You are My Hero: Some Questions

Question: Please forgive the unsolicited e-mail.  I keyed in pychology and photography on Google and your web page came up. You are my hero. My two main interests in life are these two subjects. I am 32 with a background in art history and museum work. I am planning on returning to graduate school. I want to get an MFA in photography and a masters in clinical psychology. I am so confused, and I am torn between which one I should do first. Did you get an MFA or did you just learn photography on your own? Your resume is very impressive.  I am reaching out to people who have the same interests as I do to try to get some helpful information and feedback.  I am keenly interested in the psychology of art and photography. I am researching graduate schools who may offer such a program. Do you know of any? Any helpful advice you can offer will be greatly appreciated.  My desire is to be a freelance photographer and travel.  Do you have any suggstions on how to get in the door of a publication and how to get started as a freelancer? 

It’s nice being someone’s hero for a while!

Where to begin? I was in the mental health field from the mid 70’s until the late 80’s when I dropped back from full-time to part-time work by opening my own outpatient practice so that I could regulate my time more in the directions that I wanted to go. Clearly, the mental health field at the time was becoming too driven by HMO’s and ‘big business’ interests for me and it didn’t offer the creative outlets that I needed. I really enjoyed my time in the field and especially working with people but it just wasn’t enough for me.

My creative juices were stirring.

I certainly didn’t go home at night, ever, to read psychiatric journals during those years that I was a practicing mental health professional. I read about the world and about the planet earth. And I had avocations like music and art and animal welfare interests and even theoretical physics to beguile me. I told my students back then, but also today, that they had to be ‘bigger than life’ if they were going to be of any real help to others. And that meant stepping outside the box that they were in.

I have always been an artist of one sort or another but photography intrigued me, in large part because of the obvious intersection with the study of humans. It was a good fit for me. A psychologist sees through (her) lens things that a non-psychologist wouldn’t see; just as I don’t see the world from an engineering perspective, or from a legal perspective. They see things that I don’t see. It’s all about perspective. We each bring our unique perspective with us to the art of photography, which then informs our work.

I learned photography on my own by joining some active nature photography collectives early on and also by hanging out with some nature professionals. I read all their books and studied their photos, and I traveled with some of them, as well. I got to know many of them personally and am still am in contact with many of them today. Also, I am a networker at heart so none of this was foreign to me.

It’s all in what we know

A nature photographer who knows little about nature is in name only. A people photographer who knows little about people is also in name only. You can hardly call yourself a travel photographer if you don’t travel seriously. But imagine the power of a biologist’s mind behind the viewfinder! Or the power of a psychologist’s mind, or perhaps even a combination of both perspectives. Or that of a physicist! Some of the most amazing discoveries occur every day in this world when an individual mixes together ideas and passions in a way that only they can do.

I am intrigued by the power of the Internet for learning. As a consequence I have been actively engaged with the emerging world of digital photography. The implications of this virtual reality are thrilling. Photography, in the wake of the digital revolution, is changing as we speak and, as it changes, we change in relation to it and to our subjects.

I also loved the dynamic process of moving from film to digital media and all that that entailed intellectually.

Know thyself

The art of living is to combine your special talents in your own way to meet your own needs. You cannot rely on an institution of higher learning to do this for you. An institution is just that: it offers you a well-worn path to follow with established guidelines (as well as some good models) for how to do things and think through things in the way that others have done before you. In graduate school we used to kid each other about finally earning our ‘union card’ on graduation day – that is, we finally had jumped through all the hoops that were required of us along the doctoral way. Miss dotting one ( i ) or a couple of crucial (t’s) and we all knew that we might not find ourselves sitting there in our flowing black robes with the others. Institutionally, things work that way. The norm is conformity.

In contrast, your own dynamic process of combining things is of a much higher order, and it is not to be underestimated. What we learn in graduate school should be just the beginning. What really counts is what we do with that learning as we move into the world with new tools in hand. Many students think in terms of ‘terminal’ degrees but that is certainly myopic thinking! About the only terminal thing in life is death. Degrees are not. Learning takes place with every breath we take, sometimes even despite ourselves.

I tell students to gain a perspective on life first, primarily through some rigorous exposure to a profession. Then, while you’re doing that, start weaving photography into the fabric of your life. Grow them both together. Allow them to eventually form a whole that is greater than the parts.

The nuts and bolts

As for how to become a freelancer, well, you just do it. When I started freelancing I was already well-known in my area as a mental health professional. I was also active in local politics and animal welfare issues. I did a lot of public speaking in my capacity as a mental health professional, as well. It was not that hard, then, to convince people that I would be equally professional with these new photographic services that I was offering them.

So you have let people know that you have a skill that they need, and you get yourself out there. It definitely won’t come by sitting there wishing for it. Begin by working for people who already know you and trust you. Capitalize on where you are the most well known which is probably right there in your own backyard. Most of all remember that you first have to sell yourself. People want to know what kind of person they are dealing with.

Probably the biggest mistake that people make is to try to sell themselves as photographers too soon, before they have the requisite skills in place. Take your time. Evolve. Become so saturated in photography that you eat and sleep photography and it finally begins to take on a life of its own within you. A sure way to truncate a promising career as a freelancer is to sell bad photos that even you don’t recognize yet as bad. Like any form of artistry, photography evolves – we evolve – and in the process we hopefully get better and better at this thing called living.

You become a practitioner the day you pick up a camera but you become an artist much later, if ever.

Dr. Ellen's Shadow

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