“Hello, my name is Steve, and I’m a photographer.”
I have been told that as a photographer I should be able to explain to people quickly and easily what kind of photographer I am in a sentence or two. This is similar to an artist statement, only much shorter. An example of a great reply to this question would be something like, “Hi, my name is Annie, and I’m an American portrait and celebrity photographer who shoots for editorial and commercial clients like Rolling Stone and American Express.”
When I try to do this exercise myself, I feel like I end up confusing people. It usually goes something like this, “Hi, my name is Steve, and I’m a Cuban American editorial, catalog, and advertising photographer who shoots food, still life, portraits, interiors, lifestyle, and documentary work. Oh, and I do video also. Oh, and I’m really good at building things too” So… What do you do?
I shoot images in multiple genres of photography, of which many are radically different from the other. Yes, maybe my life would be simpler if I just stuck with one or two different genres; but that is not me, and I am still trying to figure out if that is ok. The thing is that I have clients who hire me to shoot for them in all the different genres I shoot, but at the same time I feel there are clients who don’t hire me because they don’t know exactly which photographer I am.
I have found that there is a big pre-conception in both the commercial and editorial photography industries that great photographers have one clear and easily identifiable style and just shoot one thing well. Let’s take for an example our friend Annie the portrait photographer. Taking a portrait and taking a portrait of a celebrity, although they require slightly different skill sets, are not radically different.
May it be possible that Annie could also shoot great documentary work? Is she able to take a great picture of an interior? Could she not take great wedding photos for someone? I’m absolutely not saying that all photographers can be good shooting in all genres of photography, but I feel there are plenty who can do a few different things well. Actually, let’s expand our view some more and say that maybe it’s not even multiple genres of photography; maybe Annie is also a great painter, or is also an amazing chef.
When I speak to students at colleges and universities studying photography, many of them are often struggling with the fact that they don’t know yet how to describe themselves as photographers. Many are tormented by the fact that they don’t know what their “style” is yet.
As part of their curriculum, most of them have had to do assignments in all the different genres of photography. It’s common for students to have assignments ranging from environmental portraiture to still life to documentary stories. After some exploration some of these students can clearly say, “I hate the studio” or “I hate photographing people” and so on. Yet, I find a great majority of the students I speak with say, “I like shooting people, and I also like shooting still life… so what do I do?”
Over the years I have found my answer to this question has changed drastically. I used to tell them to do the one they like the best for a while, and then maybe revisit another genre later on. Another simple answer I have given is to show both, but keep the different genres separated on their websites or in a portfolio. Sometimes I skirt the question all together and tell them to listen to what their professors think they should do since they know them better.
I feel that college is more a place for students to explore what they may be passionate about, than a place to only do what they thought they were passionate about when they started as freshman. It is important to really explore something before you know the difference between something that sounded exciting, and something you are truly passionate about.
“Work really hard at whatever you are passionate about! If eventually you make great work you should show it off proudly; then make some more work!” This is my current answer when talking to young photographers about what they should do when confronted with multiple things they are interested in doing or photographing.
When you’re trying to make a living as a photographer, it’s easy to feel you need to conform to the single genre approach to be successful. I hear this from teachers, art buyers, magazine editors, agents, consultants, and so many other people. I find there is an overwhelming opinion that it’s best to find the one thing you love shooting, and just do that one thing. That may work great for some people, but I personally find this way too limiting. My career proves that you can be successful without conforming to these preconceived ideals as long as you put your heart into your work and make great images. Would I be more successful if I just did one thing? Maybe so, but I don’t think I would be as happy.
I also try to encourage young photographers to pursue their passions outside of photography, as you never know where you may learn something new. Over the years I have taken up woodworking, welding, furniture building, 3D printing, triathlons, painting, and so much more. The reason I have chosen some of these things to explore, is that I grew up as part of a family of engineers. My father and brother are engineers, two of my cousins are engineers, my grandfather was an engineer, and one of my uncles was an engineer. When I was growing up if we had some sort of problem that needed to be fixed, like a washing machine making a strange noise or a car that wouldn’t start; we would just figure things out as best we could and would try to come up with creative ways to fix the problem.
At my photography studio I am passionate about coming up with creative solutions to make the best picture possible for my clients and I use all my knowledge and life experiences to do this. Some shoots have very technical problems that need very technical solutions. I have built crazy steam rigs, dry ice fog machines, used laser trigger systems to freeze motion, and so many other geeky techie engineering type things to make better pictures.
At this point I’m 13 years into my photography career and I have come to realize that it is a long road ahead and I still have so much to learn and explore. I try really hard to bring my passion to every job I photograph, no matter the genre or the client, with the end goal of making the best picture I can.
If you asked me today to describe what kind of photographer I am, I would say “Hi, my name is Steve, I’m a passionate commercial photographer with an engineering problem who shoots ads and editorial stories for some awesome clients who are kind enough to hire me.”
So, what kind of photographer are you?
About the author: Steve Giralt is a NYC-based photographer who was selected in 2005 by PDN magazine as one of 30 emerging photographers to watch. He offers his services out of a 1800-square-foot photography studio located on the west side in Manhattan. Visit his website here.