Yeah, there was a time when being a professional photographer of consumer photography with the business cards, logo, client phone book, email mailing list, newsletter, blog, portfolio site, booked shoots, customized invoices, client planning meetings, the actual photographic sessions, the tricky tax times and figuring out why so much work was turning into so little money was my dream job. I mean…having a small business is better than the cesspool of corporate America’s jobs, right? It’s leading yourself, making your own decisions, figuring things out and fitting into the small business bootstrappy ethic of American labor culture.
No, it’s not my dream anymore. I am not so sure it was my dream then. I just know that the average worst days of photography in a professional sense (which I wrote about in On Race, Gender and Being A Professional Photographer) were never as bad as the worst days during a decade of corporate America (some of which overlapped with my professional photography days). I know that I had nice photography buddies to talk with about the stressors and focus on the final work and delivering it to the client created the glint in the fogginess of uncertainty of dreams and jobs and dream jobs.
I don’t have a dream job. In a capitalistic culture, most people have just read that sentence and heard "I am a loser, I don’t ever dream about anything, I have never worked before in my life, I am lazy, I am not smart, I a have no goals." Even the idea of a dream job is stressful to me. Ultimately it’s supposed to be quasi-iconoclastic (nobody gets away with saying their dream job is to be an actuary) but still fit into the capitalist model of worth (where the person is still “producing” and can claim financial success and thereby social worthiness under capitalism).
In elementary and middle school, I wanted to be a neurosurgeon. I blame the Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedias (I just dated myself) at home and cool images of the brain. In high school I did’t want to do that anymore but I knew I wanted to do something related to health. I blame having a family full of Jamaican nurses and health professionals. In college I changed my major a few times, including to Nursing, but ended up leaving with degrees in the behavioral sciences at the undergraduate and graduate level. And none of my corporate jobs were “dream jobs.” They were, “because…bills” jobs.
This is where my childhood love and introduction into photography resurfaced into adulthood. The idea of having a separate business and doing work connected to the craft I love surfaced. Only upon years of experience with that did I realize that it is perfectly acceptable to LOVE this craft of photography—unapologetically and passionately—while not wanting it to be a full time business or even a profession.
Capitalism is what makes people think a craft is not valuable unless attached to profit. This is why inexperienced photographers charging thousands for photography workshops when they are not well-versed in the craft and when they also cannot teach (two different skill sets) still are held at a higher regard than a hobbyist and definitely an amateur. Make something a business and watch it be attributed respect even without the work.
I know what I enjoy doing. Writing, especially media criticisms from a womanist perspective and contributing to public scholarship relevant to anti-oppression praxis (I do on Gradient Lair; writing is great, the trolling I get in response is not). Making photographs. Reading. Mentoring. That’s mostly it. And though for some people, these type of things have materialized into careers for them so that people can then think that they have value, for me, either making them into “work” has not been possible or has not been desired.
Since I am back in a phase where full time photography isn’t my desire anymore and pursuing a Ph.D. is something I changed my mind about, it means finding a new job. This scares me since I have so many battle wounds from past non-photography jobs. Abuse and hell I’ve been through. Even so, I cannot think up some dream job that will make me happy. The closest thing was when a Twitter buddy @sophiaphotos mentioned teaching photography, formally (not pro workshops for peers) and that sounded somewhat nice. My Master’s isn’t a MFA though and those degrees and programs have their issues. Still though, for a second, it sounded like a cool career path and I’ve not felt a flicker of excitement about a job itself in a long time, though I feel it for so many things outside of jobs.
I’ve stated what was my dream job and what it is not anymore as well as what I’ve studied and how none of my “traditional jobs” were dream jobs. So what is my dream job?
I don’t have one.
Am I lazy now? Purposeless? A bad person? Did my photographs turn ugly? Do my words no longer matter? Am I ugly now? Am I unintelligent? Am I broken now? Anti-American? A loser?
What I am is honest, experienced and mentally free even amidst the bondage that defining oneself solely by work in a capitalist society creates.
Apple honored Nelson Mandela’s passing on their homepage. On first sight this is wonderful that they decided to do this. Some companies have only sent their one obligatory tweet and moved on. Further, since their acquisition of The Beatles' music for iTunes, I don't recall seeing anyone on the site in such a way, with the exception of Steve Jobs himself when he passed away.
But beyond the aesthetic level, Madiba’s image there makes me think. Apple has atrocious working conditions overseas. Now they are individually targeted for this in a way different from other companies because of their likable consumer culture, amazing product lines and net worth, but they are not the only company with this issue, of course; not in a capitalist society; not by a long shot. Wal*Mart is notorious for pitiful working conditions right here in America where a handful of the owning family members (the Waltons) have more money than almost half of Americans combined and they are among the top 10 richest people on the globe. Hundreds of American companies have cesspool working conditions overseas and plenty of discrimination in the States. Though poverty is relative to each location and economy, poverty is a global problem and people of colour are concentrated among the poorest.
