Inevitably, when speaking with a group of photography students, or even a gathering of photographers, one point that is bound to come up is an anxiety over surviving as a professional photographer. Who can blame them, it isn't easy out there. Whether it’s advancements in technology that makes everyone believe they’re a "professional" photographer, or a market willing to accept an inferior quality of work, earning a living in the arts isn’t an easy undertaking; it never has been.
I was speaking with a handful of university students when one shared a story they encountered while interviewing photographers as part of a class assignment. The story sounded remarkably familiar; one would say almost eerie. What were they told? Don’t do it. While they were still young, change their career. You can’t make a living as a photographer. It’s not as it used to be; the good old days are gone. Flash back to 1989, and I had just graduated with a photography degree and excited to launch my career as a photographer in San Francisco, and guess what I was told? Don’t do it. While I was still young, change my career. You can’t make a living as a photographer. It’s not as it used to be; the good old days are gone. Sometimes it pays not to be a good listener.
Too often we listen to such noise and our spirit becomes a little deflated. Instead of thinking what one can do to right the ship, we start contemplating a life raft. Here’s where the first part of the title comes in. My typical response to such a group of apprehensive students is what would they say if I could resolve those fears with only two words? As one would imagine, most are skeptical while others are downright sure I am full of, I’ll say politely, poop. My two words, “BE BETTER.” Be Better simply means to be better tomorrow than you are today, and to be better than your competition. This doesn’t mean you have to be the next Albert Watson or Annie Leibovitz, albeit excellent goals. It means that within your chosen genre and in any given market, you want to always grow as an artist and be better than your competition. Being better redirects your focus away from your fears and onto the solution.
Now for the second part, "or Be Bitter." Nobody is awarded every photography project that comes their direction. One in three. I always felt that I should receive one of every three projects in which I am asked to review and write an estimate. The ego says that I should bat a thousand, but the realist in me knows one in three is good. So, what happens when my average drops below thirty-three percent? I have two options. I can choose to Be Better and work to improve in order to be considered the best choice, or, I can choose to Be Bitter. The bitter mind says things like, it's not fair, I should have gotten the job; I am a better photographer than so and so. This does nothing to raise one's level and will generally send you in the wrong direction. Careers can be lost with a bitter mind.
The concept of Be Better or Be Bitter is good for the health of the industry. When I do this as a presentation, it goes something like this. I have three students stand up with the assumption they are pursuing a similar genre and looking to work in the same market. I describe a project and award it to one of them, which brings a smile to one face, the other two not so much. Then, I describe how one of the other two decides to take the Be Better route while the other becomes bitter. The photographer on the Be Better path is awarded the next project. As this plays out, two routinely improve while the third decides to pursue other avenues. The best scenario is when all three grow, but the law of averages tells us that doesn’t always happen. Over time, the quality of work within the industry is raised, and the amount of competition is reduced. Not too bad for simply deciding to Be Better.