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Letter to a Young Photographer….

Nov 9

In Advice at 9:43am


Lectured last week at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. In the photojournalism department, the students all had that traditional mix of energy, enthusiasm, angst, and doubt so typical of that time in your life when you have just picked up a camera and are looking at it, wondering where it will lead you. The usual mix of questions are ever present: Who do I work for? Can I make a living? Will I ever be any good at this? Will my pictures have impact?

Nowadays, that traditional line of questioning is accompanied by another significant set of queries. What is the future of all this? Will I shoot video or stills? Can I get a job where somebody pays me more than a nickel for my photos? Will there be any newspapers left in a few years? Should I also go to business school? How many pixels do I need? What the hell is going on and how am I going to fit in? When I left school a traditional path for many J school grads was small paper to slightly bigger paper to mid-size daily to a big metro. It was a process. It had potential structure and pace.

Now, graduating into this field is like blasting into hyper space. The destination’s uncertain, and the road is a blur.

The raft of questions I fielded last week brought me back to a letter I received some years ago.

Dear Joe,

We met a few years back, I was,  I guess, a runt high school kid with a camera.  now, I guess I’m a lost science major, have no idea what I want to do with myself, and everyone just tells me to do what I like. I can’t justify transferring to what I regard as the large year round summer camp of arts school, but have no idea what to do with myself, now or in ten years. I know this is a little weird getting an email from someone who you might not even remember meeting years ago who, at 19 is going through a midlife crisis, but I appreciate any thoughts anyone might have other than the “follow your dreams” which doesn’t fit with my New York cynicism.  I guess I was wondering, as I was told to wonder, and ask everyone I know (or “kinda sorta” know) who does something interesting for a living, how they wound up doing what they were doing?  Anyway, it’s a heavy question with a ton of run on sentences.

Would really appreciate any input you may have on the matter……thanks….


Of course I remember you. I am sorry for not getting back sooner, but this last two months have vanished with road work, and I did not want to just dash you off something superficial. Follow your dreams is not a bad thing to do, but I am well aware of the practical limitations of such a plan. The world gets more and more restrictive in terms of a free wheeling approach to life, and despite all the press given to those who strike it rich and play their own tune doing it, there are the much more prevalent stories of most of the rest of us who grapple day to day with exactly the same issues you are facing. A science major in the Ivy League is a pretty strenuous thing to do, I imagine. Art school would be a different atmosphere altogether. I don’t know what might be possible in terms of combining them, or finishing a degree (very important!) and then trying your hand at some art education.

The fact that you put your camera to your eye instead of running on 9/11 indicates something restless and perhaps unusual in your makeup, and as someone familiar with being regarded as unusual, I can tell you it is definitely a two edged sword. The things you struggle with now you will struggle with your entire life. It is the essence of a creative soul, really, without being pompous and overblown about it.

Being lost isn’t the worst thing in the world, either, especially at 19. I hadn’t even discovered photography at 19, but nothing in particular concerned me about my aimlessness. Probably a lack of depth on my part, no doubt, but then it did leave me with room to move and the ability to imagine myself in different contexts. I do know that when I finally engaged in photography, it was like a black hole, an irresistible force that pulled me, my time, my energy and, without exaggeration, my every waking (and sleeping) moment. I had never known such a resonant thing.

I do know I went abroad, and became the lab manager for the Syracuse London photo program and took 9 graduate credits. I left my lab duties in the hands of a fellow student (and my princely weekly pay check of 5 English pounds) and went to the east most tip of England, a place called Lowestoft. There I talked my way onto a fishing trawler (November in the North Sea, lovely indeed) and went off to to do a 2 week jaunt, with hope of making a photo essay along the lines of what I had seen my heroes like Gene Smith do. I remember the smell of tea late at night, and lurching through 40′ waves sitting in the wheelhouse, and the utter blackness of sea around, and thinking, yes, this and the like is what I am cut out to do.

I’ve been fortunate in that I have been able to act on and make a living out of some largely irresponsible urges. I have had a bit of a comic book of a life, I am still drawing the panels. I sense something like a change of scenery may be a good thing for you, if you can afford the time and effort to launch yourself in a different direction and in a different environment.

