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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….”

Andrei says:

on November 10, 2009 at 2:56 pm

If what Joe says here is true and he is honest (and I believe he might be) than it’s really hard to be in photography AND to photograph what you love AND make money with it. If not even McNally Photography doesn’t fire all cylinders then what can the rest of us mortals say… ? The thing is if you love what you do and are content with what you have (Heb 13:5) then you should love your life and keep going.

Danté Bell says:

on November 10, 2009 at 3:02 pm

Joe, what a timely post for me to read. I’m in the midst of major upheaval in my life and am preparing for major changes. I’ve been in IT for 25 years and hung out my own shingle for a major portion of what is loosely termed, my career. On Victoria Weekend in 2007 I was babysitting some servers in Halifax and my IT work well ran dry overnight. There as absolutely nothing. So I majorly dumbed down my resume and got a really junior job to tied me over.

Well, it hasn’t exactly done that, with me making over $35K less than I made in 1991. In fact, I’ve lost both of my houses to foreclosure and regret working my arse off to make payments for 15 years to lose it anyway.

In college, I was lucky to take some courses outside my majors and one of those was Photography. The instructor said I really had some aptitude and should pursue it further. Oh, by the way, she was a total babe, but that’s another story. It helped that my dad was an avid photographer, an engineer back when they were valued, and color blind, and my mom is a painter/sculptor.

Everywhere I went I took my A-1 with me, much to the annoyance of everyone. That is until one day at the marina, my camera fell out of the back of the car, smack down on the Tokina zoom lens! Nothing broke, but everything jammed, I couldn’t get the lens off and it was blurred in the middle. So, I quit taking it around and starting thinking about digital, but to get something comparable to my A-1 outfit was way over my price range. Finally got a XTi with some decent lenses and started back up again. But, my creativity was at an impasse. I hated the on-camera flash, but thought you need $20,000 of lighting to get things off the camera. That is until I discovered The Strobist and that’s how I started reading your blog.

The combination has worked to get me going again. I only regret that I didn’t get out of IT years ago and stayed with photography. Funny thing is, I really didn’t want to end up a poor, house-less photog, but am there anyway. So, I’m planning on re-entering the photo world, thanks to you guys and others. I’m even selling my 9′ Brunswick Anniversary pool table to get my start-up funds for some off camera flashes! You know I’m serious about this because I love that table :)

Thanks for the inspiration to pursue something new.

Dave says:

on November 10, 2009 at 3:37 pm

Dear Joe,

The eloquence of your words does not take a back seat to the eloquence of your camera. They are one and the same.

As someone who is currently writing the middle chapters of his dog-eared, meandering book of life, I am envious of the young minds who are fortunate enough to be touched so early by your wisdom and giving heart. (To all of you: embrace these words and ideas. They are a gift.) After all these years, I still find myself at the same crossroad, wondering what direction to point my sails. Is it too late? Has my window of opportunity closed? I hope to answer these questions in my remaining chapters. I do know that it is with regret that I never encountered similar words of wisdom during my formative years. Who knows which path I would have chosen?

I could have been a contender…

Steve says:

on November 10, 2009 at 4:09 pm

Your letter was one of the kindest and wisest bits of advice I have read. I’m sure it was much appreciated by the young photog.

caroline says:

on November 10, 2009 at 4:09 pm

Someone mentioned student loans stifling creativity… I remember leaving Chatham and thinking “Wait, you gave me a film degree and expect me to be able to pay you $30,000?!”

I remember talking to my dad, my junior year of college. I was going for Elementary Education, but wanted to do the art school thing instead. He hedged, thought maybe I should dual major, or do art on the side, or something so I’d still be able to make a living.

Maybe an hour or so later, he comes back in the room. Said forget it, I’m wrong. Do what makes you happy, you’ll figure out the rest.

So that’s what I’ve been doing. And I have a good feeling that’s what this kid will be doing, too, thanks to you.

Bill Rogers says:

on November 10, 2009 at 4:14 pm

I gotta say, what a bunch of bullshit! Well-crafted bullshit, but nonetheless … bullshit. Given the current state of turmoil in the industry, the only logical career advice about photography has to be run away! run away! run away! That rabbit’s got a vicious streak a mile wide! It’s a killer! He’s got huge, sharp …

Sorry, Joe. Editorial balance.

LindaB says:

on November 10, 2009 at 5:35 pm

Great post and words of wisdom, Joe.

