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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….”

Bob DeChiara says:

on November 10, 2009 at 8:38 am

A great impact post! Man i love this blog!


Garrick says:

on November 10, 2009 at 8:41 am

This is exactly why you’re one of my favorite photgraphers. Great post Joe.

Nate says:

on November 10, 2009 at 8:41 am

Good read, especially as a 17 year old runt hoping to go to university for photography. Very inspiring.

Me and my partner once took some headshots for a woman who was a lawyer, but was looking into freelance writing. She was in her late 20s, and in my opinion way too young to get really tied down to a job. Her and her husband told us, “don’t go into a field or take a job because your parents or someone else want you to do it, and don’t do it just for money either. Find something you love, then find a way to make money off it”
this article made me remember that

Nathan Ebel

Great job,

Catalin says:

on November 10, 2009 at 8:46 am

I’m passed the student years, but I think what you wrote applies to anybody at any stage in life. Great read!

johnwaire | photo says:

on November 10, 2009 at 8:49 am

thanks joe! just the goose i needed this morning…

Francesco B. says:

on November 10, 2009 at 8:52 am

Joe, I don’t want to ruin this beautiful post by commenting it with useless words, I’m going to print it and keep it with me instead.

thank you, thank you, thank you.

Robert Vanelli says:

on November 10, 2009 at 9:04 am

Great inspiration Joe! I sent this link to my karate students off at college, told them this is a MUST read.


Ed O'Keeffe says:

on November 10, 2009 at 9:07 am

Thanks for publishing this Joe, this is very inspirational to me!

Denny Medley/Random Photography says:

on November 10, 2009 at 9:15 am

Utterly awesome.

Joe says:

on November 10, 2009 at 9:23 am

Mongo one moment and this the next. Brilliant.

Filipe M. says:

on November 10, 2009 at 9:26 am

Most inspiring thing I’ve read in a while, and while I’m not as young as the guy you’re addressing in your letter, sometimes I find myself thinking along the same lines. What to do, where to go, the whole thing. Thanks for sharing.


Les Doerfler says:

on November 10, 2009 at 9:37 am

And that young man took Joe’s advice and grew up to become Syl Arena.

Mike Woodhouse says:

on November 10, 2009 at 9:58 am

Cracking post, Joe. I expect you probably know that whatever you could get here for a fiver (probably not much) back then, you’d get a lot less now!

I do wonder about the “follow your dream” advisors. It always seems a little like a copout to me. What about those of us who never really had much of a dream? ;-)

Cheng says:

on November 10, 2009 at 10:04 am

This post is very interesting to me since I’m also a science major and have interest in photography. Thanks for giving such a good advice in the post. The best thing is probably to find passion and act on it, be it science or photography.

Rich says:

on November 10, 2009 at 10:05 am

Exceptional post. The fishing trawler story was incredibly inspiring.

Matt Dunn says:

on November 10, 2009 at 10:05 am


Great post…and I think what I like best is that it’s not really about photography at all – the lessons drawn out in the exchange of letters are important “life” lessons regardless of whatever we choose to do in life.

And I always thought of the McNally Jalopy as being slightly more sporty than you are describing it…


Mark says:

on November 10, 2009 at 10:06 am

It’s always scary to try the “hang out your own shingle” thing. Nerves – and pixels – of steel are needed.

Any idea whatever happened with this young writer?

W says:

on November 10, 2009 at 10:10 am

As a 40 something with a sound job making 6 figures (not in photography), I still find that this applies to me. The question that I’m trying to answer might be a little different but the result I’m looking for is the same.

Thanks for adding a new dimension for me to consider Joe.

Rob Byron says:

on November 10, 2009 at 10:15 am

Well spoken and wonderful advice. By the way, the “dad” in you is showing.

Hans says:

on November 10, 2009 at 10:16 am

The biggest risk in life is not taking risks at all. If you take risks you take the blur path of unpredictability, but in my book also embrace uncertainty. It takes you closer to yourself and rewards will come.

Bob says:

on November 10, 2009 at 10:16 am

One of your best works. It should be shared with others, as I have done. Thanks.

jason harry says:

on November 10, 2009 at 10:18 am

well writen joe, re “sruggling and It is the essence of a creative soul”, …again (as always) spot on… may try and hook up with you in italy next year if you are still doing the VSP workshops… later dude.

Stacey says:

on November 10, 2009 at 10:20 am

Thanks so much, Joe! I’m 33 with an MBA and a cushy marketing gig, but I’m taking the plunge. I may still be at the job, but I’m making plans, paying debts and taking chances with my shingles so that I’m on my own in 2010. Photography brings ME back to my life. I’m in love with it. Great post!

stephen hunton says:

on November 10, 2009 at 10:20 am

thanks for this Joe. In a lot of ways, my mind probably sounds like the 19-year old student. I recently got laid off from my career in advertising. Major agency experience, major brands and heading in the direction of being a successful account guy. Over the years I’d been shooting and had plenty of ADs telling me that my eye was good enough to be doing this full-time. I’d been thinking and planning to try to go full-time in 2-years (you know, play it safe build a book, etc… especially since I’m married with 2 kids), but once I got laid off I just started trying to get jobs. It’s scary, it’s a grind, but when I’m producing my own creative product, I just get excited. I believe it can be a career and although there will be a ton of blood, sweat and tears all over my camera (especially this and next year)… it’s MY blood, sweat and tears and that makes the hustle worth it.

