Today’s guest post is by Brian Hirschy, a photographer & designer living in the Tibetan regions of western China who has a passion for teaching photography, participating in the growing photographic community and working with Asian NGO’s to communicate their stories. In 2009 Brian helped start Plateau Photo Tours, a company that facilitates socially-conscious one-of-a-kind photo tours throughout Tibet – providing socially responsible and culturally non-destructive photo opportunities throughout the region as well as creating sustainable job opportunities – all in an effort to actually help rather than simply complain. You can see Brian’s work at BrianHirschy.com or follow him on Twitter @BHirschyPhoto.
Last week, I ran across a video of my friend Zack Arias talking about the need for honesty and perspective as photographers (check it out there). It was a refreshing conversation about honesty and stood in stark contrast to often unhelpful conversations that we constantly see in this industry. Zack’s video was a punch in the gut, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about what Zack said since.
I’ve spent the last three years working as a photographer in western China. In 2009, I started a company called Plateau Photo Tours with a desire to engage the Chinese photographic market by running culturally appropriate, unique photo workshops in the Tibetan areas of western China. I wanted to live somewhere that pushed me as a person and as a photographer. Having traveled these areas extensively for the better part of a decade, living here continues to be a fantastic experience.
But there’s so much more to the story than that.
Here’s some honesty: Over the last three years, I’ve spent a disproportionately large amount of time schmoozing Chinese officials for permission to keep working in this area—largely for no return. There’s nothing like kissing butt for no reason. Since starting the company, we’ve had to call off five tours. I’ve watched our filled tours (of great participants) get cancelled due to political and social stresses, as well as a devastating natural disaster. I’ve seen what I thought were amazing opportunities pass just out of reach. Recently, I’ve been banned for months at a time from exiting the city in which I currently live. I’ve been followed around by plain- clothed police officers — an interesting experience. The local government constantly tells me where I can and cannot takemy camera and where my “foreign face” isn’t welcome despite having official government permission. I’ve dealt with all sorts of political and social insanity just to keep a company afloat in a tough and variable market.
Here’s some more honesty: I’ve made more money as a web and print designer and consultant over the last year than I’ve made as a photographer. I’d love for every person who visits my website to think that I’m making it entirely with my photography. But I’m not. I’ve relied largely on my gracious wife’s job for parts of our income. I’d love for you not to know that. Depression, questions of identity, future, and my photographic ability have started to steal more and more of my thoughts and sleep. I’d love for you guys to think that I’m bursting from the seams with confidence.
This is not a pity party, and this is not a rant. Above all, I’m certainly not unique.
It’s hard. No matter where we are in our careers, it’s going to be hard. It should be hard. If it’s not hard, you’re in that dangerous place of not pushing far enough or hard enough. Or maybe you’re in the wrong industry. Maybe you?ve set your goals too low.
The more I hear photographers get real with each other, the more I’m happy to discover what I already suspected: I’m not the only one fighting fights and getting black eyes in this industry. The black eyes I get from running a business in western China are just as painful and just as real as the ones everyone else is getting—despite where they are in their careers or what part of the world they live in. You deal with bridezilla, and I deal with drunken Chinese officials. By my count, we are even. It’s hard to run a business—let alone one that is focused on photography. It’s hard to be an entrepreneur in a service industry. It’s hard for me. It’s hard for everyone.
The point is this: We should want to learn from others? black eyes. We should learn from each other?s hard times—learn how to dodge the pesky left hooks of the industry. We should try and help the young and upcoming photographer become the best he or she can be and avoid what pain can along the way. But for some reason, we as an industry are so busy trying to convince everyone else that it was easy, that there were no hard times, and that the black eyes simply don’t hurt. Maybe we want everyone to think we are special, naturally talented, smarter than the rest—so much so that we managed to navigate the minefield of this harsh industry with perfection and ease. And now everyone else needs to pay attention to us. Hell, some of us have it so figured out that we’ve formulated the industry into a “top ten list.”
It wears on me, this façade. It’s tiring because not only have I been a willing participant, but also because I see hundreds of other photographers daily pushing something that isn’t real, something that isn’t personal, and mostly something that just isn’t at it’s core fully honest.
Maybe more honesty in our industry would result in fewer stretched families, fewer people going into debt because they were convinced they had to have some product in order to compete, fewer tired and burnt out photographers trying to keep up their image. Maybe honesty just makes for better stories. Maybe we’d actually spend more time shooting (remember, that thing we all profess to love so much?) now that we are, finally, allowed to be who we really are and where we really are in the industry.
I’m talking about more honesty in ourselves as photographers — more perspective on where we are in our photographic journeys and more willingness to share the successes with the failures. I’ve personally found that the more honest I am with myself, the more capable I am of falling in love with what I do. After all, that’s really the point – loving what we do.
This article is the culmination of thoughts brought on by Zack?s amazing video (Kudos to Zack, Atlanta Creative Mornings, and Matchstic for producing it). If you haven?t watched Zack?s video, I strongly suggest you carve some time out to do so (here). These are simply my very personal and honest gut reactions to something that I?ve seen in myself for quite some time and something that I?ve seen more and more photographers bring up – it?s not meant to be a rant, an angry fist in the air, or a bemoaning of the self- promoting nature of the photographic industry. Zack says this infinitely better than I do and deserves credit for raising this subject in my mind and beyond that, being one of the most honest, generous, and gracious voices in the industry.[blogshow id=9cd0 player=1 autoplay=0 toolbar=1]