The Dreams and Delusions of Photographers

©Ben Anderson

I’m sure most photographers have entertained the dream of making their living through photography. It’s a fun dream and for some it comes true. From the handful of professionals I’ve chatted with it’s not an easy life. It’s a lot of hard work and hustle which is often accompanied a healthy dose of existential angst.

I admire dreamers and think you have to be one if you want to be an artist. But there’s a dangerous side effect to being a dreamer and that’s self-delusion. For the dreamer photographer with tendencies of self-delusion there maybe no more lethal a narcotic than internet popularity. You can watch this play out on social media platforms. As comments, reblogs, favs and followers add up a photographer gains more confidence in their work and can quickly slip into a bubble of self-delusion.

I often wonder about the true benefits of exposure on the internet. I remember talking to a friend who had a project that was picked up all over the place, including mainstream websites. I asked them if they received any calls or jobs because of the exposure. They said no. Then again, they didn’t exactly take a proactive approach either.

The internet is a pretty awesome and powerful tool for distributing photography and building connections, but I also think we sometimes overestimate the true value we’re creating. Look no further than the first internet bubble for a prime example. There are some that say we’re in another internet bubble right now, one that’s driven by over valuing social media.

For photographers, I think it’s important to step back and think about the value of the connections you’re making. Do you really have 500 followers? Or is it more like 50 true followers and 450 superficial digital acquaintances?

Photography is expensive

©David Wilson

Forget earning a living, it’s difficult to pay for photography no matter what, especially if you ambitiously enter contests and portfolio reviews. This topic was recently covered by Aline Smithson on LENSCRATCH, which naturally rippled through photo land.

The photography-competition-portfolio-review-exposure-complex is a complicated behemoth to take on without sounding superficial. I think we’re at a point though where it’d be wise to have discussions about it to see if there aren’t creative alternatives for promoting and exposing photography.

Perhaps instead of setting aside money for competitions, photographers can re-distribute some of that money toward purchasing independent books and zines. It’d be great to see those niche verticals flourish and grow. It would a wise investment too because at some point I’m sure you’ll end up putting out a book and searching for an audience.

No matter though, I think you have to be prepared for the fact that it’s going to be incredibly difficult to make money with your fine art work. Even if you do land a solo show, how much money are you going to make off of that? And then what? You need to eat and pay rent next year. Making ones living by selling prints seems far fetched at best for most.

Screw Making Money Through Photography

Isn’t there something incredibly rewarding about producing a great image every now and then, out of one’s own, very personal engagement with this world? Why would one want see that as less important than whether the results of those truly precious moments (that, let’s face it, also come with a lot of hard work) are packaged appropriately for commerce?  - Joerg Colberg

Those that have followed Hin Chua’s work for the last few years know that he’s flown around the world to make photographs for his project ‘After the Fall’. How has been able to do that? He’s held down a pretty good day job. He hasn’t had to turn to Kickstarter or do print sales. He’s able to self-fund his work. Removing the stress of paying for rent and food has allowed him to focus his energy on developing his photography.

Each of us have our own reasons for making photographs. I don’t begrudge anyone with ambition or dreams of earning a living through photography but I would hope that you understand the realities and challenges of whichever path you choose to take.

If you want your work to be vetted by the photography-competition-portfolio-review-exposure-complex then you’re going to have to play by their rules and pay their monetary dues. That’s just how it is right now.

We’re living through a very interesting time for creatives and artists. There are certainly immense challenges but also new opportunities that are emerging almost daily. Why should we limit ourselves to the old models or the way its always been done? That’s not very interesting. Maybe the most interesting photography in the next decade will come from those that choose a different path, the passionate, studious seekers who create their own occupations, in other words, the delusional dreamers.


  • Henri Cartier

    Major asshole the guy who wrote this article.

  • Edwin Firmage

    I think this is it. Photographers need to be more than just image makers. They need to be curators, artists, writers, philosophers, etc. It’s too easy to take a competent photograph now for that to be skilled labor. 

  • stp

    I’m so glad I had a day job that enabled me to pursue photography on my own terms.  I’ve since come to believe that if there is money to be made in photography, for most photographers it’s going to be through providing services (weddings, portraits, animals, parties, etc.) rather than through fine art print sales.

  • Ben Watkins

    It’s a new era for image creators. Images are easier than ever to make. 

    Print media was economically valued in previous eras based in part on the relative scarcity of product. Photographers with skill and the right tools could make a living based on the sale of their work. 

    As photo and publishing tools become more widely available the scarcity of images decreases. This is a rather ubiquitous truism every photographer needs to realize if he or she is considering photography as a profession.On the upside, we’re in a media revolution. New opportunities exist for those who are eager to find them. As publishing technologies allow contributors to offer their work for use in larger compositions, or groups, new media is born. Based on advances in publishing tools the magazine format itself came into print, evolving over time into new dimensions. This is change. How delightful.Print photography and image creation in general can be a wonderful career for those who build lasting relationships, often based on reliable delivery of economically valued work. For example, delivery format and methods, reliability of service, efficiency and quality all play a role in transaction oriented relationships.If photographers are in it for the money, these are important factors to optimize. Photography isn’t without it’s own marketplace dynamics. They can be studied. Best practices rise to the top. To wish the world was different might not be a productive avenue of thought.