Don’t know if your science professors possess the capacity to excite and inspire, but I was blessed with a very good and inspirational photo professor who helped me at least realize something larger was always possible. Have you thought of chucking it for a while and going abroad, and trying your hand at some art education? Or trying your hand at anything that comes along? Or trying your hand at essentially nothing? I’m not suggesting something totally out of bounds or dangerous, but the search for something that propels you, draws you, and simply becomes that which you cannot help but do is in itself a worthwhile endeavor. And if and when the discovery of said treasure occur– eureka! I still love photography, and enjoy the simple act of being a photographer more now than when I first picked up my dad’s camera.

One thing my dad did tell me, and it has echoed in my ears for a long time. He was the quintessential corporate man, a salesman, and in his later years, he became disgusted with the ways of his world, and told me on numerous occasions, “hang out your own shingle.” Which is what I have done, and been happy to have done. The jalopy called McNally Photography has transmission trouble, a couple of flat tires, and not all the cylinders fire, but it still moves, and I drive it where I want to go. There is a great deal of value and satisfaction in that, as I look back. I’m still standing, and lots of others fell away or played it safe or never tried. The simultaneously wonderful and daunting thing is that there is so much still to do, so much ground to cover, and my best work is still out there, somewhere. I am still on safari here, the great picture hunt, as someone once called it.

I don’t know if any of this makes sense. You are just beginning to write your pages, and the thing to remember about this early rough draft is that it hardly matters what you do exactly, as long as you continue to become something close to what you might imagine you want or need to become. Being a bit slow and never prone to academic excellence and achievement, I really have had no choice over the years but to embrace Einstein’s thought. “Imagination is better than knowledge.”

Stay well. Call anytime. Joe

144 Responses to “Letter to a Young Photographer….”

Dwayne D.C. Tucker II says:

on November 16, 2009 at 11:27 am


Thank you for posting this; I was reading this the day you twitt about it but I was on my phone now I am here it was easier for me to leave this comment!

I am so confused how to write how I felt when I was reading this; just wow, just wow.

Your Photography Friend,

Dwayne D.C. Tucker II
Nassau, Bahamas

Doug E. says:

on November 16, 2009 at 8:47 pm

Joe -

I am, uh a whole lot older than the student you replied to but have the same fears and trepidations – confusion. So, thank you so very much for writing this blog and sharing this post!

I’m floundering in a poor economy and like so many, have lost my job as the graphics design dept. was shut down and outsourced. While I’m lucky to have stability for awhile, I need to look down the road. I love design, art and photography! I doubt I’ll ever make money enough to “live” off photography, but I am as inspired as I was after 7/1/09 to play with my d700 and follow the light – your posts and enthusiasm fuel those dreams and keep the inspiration fresh.

I have absolutely adopted the “Imagination is better than knowledge” thinking and couldn’t agree more, gee, that Einstein bloke was kinda clever.

So, as I wait for any potential 2010 Dobbs dates (grin) it’s back to weird shooting (Hey, weird requires imagination… Or perhaps I ate too many paint chips as a kid?) and experimenting… With an eye towards the board, not necessarily, the bulls’ eye.

Thanks for all you do for us! Your drive and enthusiasm is truly inspirational – and motivating! My down time is now split between the realities of looking for a paying job and the joy of hearing my flash recycle.



jakob says:

on November 17, 2009 at 2:57 pm

Thanks Joe for sharing this letter and yr thoughts with us! Can`t tell that Im in the “position” of this yet, but maybe later, then I will sure remember!


Thomas C. says:

on November 18, 2009 at 8:03 am

This post is very moving, and could be aswell an “open letter to any young photographer”.

I liked “hang out your own shingle” :)

Al Kirby says:

on November 19, 2009 at 10:51 am

You need to get on to a heavy duty server. Its hard to get on to your site.

Matt Leitholt says:

on November 20, 2009 at 12:32 am

Joe, you work, your writing, your ambition is extremely inspiring. I watch your shoots on Kelby Training, read about different techniques in your books, and just dream about doing what you do. I’m a 17 year old in High School and I really take photography seriously, I’ve been shooting for 2.5 years now and really love photography, it’s my life passion. I hope to meet you someday. I’ll try to give you a call someday, hopefully you have a minute to chat.

Thanks for impacting my life, I wouldn’t be where I am without the inspiration.

Adam says:

on November 20, 2009 at 12:44 am

This is a really great post, thanks for the inspiration!

Travis Lankow says:

on November 20, 2009 at 5:38 am


Thank you so much for writing this. It resonates with me very much and hearing any words of advice or direction is extremely welcome. I’m 22 and photography has been both a compelling force as well as a source of frustration in my life. Like the person who wrote you that letter I chose to embark on a science degree four years ago. Most of the advice I got after high school was that photography was a fine hobby but anyone who tried to pursue it as a career was out of their mind.

