photographer, artist or artisan?

A young man, a relative of a former colleague’s, asked me for advice on learning photography – or in his words, some tricks in mastering photography.

Why photography? I asked him.

Photos are needed everywhere. I see a big market for photos, which others fail to see, he said.

If you want to make money, you’d better stay away from photography, or anything related to art, I said, then gave him facts about my job as a photojournalist,  about the layoffs in the news industry – including my own publication, about some of my fellow photographers (talented ones, too) who can’t make a living as photographers, about the photographers who work like factory workers operating a production line, producing stock  photos in a quick and mechanic formulas for Taobao merchants and the like, which doesn’t require much creativity or thinking. I myself rejected several such offers as I refused to become a machine. I also told him that photographers in Hong Kong are often treated as coolies not much different than plumbers or taxi drivers.

Of course, the more I said, the more resistant the twenty-year-old became to my take of photography, the more eager he grew to do just the opposite.  I failed to make him see my view of photography.  Still I said, Unless you love photography and have persistent enthusiasm for it, it is not a good career choice.

So he told me that he really liked photography.   I am talented in photography and people around me say I am good, he said.

My heart sank. From the few photos he sent me, I don’t see much talent in them.

I really like media in general, he continued.

Media is quite a broad field, I said, which aspects of it are you good at?

I am good at all of it and I can do anything,  the young man boasted.

Well, if I am an editor, I said, I won’t hire someone who claims himself good at all aspects of media. For example, data journalism is very different from photojournalism and very different from magazine feature writing, or video journalism. I wouldn’t hire a photojournalist to do data journalism.

I suggested he first  get familiar with the basic photographic skills, from camera techniques to lighting to composing.

I have learned all those in the past three years, the young man said, defiant. 

His conceitedness mixed with insecurity and an eagerness to prove himself irritated me. I said, From the works you sent me, I don’t see that.

In the end, I suggested he study the works of top photographers while practicing the basic photographic skills.  I urged him to do some photo shoots with this question in his mind: What,  why and how I photograph?  I intended to help him by critiquing his future works. The next morning, I sent him a list of photographers’s names whose works may teach him a lot about photography as an art of story telling, from Henri Cartier-Bresson whose classic masterpieces have influenced generations of photographers, to Martin Parr whose images are  provocative with a sense of dark humour,  to Annie Leibovitz who is known for her creativity in commercial photography, to Sally Mann who  writes poems with photography, to Josef Koudelka who approaches photography like a religion. I also thought about making him read after this first step of basic training, as photography to me is more about story telling than about such techniques as shutter speed, aperture, composition or lighting and we get ideas for story telling from reading broad subjects, from news,  arts, social sciences, literature to philosophy.  He didn’t reply to my message.  He is probably very disappointed that I didn’t teach him some quick tricks to master photography.

I thought I would quickly forget this young man who hopes to learn quick tricks of photography, but I find myself pondering  his approach to photography. He has made me rethink my own career in photography. To this day, after those early glories as “a young talent” praised by Rich Clarkson, Michel De Cille and a few other International news media editors, after a few fellowships and neglectable awards, after all the struggles to survive as a photographer, after some abusive treatments from some colleagues, some PRs and some people who happen to be in the frames I  compose, and after all the disappointments from  boring assignments like photographing a road sign, closed restaurants, a construction site, and a suspect entering or exiting court, etc,  I find myself, deep at heart, wishing to uphold photography as an art of story telling and I feel the pain of not being able to do so enough while trying to survive.  The failure in the communication between the young man and me lies in the fact that we see photography as two very different things, thus we talked to each other like two foreigners who each spoke his own language unknown to the other.  The young man sees photography a potential tool to make money, a machine in a production line, I an art of story telling.  He wanted some quick tricks to master the photographic machine while I absurdly force-fed him artistic concepts – was I subconsciously and ridiculously trying to make him someone I had failed to be?

It occurs to me that in the end, it is people like me – who yearn to become artists while making a living –  that are disappointed, and people like that twenty-year-old, the pragmatic people, wouldn’t experience our disappointments and sorrows, as they don’t dwell on the concept of art – they  want to survive then thrive  as humans, not as artists. What did Lu Xun say? If you have no gift in art, forget art, learn a craft and make a living an artisan.

But what about those who are gifted but not gifted enough? And, is gift enough a ticket to enter the world of art?  What about enthusiasm?   I, and many like me, with our artistic yearnings, slightly talented but not gifted enough, often find ourselves trapped between art and craft, lost in an obscure grey field between artist and artisan.    

So I think, I should take back my advice for the young man, i.e., unless you love photography and have persistent enthusiasm for it, don’t make photography your career.  Enthusiasm and gift may (should?) not be a reason to make photography one’s artistic career.  Maybe the opposite is true?  I have long confused photography as a craft and photography as art. They are not the same thing, I now realise, though they sometimes do interweave into each other. Idealism and perfectionism, I also realise, are two knives that have made many a scar in me and many like me. If I could, I would make myself an amateur photographer, not a professional one.

All of a sudden, a memory of me telling my cohorts and mentors at Rich Clarkson’s Summit workshop in Yellowstone National Park that I had given up my Ph.D. scholarship to become a photojournalist  flushes back to me like a surge of current in a fatal flood.  How proud I had felt, shy as I was,  when I saw those shocked eyes upon me and heard the incredulous ahs and wows. At the time, I saw myself a dedicated artist-to-be and believed in a bright artistic future. I saw in my future self an artist capturing historical moments in a war zone, emotional moments of extreme beauty,  revealing moments of hidden humanity. I was hopeful. I was fearless.  Now I wonder, what would my life be  if I had continued my training in anthropology and got my Ph.D.? Would I have become a better photographer? Or would I lament not becoming a professional photographer?  I wouldn’t know.  But I know we usually desire what don’t have or what we are yet to achieve, and take them for granted or even despise them once we have them.

I regret being so blunt and harsh to the young man. What’s wrong with me?  What’s wrong with me?  What’s wrong with me? 

I wish him best of luck, very sincerely. If he persists and works hard, he may become a successful photographic artisan, who can laugh at me as a failed artist from an outdated generation.

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