Photography only found its way into my life a little over 2 years ago and I’m pushing 60. If only I were 19 again, suffering the angst of what could be and had such inspirational… Ah, BUT wishing things had been different is a waste of my time and we never know how much of that we have! Here and now I am having a blast with this new journey of discovery and creativity. That doesn’t lessen my appreciation for the thoughts you shared with this young man, even if they don’t apply to me the same way now as they might have 40 years ago. I’m equally moved by the generosity of your reply; taking time out of your busy life to respond in a meaningful way to a near stranger. This world needs more of that and it makes me feel hopeful. So thanks for that!

Bill Rogers, it’s all about perception and you’re reply may have been tongue-in-cheek, but I took more from Joe’s post than an offering of career advice. That we can be masters of our own destiny and, by increasing our exposure to new and differing experiences and influences, we exponentially increase our chances to discover our own life’s epiphany. I think few achieve that and I envy them.

I hear Paul Harvey’s voice saying “…and now, the rest of the story”. I’d love to know what paths this young man followed and where they have led him today.

J. Kiely Jr. says:

on November 10, 2009 at 6:07 pm

Joe – as usual, great stuff.
I’d only want to tell this student that it’s not about what you do, it’s all about who you are, and if what you do as work defines who you are, then you are not thinking big enough.
Of late, the way I see it finding fulfillment in life is a constant balance between self and other. I’d wager to bet many photographers / artists battle these challenges well beyond the “mortal coil” as it were.

I find great value in your words and images. Thanks for sharing.


Riley Caton says:

on November 10, 2009 at 6:15 pm

Joe – It is a struggle. I think it is supposed to be that way. If it weren’t, what would be the point? – Thank you!

Buddy Lee says:

on November 10, 2009 at 6:26 pm

Joe you have done it again. You hit the nail on the head! I am sure when I was a young pup someone shared this kind of advice and things to think about for my future of choice but then maybe I was not in a space to hear them. It was probably in my forties that this kind of advice really kicked in. And then I think there is a natural progression of trying to figure out who I am and who I want to become. Today is my 67th birthday and I am still trying to figure out who I want to become. While it is true that I do not make my living from photography, photography is soul food for me. The qualitative side of life if you will. I have often wondered if I put the same amount of energy and desire into photography fifty years ago that I put into my present profession where would I be. I think it all comes down to a passion and the desire to keep an open mind about what the possibilities are. None of us know where the road might take us but by golly we are going down that road, so attack the journey with vigor! Squeeze the most out of it and feed that passion. It seems the older I get the more passion I have which I am pretty sure keeps one alive and vigorous. It just amazes me how fast this life speeds on by. Joe I always appreciate your thoughts and feelings. This is one of your absolute best. And with all due respect to the previous responder. If that’s what you believe then you are right. As someone said “do not tell me that it can’t be done until I have done it”. Keep up the good works.

John says:

on November 10, 2009 at 6:50 pm

Thank You. Just…… Thank You.

Another aimless, wandering, freaked out but hopelessly in love with the world photographer.

John Hanacek says:

on November 10, 2009 at 7:14 pm

You just blew my mind. To hear you say you weren’t involved in photography at 19 really made me pause and examine myself. I’m 19 and constantly worry that my work is not nearly good enough compared to my peers… but it turns out that I could have a future yet.

You may not read this comment, but that’s fine. I just wanted to let you know that this blog post has shaken me to my core and set my photographic soul free. Thank you Mr. McNally.

Dana says:

on November 10, 2009 at 7:57 pm

Joe, thanks for your insight and heart-felt answer to the young man. At 63, I’m still wishing I had become a photographer instead of a graphic designer. Shoulda, woulda, coulda. But, as a 5-foot 3″ woman, I’ll never become a basketball star, and as an aging graphic designer, I’ll never become a professional photographer. But, I am becoming a damn good amateur, and feeling the joy, the challenge, the thrill of the hunt, and the satisfaction of a few good frames. Your advice was spot on, we never really stop looking — why should we? Those that wander are not always lost.

edd carlile says:

on November 10, 2009 at 8:49 pm

Stirring words indeed.
(Joe Rocks!)

Andrew C says:

on November 10, 2009 at 9:02 pm

Thanks Joe. You give me courage… I only began taking any photo images at 27, every one else I’ve met had been doing it since they were kids. I wonder what the hell I was thinking some times. BUT, I’d rather take pictures, even of nuts and bolts, for money than almost any other job I’ve ever had. When I think of giving up photography I remind myself of this. Thanks Joe

Blake says:

on November 10, 2009 at 9:05 pm


That was a great letter that I’m sure meant a lot to that young adult. You are a true role model.

Aswirly says:

on November 10, 2009 at 9:17 pm

What a wise and thoughtful reply. I’m sure he was touched to recieve it, just as we are touched to read it here.

