What Makes a Photographer Visionary?
When I transitioned from an enthusiast to professional photographer back in 2005, it was a scary time for professionals. You see, 2005 was the beginning of the end for many photographers. For years, to be a professional photographer, you had to know was how to run a business and have a strong technical ability to operate your camera, lights, and film. If you were creative, that was a nice bonus, but it was not necessarily what got you commissions. Because photography was technically challenging, the point of entry for someone wanting to be a pro was high. Not to mention that in the pre-internet world, most pros guarded their techniques as trade secrets. Thus, getting into photography as a professional was not an easy task.
Shortly after declaring myself a professional photographer, I attended my first ASMP meeting. The group was about 40 or so photographers, mostly older men, and most of them were not happy. While the economy was strong and the demand for print media was high, there was a shift in photography taking place that was scaring the crap out of those in the room. That shift was the move from film to digital. You might be thinking what's the big deal, but to those photographers who relied on the high-profit margins of shooting film, it was easy to see the downsides to digital photography not to mention the photographers this new technology brought with them. Although I had shot film all my life, I had no experience of working with film as a business and was happy to work with digital. What tools like Photoshop, digital cameras, and a new breed of open-minded photographers represented was change, and that was not welcomed by many.
As I worked the room introducing myself to the photographers, the tone of their conversations was less about embracing the change and how they can use it to their advantage but more so what they can do to stop it. So here I was young, fresh, with a smile on my face and using a digital camera introducing myself to these fellas and they were not happy. To this day I recall one introduction to an old school shooter, and it went something like this,
Me - "Hi, I'm Giulio. What kind of photography do you specialize in?"
Guy - "Survival! I specialize in survival."
For a moment, I had this image in my head of this old guy in the forest dressed head to toe in camo with his camera, but I understood what he meant.
Technology that drastically changes the way a group works while bringing with it a new group embracing that change is nothing new. It happened in the late 1800s when photography showed the public their world in ways a painter never could; it happened when digital photography became a tool for the masses, and it's happening again with smartphones.
Today we have smartphones that are good enough to technically produce a file with enough quality to make it on the cover of Time Magazine. Powered by supercomputers, a constant connection to the web and with thousands of engineers worldwide working to advance the effectiveness of computational photography, any photographer who is relying on their technical skills to stand out is doomed.
I say doomed and yet there are those among us that will run out and get the latest camera because it has some new feature thinking it will give them an edge. These technicians that masquerade as photographers will spend more and more money on the latest tech only to come up short when the public views their body of work. Yes, the technician might have a photo that is slightly sharper and maybe with more dynamic range, but no one cares. Next time someone trolls your work just remember that same troll has a smartphone that is on the verge of making their technical skills obsolete if it has not already.
I'm not saying sell off your gear and buy a smartphone. What I want to make crystal clear is that the camera has become the paintbrush and that photographers who want their work to have meaning need to become visionary.
The word visionary is one of those words that people like to throw around quite often out of context. By definition, the word visionary means one who thinks or plans the future with imagination or wisdom. Therefore, a visionary photographer is one that can see their future and create into that future with knowledge and accuracy.
A visionary photographer creates based on a strong foundation of identity, rooted in themes that are important to them. What's important to me is diversity, community, and self-expression, to name a few. When you see my work, it is a reflection of that identity. Do not be surprised that if over time how you look and how your work looks becomes one. Self-expression will impact all areas of your life.
Becoming a visionary photographer is not something you just up and do on a Saturday afternoon. There's no app, no preset and no shortcuts to it, to become visionary takes effort over time. To become visionary, you have to dig deep inside and stop bullshitting yourself as to what you are and what you are not. Because cameras have the smarts to make a photo that is well exposed and one that is in focus, you are most likely good enough as a photographer to become visionary.
Over the years, I developed what I call The Vision-Based Workflow, which is a set of tools to help me to see my photographic future and establish my artistic identity. Because The Vision-Based Workflow is designed to help me plan my future what I noticed is as a side benefit I'm able to predict the future of photography as a whole.
I've had the opportunity to share these insights at photography trade shows and publications which got me some a strong following of people that understood what I was saying and others that got quite upset at me. Change is never ending, and sometimes it's scary, but it happens with or without you. You can either be a visionary photographer or hold onto the technician mindset. One has a future, and one does not.