This month I’ll have my first paid job as a photographer – doing food and event photos for a local business. It’s a pretty small job but absolutely huge for me. I doubt I would be saying that if it weren’t for your inspiration (and that of a few other photographers in the online community). Thank you.

Hope you have a wonderful holiday


Derrick Young says:

on November 20, 2009 at 6:39 am

Well, timely post for me and I believe this advice applied to any “young Photographer” regardless of age.

See I am 42. and 1 week ago I lost my job as a Systems Analyst a field I have been in for 20 years. I walked out of HR on November 12, 2009 scared, angry and scared some more. But a little part of me felt relief. I hated the Information Technology world. I was tired of the work I was doing and dreamed of one day being a professional Photographer. Being able to shoot, create and visualize. On November 13, 2009 being unemployed for 24 hours I Hung out my shingle. It has been a week now, and I have yet to shoot a single picture. That has me more scared than anything, but I keep telling myself the past weeks work of setting up backgrounds, lighting, curtains, counters, business cards, post cards, signs and more signs is as much needed as taking the pictures. I have several shoots booked for the weekend from customers who have wandered in over the past week. And today I will be hanging the last curtains over the windows the last signs and I will be done setting up. I can already feel the fear building for shooting my customers on the weekend. Will i get the shots they want, will I get the shots I want, will I remember to put the memory card in, are my ceilings high enough are my walls white enough and so many other fears building. But I have Hung out my own shingle.

I read your Blog post Joe and it starts to put some of the fear aside. I feel better inside and inspired to forge ahead as a Mid-Life “Young Photographer”. Here in Canada we have a store that sells a big red Button that when you push it says “That was Easy”, desks all over Canada now have easy buttons on them. I wish it was that easy, but your blogs, videos and books are like a big red McNally button. I read or watch and walk away feeling relief and inspired. Keep up the good work sir and be safe.


Robert Raszczynski says:

on November 20, 2009 at 7:13 am

That’s really moving letter. Thanks for sharing it.

Kimberly says:

on November 20, 2009 at 12:51 pm

Such valuable advice. Thanks for sharing.

Tim Camuso says:

on November 23, 2009 at 9:09 pm

Wow! I wish someone had said this to me 20 years ago.

KLBO says:

on November 25, 2009 at 4:51 am

Thanks for sharing that. I know exactly how this fella feels. I recently graduated from nursing school, but instead of studying for my boards, all I think about is playing with my camera. And even though I may take hundreds of photos with 1 of them being ok, its enough for me to play again tomorrow.

You statement of
“You are just beginning to write your pages, and the thing to remember about this early rough draft is that it hardly matters what you do exactly, as long as you continue to become something close to what you might imagine you want or need to become…” certainly moves me. Even though I know what I ought to do (be practical and take my boards), being practical doesnt seem as important as being true to my dreams.


Steve Marshall says:

on November 26, 2009 at 1:16 pm

A lovely letter – I saw a re-tweet and followed it through to your website. What a find!

The ‘follow your dreams’ urge doesn’t go away… I remember being 19 and wanting to follow a career in photography and somehow taking a detour – now 30 years later I’m finding my way back to the track. I have found a way to bring photography into my day job as a consultant/facilitator – a journey that has taken me about 10 years now – via a couple of Maser’s degrees and a PhD – but in 2010 I will be changing my company name and following the photographic route…

The practicalities of this have involved a whole ton of hard work – applying photography to organisational change, social initiatives, executive coaching etc etc. These days people even commission me ‘just to do a few shots’…

My life is changing and I would say to your young photographer, ‘Think business, think niche, network well and develop your art….’

Don’t expect it to come easy but it can be done… keep the faith!

Steve M

rick says:

on November 27, 2009 at 8:58 pm

What a great letter..as someone who lived the dream of working as a professional photography for over 20 years, before trading it in for a “safe” corporate job, I can only echo your sentiments. Do what you love, and you’ll find a way to make a living out of it.

I now sit, 10 years removed from my “dream job”, trying to claw my way back. I agree with Steve,..”think business and network”…A love for photography with no idea how to sell it, is a hobby. However, in the Internet age, there are more revenue streams available than ever before.

If I were to suggest 3 things to aspiring photographers, it would be to study business, marketing, and shoot, shoot, shoot.