Peter says:

on November 10, 2009 at 9:24 pm

Hi – thought I would put my 2 cents in too! Joe’s words are sound, but after reading the above comments can also add a couple of ideas/points. I think it is absolutely necessary to maintain an open mind and grab the opportunities that present themselves – and not be afraid of a detour along the way. My path has taken me fro roof thatcher/photog to senior vice president of a major corporation to dive instructor (last change was made at the age of 52). All this has taught me that ballast is important (trying a lot of different things) and that luck is something you make. My camera was on the shelf for far too many years and with my new life has come out again. So do as Joe suggested – travel, try stuff, sweep streets, serve breakfast – it will all help establish a sense of direction and give you some ballast to execute your vision with.

Daniel says:

on November 10, 2009 at 9:34 pm

Great words. You could have been a writer! Wait, you are a writer! HaHa.
Really, though I thought that words can only be equal to the time you took to write them. That’s what the world needs today…Mentors. Its so valuable yet so underappreciated and sought after.

Anyone care to mentor me?

Louis Pang says:

on November 10, 2009 at 9:54 pm

Joe: You have the rare double gifts writing and photographing so well…your biggest draw is always your down-to-earth honesty which is even rarer. We live in a time where photographers are propelled into larger-than-life rock stars. Yet you described your business as “not firing all cylinders”. I find this kind of gut level honesty very refreshing. That’s a big reason I want you to speak in my country. We could use your inspiration in photography, life and the Joe McNally honesty and down-to-earth approach.

Simon says:

on November 10, 2009 at 11:23 pm

Every time I read your blog I come away with something valuable – and not always related to photography. You are a truly great & inspirational human being whom I hope to be fortunate enough to meet one day in person.

Thanks Joe

Jack Thompson says:

on November 10, 2009 at 11:24 pm

Hey Joe, I just turned thirteen and spent my birthday in my birhplace NYC, NY on the weekend. I love photography, and I only discovered it last year when I borowed my dads Nikormat and shot some black and white around my house, This post is just plain inspiring, on so many levels, my ambition is to study journalism at NYU, I really got the inspiration to do that when I bought your book The Momment It Clicks, since I bought that, I have built a base of freinds from photographing them skiing, Its my biggest pleasure to go out and just shoot, and my favourite satifaction when I say “I got the shot” and look at my LCD.

Thanks for the inpiration, I get it everytime I read your blog!
Jack Thompson

Bill M says:

on November 10, 2009 at 11:24 pm

Thanks. Really.

This isn’t just a letter to a youngster. It’s a letter to anybody struggling to find their way.

Barbara Molyneaux says:

on November 10, 2009 at 11:48 pm

Reading your post sent me to search for a newspaper photo I remember. I found it. You are standing in front of your exhibit, “Song of the North Sea” which was on view in the Newhouse Lobby. It was a big deal then. That irresistible force has been pulling you for a long time… and then it seems like yesterday.

Ashley says:

on November 11, 2009 at 12:06 am


My dad was from Lowestoft.

Gotta love Joe!

Randy Frost says:

on November 11, 2009 at 12:28 am

I hope you don’t plan on putting the jalopy in park anytime soon to pursue that crazy writing idea you had years back.

It is nice to see that the guys you look up to or aspire to be like, still ponder the direction they are going.

Thank you Joe for keeping it true and real. Keep doing what you do and letting people know its not all about great gigs with beautiful people and celebrities, but a real job of getting dirty and a constant worry of falling on your face. Like you said, “One aw shit, wipes out three thataboys!”

Kevin Nha says:

on November 11, 2009 at 4:32 am

I’m 27 right now. I graduated with a Film Degree. I always wanted to do photography since I was 13. My first camera was Canon Pellix. I still have it. But the reason why I went to film school is because I thought photographers don’t make enough money. Now I regret so much. It’s not about the money. It is about what I love to do the most. I should’ve majored what I love the most. I love every bit of photography. Now I’m in junior college trying to learn photography. But still I have doubt in my mind about how I am going to survive in this world with a camera. Am I talented? I don’t know.. Only thing I know is photography is everything to me. I’m ready to be poor. We’ll see how it goes in about 10-20 years.

Brandon says:

on November 11, 2009 at 6:15 am

I was inspired when I first heard you talk, inspired when I read your books, and inspired again by this post, which is my favorite yet.

5 years after graduating college in an unrelated major, during which time I unsure of the direction I would take in life, I am back in school studying photography. For the first time I have a picture of what I want to do with my life, even if it is still not in clear focus. Looking ahead to a career that guarantees harder work, more competition, and less pay than ever, it can be hard to put into words the justification that compels one to take such a leap.

