Is it too late to start over?
I’m turning thirty-eight years old in a few months and I have decided to start my photographic career over from scratch. By that, I mean, after being a photographer for almost twenty years, I took a hard look at my work and as much as it has improved over the years, I was still missing the mark of my vision. The mark that separates a good photographer from a truly great one. I see in my mind what I want to produce and to say, but I have not yet been able to achieve it, so I decided to throw almost all of it out and start over. Re-train myself and my eye from the ground up, in line with my vision, without any chips on my shoulder and with gratitude that I’ve come as far as I have.
I guess you can say that I have been a “generalist” in my career thus far. Photographing everything from portraits to street to nature to weddings to food to lifestyle to travel and landscape. I was a “jack of all trades”. Photographing so many different subjects is good for most when you are starting out, good to find out what you love and what you don’t. I don't regret having taken that path at all, but the problem is, getting stuck there. As the saying goes, “Jack of all trades…Master of none”, and I’ve always seen myself being the master of my craft within this lifetime.
At this point in a photographer’s career, a lot of people in my position may ask themselves some of the same questions that I did.
Am I too old to start over?
Should I just be happy that I can make a somewhat decent living, doing what I have been doing?
Isn’t it better just to stay on the safe side of things, instead of trying to start over and being that much further behind when you inevitably fail?
Since cameras are so good now and kids are starting at such a young age and there are so many good photographers, shouldn’t I just give up on my life long dreams?
NO. NO. NO AND HELL NO!!! That is just your ego talking. That unnatural, but sadly all too natural, self-doubt that creeps in, to keep us from failing and therefore from ever really trying. This thinking comes from worrying about what your parents, girlfriend, wife, husband, best friend, peers, critics or even your kids will think about you if you try something different or try something you’ve always believed yourself capable of, that they may not understand. Sadly, most people don’t ever realize, or only realize on their death bed, that there is only one opinion that truly matters, the only one that can make you truly happy….YOUR OWN.
What is “too old/too late” anyways?
Who decides that?
I know that fifty or sixty years ago, people like my parents or your grandparents had to have it all figured out by the time they finished high school or college, if they even got that far, before they were bound to a life of work, but the world has grown and changed and so have expectations and ideas. I believe the median age for people finding their career path, is now around 35 years old. So then, the question becomes, why would you try and keep yourself to a standard that no longer exists? You would be surprised about the number of famous or successful names you know, that didn’t find their calling until their 30’s, 40’s or even 50’s. Basically, it’s never too late to start or start over. Period. It only takes that passion and that drive.
Here’s what I know. I don’t want to be seventy-five years old and shooting a wedding for twelve hours. I don’t want to be going to my son’s college graduation and also be trying to book that photo gig to pay for the celebration dinner afterwards. I don’t want to hold a grudge about going to work everyday, not shooting for myself and what I love and I don’t want to live the rest of my life having stopped at the stepping stones of my career, not having ever tried to shoot the moon.
I didn’t study and research and learn from Sebastião Salgado, Steve McCurry, Vivian Maier, Platon Antoniou, Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Eggleston, Ralph Gibson, Alex Webb, William Klein and so many others over the years, just to relinquish myself to the middle. I didn’t lay awake late at night, envisioning my name on the cover of a Stiedl book just to go buy someone else’s time and time again. I didn’t spend so many years locked away in my room reading and experimenting and shooting and dreaming, never to accomplish those dreams.
A few of the sparks of my vision that surfaced over the last few years
A lot of photographers, myself included, can get down on themselves because of the quick rise of technology these days and how it has changed the landscape of photography. Kids with cell phones getting more press from an iPhone pic than someone that has practiced photography their whole lives. Cameras so good your mom can capture the perfect picture and all the “good photo jobs” disappearing because of the new camera tech. Yet, just as you may be quick to see the negatives of technology, what you really need to be looking at, is all the massive positives of the situation, because photography has never just been about the "camera tech" of the time and it never will be.
When I taught myself photography growing up, I went and bought or checked out books and read them and then shot on film and waited for it to be developed and then slowly learned over years and years. Now, you can get years worth of practice in a month, with a digital camera and a slew of Youtube videos. Even if you fancy going the more standard educational route, there are plenty of great online photography schools and courses that aren’t a bad choice either. Not to mention the countless free outlets we have for people around the world to see our work. Never in the history of photography had we had so much endless opportunity for incredible exposure.
We have so many choices and avenues to constantly improve our craft and yet we are complaining that someone else is already doing it. Well what are you doing?! While you were complaining about the pace of technology and watching “The Office” for five hours straight, the next big photographer was spending those same five hours reading articles and watching videos on how to improve the contrast and composure of their black and white photography. Ohhhh...that one hurts and I've been there too, plenty of times.
So why don't you start right now, and use the fact that you have limitless free training and information at your fingertips to your advantage, instead of worrying about the fact that everyone has access to that info as well. Instead of being jealous of someone else’s exposure or recognition, realize that you have all the same opportunity for exposure that everyone else does and capitalize on that!
The truth is, that you can pick up a Leica M6, load it with Kodak Tri-X, go and spend two years in Africa, shoot 500 rolls of film and you will still never be Sebastião Salgado. Conversely, no one out there will ever be you and you need to understand that someone out there will appreciate that uniqueness. It could happen overnight, but more likely than not, it will take a long time and a lot of hard work and if you always try to stay true and be honest in your work and stop caring about what anyone thinks, you will find that truth, and then others will find you.
If I am being completely honest with you, which I feel is so necessary to this process, all of the above is really why I decided to start over. I, for the most part, lost my truth. I was shooting to make ends meet. I was shooting for "likes" and for the lowest common denominator. I have not, for years, been shooting at a level I know I am capable of, or with nearly as much sincerity as is inside me and that I know is needed to define a vision. I had lost my voice, though thankfully, I had not lost hope. My work over the last 5 years has been dotted with sparks and small insights into what I envisioned of my future, but always quickly snuffed out when the bills came, or when someone close tried to push upon me their version of reality and told me I had to accept it as fact.
So I am committing to myself right now (and I hope you will too), to not giving up on my dreams, my passion, my truest of goals. I will not let anyone’s opinion but mine, sway me from making the only person that matters happy…that 12 year old boy inside of me, that first got his hands on a camera. Committing to the idea, that your age is never a defining fact in achieving what you truly want and that there is no shortage of ways to make those things happen in your life.
I’m turning thirty-eight years old in a few months, I have decided to start over from scratch and I believe the best years of my career are still ahead of me.