  • Hin Chua

    Hi there,

    Since I’m mentioned here, I figure I should add my tuppence! I don’t do this enough, but I find properly selected portfolio review events to be, for the most part, very useful. Of course you have those individual reviews which are semi/completely disastrous and personally discouraging. But even then, you are seeing how different people react to your work. You are testing your effectiveness as a communicator, your ability to present the “point” behind the work (which you will ultimately have to do if you want an audience). You are practicing talking about yourself. You are dealing with smart people who look at photographs, who have no obligations to be nice to you and who will be willing, indeed eager, to poke holes at your work.

    As Blake Andrews points out, you have either have to accept you have to work the system or as John Gordon mentions, you join the Internet-commiseration community. The latter doesn’t appeal to me much: it doesn’t seem to be very constructive. The former has resulted in the development of some really good relationships, opportunities (either immediate or very far down the track) and especially importantly for me, fascinating insights into the nature of my work.

    Just last week, as I was cycling around the middle-of-nowhere near Manchester, I was pondering the contents of a submission to some cool opportunity I was short-listed for (which came out of a contact I made at a review). I was trying to figure out how do to this in light of my previous experiences, where I remembered something another reviewer told me about a particular style she detected in my work. She mentioned this in an almost throw-away manner more than a year ago, but suddenly what was said finally hit home to me and I thought “by God, she’s right, I never thought of that!”. It had taken a year to finally register but and it’s what I’m going to use for the upcoming submission.

    As for cost, committed photographers spend hundreds or thousands of pounds on film, scanners, lenses, developing, hard drives, cardboard boxes, books, Internet access and everything else. In that respect, a couple of hundred of pounds in entry or review fees is peanuts.

    On the Internet, well, Google Alerts tells me I get a lot of no-word mentions or reblogs from Tumblr, and that’s usually it for the most part. I don’t doubt the value of the Internet (because it has presented some great opportunities to me as well) and was initially sceptical about the whole review complex, but the amount of benefit from talking to a bunch of really smart photo-people and photographers in a concentrated area, in the flesh, has changed my mind to be honest. Hell, I really need to attend a few more reviews next year when I’m ready to wrap up my project!

  • Nico

    “Success seems largely a function of promotion by the right people in the right place at the right time.”
    Blake I think you got totally the point, really completely. Making great photos is only the first step, I would say a very small and extremely necessary step, but it does not mean you have the key to open any door. 

    The past is full of great artists who sold their masterpieces for a piece of bread. Today it does not look different at all. The history remembers especially  the artists who found the right and reach patrons, who could pay well and let artists live and grow without financial worries. And yes, also the right time is important… try to show your portfolio at someone who had just a bad fight by phone or saw already 100 black and white pictures before yours… bad time.

    More over the market pie is small and only few have access to it. And to be honest, it is like a stock exchange market, a crazy one without any logic, unless you know the right sponsors. How can you deal with it and the bills every month?

    I am an engineer and I study and make photography  in the weekends, and I am sure I have more free time to take pictures and work on my projects than a professional photographer who has to spend most of this time in marketing, calling, blogging, emailing, solve client’s issues, follow client’s wishes, flattering with galleries, etc., just because he needs the money to live. 

    As an amateur, I cannot praised a gold CV for my photography education and several times the owners of the Club “I know photography” do not take me seriously: ok, I can accept it, that club is large and it has also very good people.  As an amateur, I can be worried to please myself, that it is not simple and easy at all, but it is a pleasure and I do not need to care about bills.


  • Blake

    Sorry John. I didn’t realize you meant success as “maturing as an artist and pushing your vision and work.” In that case, “make great photos and success will find you” is probably a truism if not an outright tautology. I was thinking of success in more conventional terms such as recognition, financial reward, and respect. When success is defined in those terms I think the relationship between great photos and success becomes tenuous. It may be there or it may not, but I don’t think it’s a simple causal thing, A always leads to B. On the other hand, if you define success as “maturing as an artist and pushing your vision and work” then just about any letter out there leads to B. So aren’t we all successes deep in our heart of hearts?

    And yes, I plead guilty to higher order cynicism.

  • Drew Shannon

    The joy of being an amateur photographer with no aspirations of taking ones interest to the next level is wonderful thing.

  • Bryan Formhals
  • John Gordon

    Man, that’s some higher order cynicism.

    People seem to think success happens quickly for artists. It’s true for some, but I think the Internet-commiseration-community plays up the notion that there is some magical path that does not involve putting in a ton of time and having a track record of great work. I think Bryan’s first point was on point. A lot of people get a few mentions on a blog and think they’ve made it. They then get super sulky when that doesn’t translate into offline success.