Thanks for your openness on this blog. It’s more valuable to us newbies than you could know.
Stephen Hunton

Michael Laverty says:

on November 10, 2009 at 10:21 am

That was just what I needed to read. I’m just starting off in the photography business world & I’m finding it really hard….reading this fills me with a little bit of hope :-)

Cody says:

on November 10, 2009 at 10:27 am

Great post Joe! As an full-time IT manager and a part-time engineering student I can also relate to this problem. I love photography and want to spend as much time as possible doing it. I have often thought of what it would be like to become a pro photographer, however, this would require me to hit the “reset” button on my life…. its a tough decision to set down you science or engineering degree for a passionate hobby.

After doing a seminar with Joe this weekend you can see he still loves photography and is very passionate about it. However, the big fear I have is would I still love photography as much as I do now if it was my livelihood.

Jay Mann says:

on November 10, 2009 at 10:29 am

Excellent post, as always. I certainly agree with the idea of travel and expanding horizons. For me living overseas, not in the garden shots, is like living inside the image, really experiencing it. This way it is possible to maintain a day job and still do the photo thing for fun. Photography is a means of passing a little of the experience on to others.


T Surratt says:

on November 10, 2009 at 10:31 am

Impressive speech Joe and your line of thought could help a lot of kids trying to make a decision about “what to be when I grow up”.
But you forgot to leave your phone number for me to call… :>)

Jason says:

on November 10, 2009 at 10:33 am

Amazing – with an amazing amount of regularity you take complex issues that we face in a cynical world and are able to quintessentially make things sound so simple – and after reading, I often find myself saying, “Well, duh, that makes sense.”

Then I realize beforehand, I was asking the same questions. There is something that burns in all of us, and while you say photography is what burns in you, your transition to teaching and instruction is evident that you have a gift for gab too. Another great post Joe, thanks so much!

Zntgrg says:

on November 10, 2009 at 10:34 am

Feelign the same way, but at 28…i call that “earlier midlife crisis” too :|

Jesse says:

on November 10, 2009 at 10:54 am

My wife wrote to her favorite author, Robert Pirsig, looking for advice. He wrote back, as you did, and it made a huge impression on her.

Joe, you’ve obviously made a big impact in the photo world with the path you chose. But by sharing your knowledge and advice, via workshops, the blog, and letters like this — I wonder if you are making an even greater impact on the photo community. And that is not to diminish the impact of your images alone.

Thanks for all you do. And thanks for taking time and consideration to share letters like this. This old dog still appreciates the inspiration and life lessons.

Lloyd Eldredge says:

on November 10, 2009 at 10:59 am

Great stuff. I needed to hear that too… even at my age.

So, is there a “rest of the story”?

Lyubov Strauss says:

on November 10, 2009 at 11:03 am

Your words is truth from your soul. It is excellent. I always believe that you are great photographer, gifted artist,great speaker and great teacher. Not every photographer could be a great teacher but you could. You have ability to receive it and give it, and you treat your talent as a gift which it is not your property and your pride but something was giving to you to serve others and create beautiful world around you. You have that passion and commitment to you journey which you were taking years ago, and you are never give up making mistakes, falling down, and getting up again to continue your journey. Young people in age 19 couldn’t see their future, and we could when we been on the road for 20-30 years. It is so clear for us that we are on right path, and we ready to any obstacles because we have been through so many already that we don’t feel pain anymore. Photography is the gift which will choose you, and later on you could be using your gift because you devote your life to it. Not everybody could be the artist, or photographer. It is not easy journey which everybody could take it. Joe had great teachers, and great masters to teach him photography, and I blessed to meet great photographers, and had great teachers. Young photographer should listen to the call. If it is your journey, and your destiny, nothing in the world will stop you doing photography, and each time you will have support and help, and knowledge to follow your journey. You have to be hard worker, study everyday, increase your knowledge and wisdom, because when the question will come you will have the answer. It is fun, challenge, mystery, and knowledge. It is not easy road, but you want to have interesting life with different things every day, and challenge every day, take this road and enjoy the journey.
Joe, we need your teaching in St.Louis, Missouri. We are waiting for you to come with Scott Kelby next year for Photoshop World. We have thousand of young and professional photographers who needs your wisdom and advice. Please let us know when you are coming to St.Louis, Missouri.

martin says:

on November 10, 2009 at 11:05 am

great reply…poetic.