I think about some of what Madiba said about poverty:
Massive poverty and obscene inequality are such terrible scourges of our times—times in which the world boasts breathtaking advances in science, technology, industry and wealth accumulation—that they have to rank alongside slavery and apartheid as social evils.
as well as:
Poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. And overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life. While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.
Though I am supposed to just think about how cool Apple and other tech products (and thousands of other products of a variety of types) are without even an ounce of thought beyond this superficiality—as this is the status quo for photographers in social media space; play colourblind, genderblind, classblind, cultureblind while using the correlated privileges as advantages in the industry—I cannot. I never could.
Like many photographers, I have Apple hardware and software for my photography work and personal use. Like many people in America, I have technology that is made via the exploited labor of people abroad as I too am exploited for other facets of my identity (i.e. race, gender, class). This is why oppression cannot be thought about linearly (it is NOT linear) nor can perceptions of Western privilege alone be used to explain the space that Black people occupy in America. (I’ve elaborated on this in connection to Madiba.) As a photographer who’s a Black woman, I don’t really have the luxury to pretend that we’re ‘all the same’ if we’re holding a camera is true.
As many people—including photographers—seek to rewrite the life of Madiba into something palatable (i.e. “peaceful” where this means “didn’t kick down the status quo and was always ‘humble’ to Whites”) for the status quo and White supremacy, I rather recognize my mixed feelings on this Apple tribute and my commitment to radical truth about his life, not reductionism. This tribute is by Apple is beautiful. It is. But beauty is also partially grounded in deception. It’s not coincidence that they chose his image with praying hands and smiling versus the many ones with his fist raised.
(Again, though I like this tribute, I like a different one that I had less conflicting feelings about. Maya Angelou’s poetic tribute to Madiba. Perfect.)
I read a great essay on one of my favorite blogs (The Feminist Griote) by my favorite person on Twitter, @FeministGriote, called The Humanity and Reality Behind #StrugglePlates. In this essay, she discussed the jokes made about some food photographs (admittedly usually not created by professional photographers; everyone uses Instagram/Twitter/Pinterest at every skill level of photography) and how they’re often called “Struggle Plates” (mostly within our [Black] culture, but others have used this phrasing on Twitter too) to dismiss what was prepared. She notes:
According, to social media users, food that does not picture well or doesn’t look “pretty” is somehow inherently “bad” food that doesn’t taste good. Furthermore, the people on social media also assert that food made with cheap products, is also flavorless food. Thus the perfect storm was brewing and out of that the hashtag #struggleplate was born. #Struggleplate describes food that is “ugly” and cheaply made. There is also an IG account called “cookingforbae” that collects pictures of “ugly” food for the sole purpose of trolling and judging the foods that people eat.
She also notes how the personal is political (a notion pioneered by Black feminists, regardless of what mainstream feminism claims) and food is inherently personal and political when families are struggling for it with millions on food stamps. Poverty has a racialized lens and experience (something I discussed on my womanist blog Gradient Lair, in a post Black In The 99%) so if foods prepared by people of colour are the ones receiving the most mocking, then there is more than just “bad photography” at stake here. She also notes:
I cringe because I feel that it is very disrespectful to pass judgement on what people eat.
Food provides comfort, nourishment, and sustenance all things needed for basic human survival. #StrugglePlates have a poverty porn and ethnocentric lens to then.
I completely understand where she is coming from because she mentions as a Haitian (I’m Jamaican myself) that some of her food might be perceived poorly because people think it doesn’t photograph well. Plenty of things I ate growing up with Jamaican parents was mocked by classmates, while now in adulthood, they swamp Jamaican restaurants because it’s “hip.”
I also think about this with another dimension, as a photographer. Though no more, I worked as a professional photographer for years. There’s literally no food that I cannot make look appetizing because that’s the primary purpose of food photography—in a consumer/commercial sense—to intrigue the viewer, to appetize, to make it look like art transcending just the purpose of physical consumption and nourishment. However, this does require skill and time that not everyone has, though to have that skill and time is not always a facet of class privilege, per se, though it can be. An example is a self taught photographer with one camera that they saved up for versus one with a MFA and an arsenal of endorsements from Nikon, Hasselblad, Manfrotto etc.