    Remember, I said choose whatever definition of success you want and you immediately translate that to dollars and deals. The success that matters is maturing as an artist and that means pushing your vision and work. This happens over a lifetime and as it happens it can translate into different kinds of success for the artist.

    So many of these downer blog threads come off as sour grapes by early career artists with a strong sense entitlement. 

  • Alan

    One of the best articles I’ve read in a long time, a good healthy dose of reality for everyone. Thanks!

  • Blake

    “Make great photos and success will find you.” This is thrown at photographers all the time. It sounds good but I don’t think there’s much truth to it. I think success is much more a function of active promotion rather than aesthetic quality. If you just leave high quality work in a drawer or show it to friends, success almost certainly won’t find you. In fact I’m not sure quality matters too much. Success seems largely a function of promotion by the right people in the right place at the right time. You’ve got to work the “photography-competition-portfolio-review-exposure-complex” to use Bryan’s term.

  • Anonymous

    Oh, I figured it out. Amy Stein’s hubby. Makes sense now. 

    Good luck to you too! 

  • John Gordon

    You want complexity? There is no path! That’s some serious Hua Rong Dao complexity, man.

    Well, there you go. Validation from your connections… I read somewhere that one should take a step back and question the value of their connections. ;)
    Doing is not reflecting. Reflecting is reflecting. An arsonist is not critiquing architecture when he burns down a house. 

    But, whatever. Good luck to you. 

  • Anonymous

    I wasn’t laying down any paths for success. I want people to think about where they’re spending their money and perhaps question whether or not going down the portfolio review and contest path is right for them. 
    “I believe that represents a very simplistic view of the art world and a limited understanding of what separates successful photographers from less successful photographers.”

    You’re not exactly presenting a complex view of the art world. Also, from the general response I get from the photography community it seems a certain segment does in fact think I have a decent idea about “what separates successful photographers from less successful photographers.”

    “The point was that I’d hope the irony of writing about Internet black-slapping and weak ties on a blog would not be lost on the writer and might force one to reflect on their role in this phenomena.”

    Sure, this is the nature of the social web in 2011. Don’t you think by writing about it that I’m also reflecting on my role in the phenomena? 

  • John Gordon

    I’m glad you haven’t stated going that route is selling out. Of course, I never said you stated it nor did I imply you stated it, so the comment is a bit left-field. 

    My comment was that your piece seems to present two paths to success: the competition/portfolio review path or the let’s-band-together-and-create-our-own-definition-of-success path. I believe that represents a very simplistic view of the art world and a limited understanding of what separates successful photographers from less successful photographers. (And please define success however you like.)

    Lastly, the point about the irony of you as the messenger had nothing to do with the actual amount of time you spend or how efficient you are at what you do. The point was that I’d hope the irony of writing about Internet black-slapping and weak ties on a blog would not be lost on the writer and might force one to reflect on their role in this phenomena.  

  • Anonymous

    The post was about making choices. I haven’t stated anywhere that going the route of the “photography-competition-portfolio-review-exposure-complex” is selling out. I’m simply saying that you need to be aware of the costs and understand how that game works. 

    There’s plenty of great photography that will never make it “to the wall to the primary and secondary markets.” Thankfully the internet has created viable alternatives for viewing this work. 

    “Of course, there is no irony lost that the person making the point spends a goodly sum of his waking hours online hyping artists and promoting weak ties.” 

    I actually don’t spend that much time. I’m efficient and good at the internet. Thanks for stopping by though! I enjoy patronizing fly by comments…

  • John Gordon

    Your first point about the false security of Internet popularity is important. Of course, there is no irony lost that the person making the point spends a goodly sum of his waking hours online hyping artists and promoting weak ties.

    Also, the art world is a little more complex than the two “vertical niches” you’ve reduced it to in this piece. Certainly, your experience and the experience of your peers is valid and important to understanding the whole of the moon, but saying things like “photography-competition-portfolio-review-exposure-complex” only serves to reinforce your first point. There is a certain population of photographers that have locked themselves in an online echo chamber. They spend half their time patting each other on the back and the other half commiserating about the sellout system of competitions and reviews that holds them down. This fixation is reinforced via blog posts and tweets, but it’s based on a very limited understanding of how one’s work makes it way from the camera to the wall to the primary and secondary markets.

    It’s true that most photographers will not find success and that’s not because of a system, it’s because most photography is not very good. Make great photos and success will find you.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, I kind of think in about 10 years people will consider it kinda strange that anyone specialized just in photography. 

  • shanolyno

    The model you touch on at the end is the reality for most today. Too often this issue is broken down into a redundant, black and white, pro vs non-pro debate, when most people are mixing careers today. Besides, pros often end up doing work they don’t like to fund ‘the good stuff’, this work is often so far removed from what they would like to be working on, that it might as well be a job in a different domain.


    Great post! I’m in the middle of these thoughts right now. I’ve paid my bills by pressing a shutter button over the last 9 years, but I was first introduced to photography through a fine art program. I’m trying to get back to the fine art side where photography is my personal creative expression instead of what pays my bills.