Ten Year Time Capsule: What Happened to All the Photographers?

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Does no photographer take photos anymore? That is not rhetorical. It is not a pun. It is a legitimate question that needs an answer.

While cruising through some old bookmarks recently, I began to notice a curious thing. Photographers seem to time out at about 10 years. But not all of those years were spent with a camera. Among those whose content I had bookmarked, there seems to be an arc that goes something like this:

    1. Start a photography enterprise

    2. Create a web presence

    3. Have some clients

    4. Start a blog about your photography enterprise

    5. Start a blog specifically for other photographers

    6. Reduce or discontinue work for clients

    7. Increase content for other photographers

    8. Produce less and less content

    9. Cite work/life balance as a challenge

    10. Disappear

Let’s look at these points and see if we can figure out what’s happening.

Somewhere between Point 4 and Point 5, there is a ramp up of passion, not only for the craft, but for the business. Confidence and a genuine desire to help our fellow photographers becomes important. This seems to hit after about 3 to 5 years.

Before reaching Point 6, our love of the craft itself peaks. By the time we reach Point 7, we realize how much work is really involved in maintaining a successful photography enterprise. We’d much rather be helpful to our fellow photographers than work to find and fulfill for clients.

The rest is self explanatory. Or is it?

Where does it all go terribly wrong? Is there a pattern in there somewhere? Where can other photographers and photographer educators, myself included, avoid a pitfall?

Yes, this entire phenomenon is a cautionary tale that I am telling myself. I will be the first to admit that. At what point can the cycle be broken?

Of course, there are many photographers who expand elegantly from Point 5 to 7 without ever getting to Point 8, much less Point 10. They master the content engine, repurposing, retooling, and repackaging the same experience, education, anecdotes, principles, and techniques learned in their careers. They find a way to say the same thing differently in a year or two. They are constantly dipping into that well of experience and education to stay fresh. They understand that there are new photographers – a new audience – entering our industry all the time.

So. Is it possible that Point 6 might be worth looking at? Could this be the sticky fork in the road?

6. Reduce or discontinue work for clients

As already mentioned, it can indeed be easier to create content from past experience than to carry on creating that experience. At some point, however, that well I mentioned risks running dry. It can be incredibly rewarding to contribute to discussions and roundtables with fellow photographers. Sharing opinions and experience with colleagues makes everyone’s job easier. It should not, however, take the place of the job.

Flowing water does not stagnate. To quote the character Gerry Lane in World War Z, “Movement is life.”

Consider also the career timelines of different photographers. There is a relation between the amount of time between each point and the depth of that well I keep mentioning. The more time between points, the deeper the well becomes. The more successful the transition between working photographer and educator seems to be.

Darn that Dunning-Kruger!

The Dunning-Kruger effect helps some to rush through the points. This is the principle that links high confidence with low awareness of how little we really know about something. It takes time to realize how little we really know about something. If we don’t give ourselves time to realize, and to learn, then we believe we know more than we do. Dunning-Kruger easily explains why 3 years of happy wedding clients makes someone believe they are an expert in wedding photography.

Remember that I said this arc of points seemed to last about 10 years? One thing I discovered from the photographers who successfully transitioned from working photographer to educator – and sustain a successful education program – is that they have been around more than 10 years. In fact, they didn’t begin formally educating until well after the 10 year mark. Their well is deep. Their body of work speaks for itself. In most cases, they are still actively working behind their cameras, not just at their computer screens. Their well just gets deeper and deeper.

Let’s go back to that list of old bookmarks for a moment.

After several days of review, reading, clicking, and observation, this is what I found:

Once lively sites missing portfolios and full of dead links.

Links to defaulted domains. Nothing to show they ever existed.

Social media accounts that went from full throttle to full of cobwebs.

Photographers-turned-content-creators whose content had nothing to do with photography. Instead, there were offers to the same generic trendy content that everyone else is peddling. Buzzwords abound. Again, nothing to show they ever held themselves out as photographers.

It’s almost as though photography was a phase of their lives they’d just as soon forget. The cash grab is done, onto the next cash grab.

That’s a tremendous shame. Not only is a lot of – often times very good – content missing now, but this sends the wrong message. It substantiates the idea that photography is an incredibly easy business to start, but it is just as easy to stop. Especially when the next bright shiny appeal to our vanity comes along.

Well, well, well.

So maybe the answer is to keep filling our well. Share knowledge, add education as a service, but don’t forget to be a photographer first. There’s a reason we are drawn to the craft, and the best way to remind ourselves of that is to pick up a camera.

Trends and techniques change. The day we find ourselves in a discussion where we can not relate to the other photographer’s problem, it might be time to fill our calendars with more work for clients and less education for photographers.

The day someone clears your link from their empty bookmarks would be a shame. Don’t let your arc end that way.

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