choice, aren’t we?

No, not at all!

First, more photographs are being made every year than the year before thanks to the ubiquity of smartphone with good cameras in them. The issue is that the report does not see career growth in being a photographer. There is some truth to that. Here’s what I see:

Being a photographer means seeking work that pays

Polaroid test print: Atlanta Braves pitcher Kevin Millwood on the mound for La-Z-Boy in Fulton County Stadium May 4, 2000.
Polaroid test print: Atlanta Braves pitcher Kevin Millwood on the mound for La-Z-Boy in Fulton County Stadium, May 4, 2000.

Owning a camera and a set of lenses and a flash does not make someone a photographer any more than owning a scalpel makes them a surgeon. Photographers that know how photography works, that can light a scene, pose a portrait and deliver a digital file that is appropriate for a client’s requirements are not a commodity. There aren’t many who can do these things when compared to smartphone photographers or ones who have bought an everything-you-need-to-be-a-pro-photographer kit at the local warehouse club store.

Photographers must find projects that clients will pay them to photograph. While this can seem daunting at the outset, there is a lot of work to be had. Satisfied clients come back with more work. Photography is exactly like any other business. It is a business and must be treated as such. For more on this browse Bryan Esler’s marketing column that runs every Monday.

There is money — good money — to be made making photographs.

About that “job” thing

Let’s get this right out front. There are very few full-time jobs with the title of “photographer,” particularly for still shooters. There are some. But they are really rare, especially with the demise of printed catalogs.

Working photographers today are employed by themselves. They have their own, independent business. They, hey, WE, work hard. We work hard to find a project that pays us to make photographs. We work hard to produce them. We also work hard at all of the parts of running a small business that lets us be photographers who are making a living making photographs and we LOVE making them. As long as photographers charge appropriately for their work, they will stay in business and prosper.

Then there’s being rich

Rich can be described as having a lot of money. Rich can also, though not as often, be defined in life experiences. Which is most important? That answer is very personal for each of us. Here’s my (abridged) story.

Early days

Like a lot of photographers today, my career started when I was given a Kodak Brownie Starmite 127 camera. It made square photos. My first “job” happened by happy circumstance. It was not intentional. I took my new camera on a field trip with my classmates to the Idaho State Historical Museum in Boise. I made pictures of them looking at artifacts of our state’s past. Returning home, I went with my mom to the drugstore to drop off the film to be developed. I was much too young to drive a car at 12, although that did not stop me from driving a tractor on our family farm. Kids then started work young.

The film came back. I put the little three and a half inch prints on a piece of poster board and my classmates paid 10 cents each for the ones they wanted. Score! A career began.

Living a rich life

I have lots of friends and some acquaintances who work at jobs that they really don’t like let alone love. They make good money. It seems like most of them earn a lot more than I make. No matter. I have come through my life with experiences that money can’t buy unless you are ultra (billionaire) rich.

Photography has been, with apologies to “Saturday Night Live,” very, very good to me. I have met and photographed amazing people and visited equally amazing places that the public can’t access. Photography has taken me all over the U.S. and to many parts of the world. It has provided an all right income at the same time.

Looking back

In my case, being a photographer also means having access to my entire life’s work. I have negatives, prints and slides going back to my days in university, although it was a state college then. I have slides from the protests in Brussels against NATO receiving Pershing nuclear missiles from the U.S. I have photos of Mass in Notre Dame, a jitney driver in Manilla, commercial pictures I’ve made on pitcher’s mound in two of Atlanta’s three major league baseball fields. These are just some of the images from my life. I could certainly go on and on and be really boring sharing events that I experienced. The take-away is the experiences themselves. Having really good photographs that I own the rights to is a bonus. Here are some of my personal “street” portraits.

So, a final question: What’s important?

Is money important to you? Go for it. For me money is nice but it’s never been a goal. I have always wanted to live a life rich in experiences. And I have done exactly that. And I still am thanks, in no small part to having one of the “so-called” worst jobs ever.

Photographers love photography. Photographers love making photographs. The worst day making photographs is better than the best day doing anything else. Yeah, I know. There’s a fishing or golf story somewhere in that last line. Take this to heart. There are more people happily making a living making pictures than there are doing the same thing fishing or playing golf.

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