Roy says:

on November 29, 2009 at 4:43 pm

Joe – Good advice that applies to life, including photography. I am at the opposite end of this thing we call the human life-span at 79 years of age. I have done so many things, worked so many jobs, been way up and way down, would probably be considered a failure in a business and monetary sense, and I wouldn’t change a thing. Now, in the shadow side of life, I am heart and soul into an on-again off-again hobby of photography and loving it. After 65 years of being a (sometimes successful) shutter snapper I am taking classes, learning a lot, even using digital to my great surprise, and will remain a dedicated amateur even though some work does sell.
To both you and your young friend, you are never too old, nor are you too young, to start on a path that seems to be what you desire and then change your mind. And if you so decide, you can (and may) change your mind many times before you find your dream. It is all adventure, it is all a journey, and it can be such fun. Good onya.

Susan the Rhino ;) says:

on December 1, 2009 at 10:21 am

“Being lost isn’t the worst thing in the world, either, especially at 19″

But still lost at your 37th… game over, I guess…

But Joe, I read your words again and think u wrote them also for me :)

Carol Lundeen says:

on December 1, 2009 at 11:01 pm

Joe, I’ve been wanting to see you speak for years, especially now, after reading your letter. Thanks for being yourself and letting us know you.

ostrov says:

on December 2, 2009 at 9:40 am

Thank you,
very interesting article

Alvin Yap says:

on December 9, 2009 at 12:28 pm

Dear Joe,
I follow your blog on and off; I do more wildlife photography and am still figuring out how to shoot wolves with softboxes and grids, but I digress. This topic is something that hits close to my heart as I have been through it.

I’ve met some people, though generally younger students who are unsure what to do in life. Two things I will tell them: know thyself, find out what you really like to do in life and try your best to work your way into it, and to a look at this http://www.sloperama.com/advice/lesson40.htm

Keep on shooting :) Love that 200/2VR :)


Cammie Landholm says:

on December 21, 2009 at 3:45 pm


This was passed on to me from a photographer friend of mine who keeps telling me to take the leap of faith and pursue my dream. If I had only myself to worry about I would, but since I’m married with other responsibilities, leaping isn’t a option right now, but I’m in the process of building the path so that when the time presents it’s self I’ll be ready.

I believe God is in charge and he hasn’t quite given me the full signal to jump, but I do believe he will.

The answer you gave your 19 yr old friend is the same answer I try to get my 22 yr old step-daughter understand. Go after your dreams while the responsibilities of your load are light.

Great post thank you.

Garrett Nudd says:

on December 23, 2009 at 9:01 am

Honest. Inspirational. Motivating. The best “essay” I’ve read in a while. Thank you Joe!

CY says:

on December 30, 2009 at 1:52 am

Thanks Joe! Your photos, writings, and thoughtful opinions are really helped and inspired!

Jen Pruett says:

on April 26, 2010 at 2:02 pm

This is amazing essay very inspiring Thank you for sharing Jen

Yuko Versoza says:

on June 4, 2010 at 9:44 am

I’m thankful for ur neat post! I will be subscribing

Komkrit says:

on June 8, 2010 at 2:33 pm

Good afternoon Joe,

I’m somehow wandering around today and stop by at your site and this blog. This is called, by me, a journey to unknown, however the life style which you, we’ve chosen, is the fullest way to live life, at least I believe it is. Totally, true, inspire, and real. Me too driving the same car you do, the one which still get me around. You are full of energy and vision. Those are most needed by whose trying to make the different. Thank you for sharing what you do to everyone. I appreciate your works and life style also looking up to see more to where you go…by the way I like the mini video of Bob and you. That was cool.

All the best.


osago says:

on January 16, 2011 at 10:28 am

I do not regret that spent a couple of minutes to read. Write often, yet surely’ll go read something new.

Covering Letter says:

on July 2, 2011 at 4:01 am

The fact that you put your camera to your eye instead of running on 9/11 indicates something restless and perhaps unusual in your makeup, and as someone familiar with being regarded as unusual, I can tell you it is definitely a two edged sword. The things you struggle with now you will struggle with your entire life.

Covering Letter says:

on July 2, 2011 at 4:03 am

I’ve been fortunate in that I have been able to act on and make a living out of some largely irresponsible urges. I have had a bit of a comic book of a life, I am still drawing the panels.

Michael Wallace says:

on December 18, 2011 at 2:11 am

Your blog has definitely inspired me to really completely change my way of writing. I want to let you know I appreciate your great work.

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