When I see two people in the same socioeconomic class with the same privilege (i.e. two Black people; working class, both able-bodied) mocking eachother’s food photographs in jest, I don’t have an issue with it. If one can cook and one cannot and one can photograph reasonably enough for Instagram and one cannot, I don’t think of it as the more “talented” person exuding privilege per se as it’s really not privilege but style in question. Also, there’s a lot of Black people who mock a lot of “Americanized” White recipes/images on Tumblr and what not and they often are not of the same socioeconomic class; the Black people often working class, the Whites middle class/wealthy. This is why so many people laughed at Martha Stewart’s photos because working class or middle class Black people are cooking great meals and photographing them well and it’s cultural food and it’s awesome.
However, there is an element of classism since certain foods are automatically deemed more “attractive” (despite who photographs them) and “better” and more “important” and “gourmet” and what not. Further, since so many foods from people of colour are regularly subject to culinary imperialism—where Whites making and photographing our foods are automatically deemed superior to us—the elements of class and White privilege are factors. Without culinary imperialism, the Food Network would not exist.
Sometimes the shame of experiencing poverty is what makes some people (including poor people) only insult foods associated with poverty. This would explain some poor Black people that I know who only insult images of food that represent the cultures and palates of other poor Black people.
For me, “struggle plates” has always meant sloppily plated food of any class or culture and then badly photographed. I understand that the term, especially with the word “struggle” in it readily relates to class and I will definitely take that into account before ever making food photography jokes again.
@FeministGriote really brought some important issues to light, for even photographers to consider, not only feminists or the general public and I’m thankful for this essay, which you should read in its entirety.
Michelle Obama is capturing a particular (though arguably narrow) definition of femininity that is often denied to black women. For example, she chose President Thomas Jefferson’s portrait as the backdrop for her official White House photo. There she is, the first black, First Lady, in a sleeveless dress, and behind her is Thomas Jefferson, who raped a teenage bondswoman, Sally Hemings (the half-sister of his wife), and enslaved his own children. Michelle’s photo executes a self-conscious taunting that reaches across the span of history to repudiate the violence and brutality suffered by so many enslaved women. Michelle stands boldly in a White House where she is mistress, not slave. Her body is for her. She is not reduced to a mule or a breeder. Her children belong to her, and she is free to love and protect them. It is an act of resistance for a black woman to demand that her body belong to herself for her pleasure, her adornment, even her vanity, because in the United States, black women’s bodies have often been valued only to the extent that they produce wealth and pleasure for others. When Michelle insists on audacious, sleeveless femininity, she strikes back against the reduction of black women to hypersexual breeders or asexual laborers. Hers is an important departure from the dissemblance strategies of twentieth-century club women who sought to prove their respectability through prim sexual ethics. Michelle refuses to be ashamed of her distinctive black woman’s body and all the attributes and anxieties it evokes. Rather than shrouding herself in shame, she shows her body with surprising, self-confident ease.
This quote is from her book Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America and is in reference to Michelle Obama’s first official White House photo, created by Pete Souza in 2009. I love this critique of that photo beyond an aesthetic sense and into a sociopolitical and historic sense. As a photographer and a Black woman, I relate to the context of this perspective.
I remember several years ago when I decided that I wanted my lifelong love of photography to be more than a hobby (to which I’ve recently returned to, actually). A business. I would be a professional photographer. And though I started with interest in fashion (I swear most photographers get stuck worshiping the “hyped up” genres of fashion, celebrity work or wanna be National Geographic), I realistically moved on to beauty portraits, lifestyle portraits and a few weddings of ordinary people. Even today, I find the ordinary extraordinary. We all have something interesting to covey via photographs.
I was afraid at first—afraid of the professional space of photography. I had already dealt with years of racial and sexual harassment in the traditional corporate workplace. And though a few Black iconic photographers—ones like Jean Moutoussamy-Ashe, Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, Gordon Parks, and Roy DeCarvara—have surfaced, I didn’t think that this would mean that I would be received well. Even today the “standard” boiler plate image of a photographer is a White male with a long lens on a camera. This is mostly what the general public sees for National Geographic, on the sidelines of high profile sports games and at couture fashion shoots with elaborate behind the scenes videos made of them. They—White male photographers—are who most photographers of any race look up to, while for some, knowing little about Black photographers, other photographers of colour or even White women as photographers beyond Dorthea Lange, Imogen Cunningham, Diane Arbus and currently living and famous Annie Leibovtiz.
However, my years of doing the work professionally involved some great times! Fun shoots and sessions. Adventure. People who liked me and respected my work. People who liked my style. People who were fascinated and even thoroughly happy by seeing a Black woman as a photographer. People who said my work inspired them to give photography a try. People who literally gave their young Black children cameras or art classes after meeting me. People who hugged me at the end of the sessions. People who paid on time, respected my rates and even gave me tips! People who fed me well at their weddings. People who recommended me to others. People who begged me to mentor them. These people were from a variety of backgrounds; mostly Black women, though it also included Black men, Whites and other people of colour. Warm and fuzzy. Joy.