Bill Bogle, Jr. says:

on November 10, 2009 at 11:13 am

Joe, wonderful post. With a daughter in College majoring in PJ (she is a junior at RIT) it is a sobering but essential post. She has been wondering the questions you ponder, including the really fundamental issues (as a HS senior at 17, she asked how individuals get health care coverage if they are on their own. At her age I was trying to figure out how to get into college).

It must be a generational thing as well. My Dad insisted the same thing, but I did not follow it, much to my chagrin. My belief is that debt from student loans stifles creativity, as we are required to pay those loans off as soon as we graduate, and it mandates a steady income. We are getting far away from that lifetime employer, and it seems that the whole business model is changing at warp speed.

I do believe that any business courses photo or art students can take are essential. Most businesses fail not from lack of excitement or new products, but lack of a business plan or practice. Banks don’t like ideas, they like to lend on plans and income. I think a disciplined approach to all of it is essential.

Bill Bogle, Jr.

Emmanuel Carvalho says:

on November 10, 2009 at 11:17 am

Great post. Inspirational!

Al says:

on November 10, 2009 at 11:22 am

Joe, thank you for posting this. At 53 I am still deciding what I want to do when I grow up. Your response was brilliant. You are as good a writer as you are a photographer….art with the camera and art with words. You “da man” !!

William Chinn says:

on November 10, 2009 at 11:35 am

Never expect a yes/no answer from Joe McNally. What you get is the proper answer for you based off of years of life experience. Whether you ask what do I want to be when I grow up or how do I light the scene in a Los Angeles photo seminar, be prepared to think out an answer or two or three. It may be right or wrong, but it is your answer. Great blog, great seminar.

Alex says:

on November 10, 2009 at 11:48 am

Thank you Joe. Thank you for being open-hearted. Thank you for your time and your passion.

This post did impact me. I will save this post in order to go back and read again, again and again.

Thank you.

24-year, master student in Mgmt, photography loving, lost in the world, lost in “what I wanna do”-thoughts… yearning for photography and “contribute to a better world”… / Alex

Graham says:

on November 10, 2009 at 12:11 pm

Joe, that was such a thoughtful letter. You truly are an inspiration.


pedrojoper says:

on November 10, 2009 at 12:18 pm

Wise words! Kinda, sorta in the same situation (or was, a while back, I made the switch from Civil Engineering to Audiovisual Communication). Also 24 y.o. and was a bit lost until a few months ago, now I’ll just try and live doing what I love and hope to get payed for it :) I’m getting a degree anyway, and it includes video, stills, editing, 3d animations and so on, so I’m reasonably confident I’ll get payed…

Richard says:

on November 10, 2009 at 12:22 pm

As always yet another pearl from someone who has been further down the rabbit hole, than most of us dare dream of going.

I am punished with two passions – flying (my career) and photography (my hobby-that-sometimes-makes-me-some-cash).

While I don’t regret choosing the former over the latter, I do see it day in and day out.

Sit in an airport and watch the people pass you by… there are a lot of people who have 2 lives… the one they live, and the one they wish they did.

Maybe a good photoessay…

Bart says:

on November 10, 2009 at 1:18 pm

As I enter into retirement, I’m faced with the same questions. I appreciate your response as it reminds me of grabbing hold of my passion and running with it. I feel like you tossed a Hail Mary and I caught it. Thanks Joe!

karthik says:

on November 10, 2009 at 1:44 pm

wow, this is a great post. Thanks for this…

I am at 20 now. I feel the same as the student who mailed you. I feel like you have personally advised me, after reading this.


chanelle richardson says:

on November 10, 2009 at 1:50 pm

i feel as though this was written for me. just when i needed to hear it most.

motivating. inspiring.
beautiful words.

thank you.

Joshua says:

on November 10, 2009 at 1:55 pm

Awesome post. Could have been shorter. he he. Just kidding.

Certainly makes me sit up and think whether I want to be doing what I’m doing, 10 years from now. Answer is NO :-)

Hottshots says:

on November 10, 2009 at 2:03 pm

Joe, I can’t decide if you’re a better writer or photographer.
You make your words count in the way you make a single SB-900 light a remarkable image.
Thanks Joe for every photo you shoot and every word you write.

Francis says:

on November 10, 2009 at 2:17 pm

Wow! Exactly what I needed when I needed. Love the letter and the answer.
Thank you Joe!

Frank says:

on November 10, 2009 at 2:31 pm

It’s already said many times but can’t be said enough.

Thank you for doing this and thank you for being You.

Frank Wise says:

on November 10, 2009 at 2:45 pm


Thank you for continuing to inspire us all, and letting us know they we aren’t crazy, that others have the same infliction we have, this “Photography bug”

You are extremely talented, very witty, and exceptionally humble. Was proud to be a member of the audience at your LA seminar, and, sorry to say this, next time your here, I’ll be back ;-)


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