Advice is a funny thing. Advice is nostalgic statements that people give out to help them feel better about their own choices in life. I’ve always believed that since most of the advice I’ve ever gotten has seemed off a little to me. Like the time I talked to my folks about switching out of Pre-Med and becoming a filmmaker. My mom’s advice to me was, “Why don’t you become a doctor, and then you could make movies in your spare time.” Of course, my dad was a physician, and I couldn’t remember him ever having spare time, ever.
So today I found myself answering an email from a doctor’s son about what he should do now that he wants to give up his life of banking or accounting or data entry and enter a life of paid artistry. In other words, this fellow wants to become a professional photographer, the life that I have chosen. Irony has a purpose in life not only to entertain, but to add a bit of justice to a sometimes unjust world.
This of course isn’t the first time someone has asked me for advice about being a professional photographer. And honestly, I find it flattering to be asked since a lot of people at my work often say things like, “Wow, these photos look so professional,” as if they expected something less from me. But I take all compliments, big and small, humbly since I know there’s a give and take with all things in life and I’m luckier than most, if not as lucky as some.
So upon this occasion of my recent advice-giving, I was reminded of the time when my sister’s friend’s friend talked to me about becoming a Director of Photography. For those who don’t know, a Director of Photography, or DP or cinematographer as they are also known, is someone who shoots movies for a living, the actual shooting I mean. More specifically, they are the person in charge of the camerawork. In Hollywood, they work with the gaffer (lighting guy), director, art director, loader, camera operator and many other people to help a movie find it’s color, mood, etc. It’s a complicated job and some of the best out there have been working with the same directors for years. For example, Steven Spielberg almost exclusively uses Janusz Kaminsky who shot Schindler’s List, Minority Report, Saving Private Ryan and many other beautiful films.
Anyway, Anne’s friend’s friend was the 1st Assistant Director on the TV show JAG. He was doing very well for himself in his rise to 1st AD. Basically, they get everything ready on time to be shot. If the director one day says, I want a wall over there, the 1st AD makes sure it happens. A 1st AD is a tough job. It’s such a tough job that they are probably not the best person to ask for career advice because even the best days are soured by 18 hours on which is not uncommon.
Well, I asked and he basically said that most DPs are from Europe. So right there, you have a big disadvantage being American. Second, most spend their entire careers as film loaders or camera operators, never getting to be a DP. And by the time most of them get their shot at being a DP, it’s been 15-20 years. And you are a freelancer, so it’s feast or famine. So you’re looking at working inconsistently for the next 15 years, at the end of which you may or may not become a DP. Or you could sneak your way in through the indy side of things, but that’s a crap shoot.
I walked away from the meeting with a bittersweet feeling. It was nice to be on set, hanging out with the actors and director and DP. I had some kind of VIP pass which allowed me to sit with the core cast and two or three others quietly watching the lighting being changed and the scene being shot. But I started to wonder if this was the life for me. The advice had kicked me off of my wonderwagon.
I then became the head DP for a small video production company down in a small town shooting a weekly TV show and other short documentaries. I lucked into the job when I was merely weeks away from not being able to make my rent. I had recently gotten out of a very serious two year relationship and staying in Chicago was increasing the possibility that I would see my ex at some random bar. So I took the job and moved 90 minutes South of the city.
The job was great. It taught me a lot. And when it came time to leave, I had a lot of great experience which allowed me to move into other jobs that promised to help further my career in relatively the right direction. And for the past five years I’ve been the sole DP and photographer for a health care company. I’ve shot four or five projects that were very well received, one of which has meant a lot to me and the people involved. And I’m also shooting photos for a living making my own choices about where to point the camera, what to show and how to pace the tempo of my career.
By my rough calculation, I was given that advice in 1998 or 1999, advice which I chose to ignore and move forward with my dreams anyhow. I never wanted to be in Hollywood and have followed a relatively straight path with what I’ve wanted to do. And by a few measures, I’ve been very lucky, and unlucky along the way, but mostly lucky. So what advice would I give to someone who wants to toss their established career and have a go at shooting pictures for a living? What would I say to encourage or discourage a path I meandered along for the last decade or so?
Advice is a funny thing. Any statements I write or say to this person will simply be nostalgia that will help me feel better about my own choices in life, advice that he will either choose to follow or ignore and find his own path, hopefully. So after writing a long list of details that I thought would help him, I simply ended with the best advice I’d ever gotten. In life, you have to do what makes you happy. You could spend a career making money doing something you don’t like, but you’ll never be happy.