But despite this joy, my years of doing the work professionally involved some truly terrible times. Hideous. People who assumed I was the secretary of the White male photographer who failed to show up at their session so I must be a…replacement? People who were nice by phone until they reviewed the “About” section on past websites and saw my bio photo. People who were nice when I didn’t have a bio photo on my site, and they even booked the session, yet had that deflated look of befuddlement and resentment once I arrived on-location for the session and they realized my race and gender. (I know this look intimately because it’s the same one that I get at traditional job interviews when the employer feels surprised or “tricked” to learn that I am a Black woman once I arrive at the interview.) People who completed the sessions but with resistance and hostility and refused to return any of my calls after (and some didn’t even want the photographs anymore). I remained nice and professional when this occurred, but it truly hurt me in a way that is hard to articulate. People who thought my rates were fine based on my work, but once they found out my race and gender, they wanted to renegotiate the rates down, as if I sold used cars, not creative art and a service. People who specifically told me that my rates were too high for someone Black and especially someone female. People who had no problem with on-location shooting, but once they knew my race and gender, they decided that me not owning a studio meant I was less professional. After all, the White guy they hired last time owned several thousand square feet. People who bad mouthed my work to other people and said I was rude because my personality is calm and introverted not “bubbly,” a word used to describe White women more often, especially when in juxtaposition to Black women where we are automatically deemed “rude” or “sassy.” People who rudely questioned everything I did during the session because they couldn’t believe that someone “like me” “really” knew how to use that big ol’ camera and related gear. People who simply weren’t “comfortable” with “my kind.” And all of the aforementioned people were White or Latino with White passing privilege.
But Whites weren’t the only ones who mistreated me. Black people did too. Some Black men (sigh) would lie about interest in photography as a way to get their foot into the door to sexually harass me. Some made everything, literally every interaction sexual. Some I literally had to block their phone numbers (landline days for a while there) and email addresses. Some Black men would fake interest and were actually photographers looking for tic for tac competition as if there can only be “one” Black photographer in a city at a time. I simply posted my rates online to limit this particular game. Worse, some would say that I should be “glad” that they called me and not a White photographer as if their sheer existence meant I should immediately fall to my knees and worship them. I swear, a lot of it felt like the street harassment that I’ve endured for 20 years, primarily (but not exclusively) from them. Also, some Black people in general behaved as if Whites are the only photographers who deserve pay. They gladly pay whatever rate a White photographer commands but want hookups, discounts or free work from Black photographers. They don’t consider that they’ve internalized racism to the point that they decide that whatever work a White photographer creates is “valuable” yet what fellow Black people create is not worth being paid for, or the only way to show community “unity” is through them being able to exploit Black photographers.
Whether the person doing the negative things were White, Black or otherwise, it still points to the same sources: them devaluing me based on my race and gender. The motivations and manifestations obviously differ. For Whites it reveals racism, sexism and White supremacist thinking. For Black men it reveals sexism and misogynoir. For Black people collectively it reveals how some of us have internalized the notion that we’re less worthy people who automatically create less valuable work.
And all of this hurt badly. Badly.
Ultimately despite the truly epic times that I had as a professional photographer, the bad times were so bad and so painful that I decided it was no longer for me. Further, being an introvert who hates sales and hates “the chase” I knew I couldn’t continue. Finally, a lot of the professional photography industry itself is difficult to navigate. The general superficiality, the gear over everything obsessions, the hierarchy that mimics existing kyriarchal power structure, the sexism, the forceful silence on racism and White male dominance, and the specific superficiality where sociopolitical issues and perspectives—beyond simplistic White Savior Industrial Complex and humanitarianism tropes, of course—are regularly silenced got to be too much.
So yeah, I’m a hobbyist again. One who knows professional photography quite well but one who isn’t interested. A photography business isn’t for everybody. It’s okay if it is for you or if it is not for you. You aren’t less of a photographer because you aren’t running a business. The capitalist myth that professional photographers love photography more than other photographers has to be rejected.
I still do small projects for people I know, as clients, but it’s not my primary motivation. My primary interests are street photography, food photography, travel and culture. Stories. Beautiful and not so beautiful things. Life. And I still write. I’m good with my choices. But it doesn’t mean that I won’t stop speaking out either, hence the Drift Sojourn phrase "photographs with passion, prose with purpose."
jromethehuman asked: Aaahh, your stand up guy for that book list. Much appreciated, was looking for new books on photography.
Thanks so much! Stand up “girl.” ;)
I think it’s important for photographers to READ books on photography and STUDY many images. Of course the time with the camera matters a lot, but the STUDY is critical too.