This past weekend I was reminded of an experience that motivated me into becoming a professional. The difference this time around is that I was on the other end of the dynamic. Dear friends had asked me to "bring my camera" for a special event they were having. It was, truly, as special event so I didn't mind the request. Before things got rolling another friend of theirs showed up with a nice-looking camera, and I suspect he had brought it of his own accord. He recognized the importance of the event and thought he should make sure it was documented. When I pulled out my camera and started shooting, he put his away.
I immediately flashed back to an experience from three years ago. I was traveling in India with Chuck Fryberger, and exceptional videographer and photographer. We were at a Theyyam-- an ancient and private ritual that exists in only one small part of India and the world. It's a day-long ceremony, and as evening fell I found myself standing behind an older Indian man. He was shirtless, and his arms were crossed so that his hand rested on his shoulder. It was the most fascinating hand I had ever seen, gnarled and slightly disfigured by life. Framed against the background of a glowing fire and throng of people it was a beautiful shot; but I thought it was too personal. The hand spoke volumes about him-- but also about me... my cultural and economic difference. While I gazed at it like an imbecile, Chuck wedged himself between us and took the shot. I could see the LCD on the back of his camera and it was just as beautiful as I imaged (and he took it beautifully, with elegance and assurance).
It was right then that I realized the difference between Chuck and I. He was a photographer, a professional. He was committed to the image; his sense of self, his pride was all that. I didn't see myself as a professional three years ago. I took beautiful photographs. But there's a difference. A game face.
Last weekend I saw the same situation mirrored in reverse. The other photographer, who may have been as skilled or more than I, didn't see himself as a photographer. We chatted for a while about the event and photography, and after a little while he pulled out his camera and started shooting as well.
My advice to people starting out today is that when you pick up the camera, commit yourself as a professional. This doesn't mean you're insensitive to personal privacy, pushy, or arrogant. It means that no matter how badly things are going with a shoot or who else is there, you are committed and driven.
What does that mean in actionable terms?
1. Come prepared.
2. Use your natural "authority" as a photographer but don't push boundaries.
3. When you miss a shot, ask to do it over if you can. Talk to your subjects/clients.
4. No matter how prepared you are, problems arise. They chose a professional to deal with those problems. Work the scene.