Reading words like these is a blessing for me and I’m sure many others that have made the difficult choice to pursue one’s interests over taking the safer, more practical route that is often ingrained in our psyche as the ONLY choice.

Thank you sincerely for the post, I will pass it along to my peers.

Stefan says:

on November 11, 2009 at 7:29 am

Thanks, Joe

Reading this makes me more confident that what I’m about to do is The Right Thing.

After being a programmer for ten years, a job I took because there were only worse alternatives, I finally admitted to myself recently that it isn’t something I want to do for the rest of my life. At all.

So early October I decided to sign up for photography education, and it’s starting this December. It’ll take four years, but after that I hope I’ll be doing what I love most. Nah, “hope” isn’t the right word. I know I’ll be doing what I love most.

Thanks again

Christine says:

on November 11, 2009 at 7:55 am

I wish I could have read this thirty years ago…

Markus Linke says:

on November 11, 2009 at 10:24 am

@Caroline: Great Dad!

Chris Kallevag says:

on November 11, 2009 at 10:52 am

Wise words from Joe, thank you! I’m 45 years young with university degree in a different field. I was okay (barely) but bored with what I was doing, didn’t have the passion. After have had photography as a hobby for the last 25 years I decided to do it professionally. Now I’m taking a prof. photography course and have registered a bushiness.
I have been self employed for the last 10 years and studied quite a bit of marketing and sales on my own. For all of us who have found our passion but are insecure/scared/worried and asking our self “How the heck do I make a living as a photographer?” I can tell what I learned and started to implement.
It’s not primary how skilled you are, it’s (unfortunately) how you marketing and sell your self which makes the difference if you going to eat Cheetos or steak for supper.
I plan to be flexible, have a goal what you like to shoot but don’t be too rigid. If you just want to shoot celebrities in their 50+ million homes you will eat more Cheetos…
Do some “freebies”, I read at Strobist.com (David Hobby’s) site about approach people you want to shoot and offer it for free. It’s a great way to build your portfolio with the type of photography you love to do. I will certainly follow that advice.
I got some help and still get it from down to earth, no B.S. marketing and sales which applies to any business. Please email me (kallevag@eastlink.ca)if you like to have some suggestions what to read/study. The photographer is just one of the hats you have to wear if you like to run your own business.
Just a few words from a newbie photographer who finally found his path in life. And on a regular basis get inspired by great photographers like Joe McNally. Thanks again!

David Kendrick says:

on November 11, 2009 at 10:54 am

Your words to that young man had some great wisdom in them, and struck an old, faintly remembered key in me.

19 is an age where the whole world is open to you, and you only have a glimmer of what you would like to do for a job for the rest of your life!

It’s pretty daunting and overwhelming when you think about it at that age. I remember those same thoughts occurred to me 40 years ago, after I was booted out of my parent’s house, after graduating from high school! I chose college, switched majors a couple of times, got out with a degree in “Construction Engineering”, went to work with my dad in his excavating and grading business (really big dirt toys), finally took over the business, and retired last weekend after working there for 39 years, full time for 35 years.

Photography is my passion though, and I am trying to find a way to pursue that in some capacity, that will yield a little extra retirement money. I love taking pictures of my fly fishing trips, the Eastern Sierras, my granddaughters, etc.

Your advice to that young man, to explore different options is also relevant to me as well, a newly retired 59 year old.

By the way, your Blog site is the best in the business and is always informational and highly entertaining. Your irreverent and self deprecating humor and writing style is great, and I find myself laughing a lot at the way you phrase things!

Best of all, you take spectacular photos, and you are a source of great inspiration and information to me.


Chris says:

on November 11, 2009 at 1:04 pm

32 and still lost. :)

Thanks for the post Joe, great advice for all of us, not just the youngin’.

Joe halliday says:

on November 11, 2009 at 1:04 pm

Great blog post, even better words of inspiration…

Ronni M. says:

on November 11, 2009 at 3:08 pm

Thank you so much for posting this. As a late starter, it is really easy to feel overwhelmed by all that is going on now while trying to catch up. So this kind of encouragement is invaluable to me and countless others I’m sure.
Thanks again for all you do.

John A. says:

on November 11, 2009 at 8:26 pm

Hmmm… while I am not a 19 year old kid anymore, your response was definitely resonating. I imagine those were some of the most memorable words that young student has heard(read) and I bet he still remembers it well.

This was my favorite bit “I am still on safari here, the great picture hunt,…”

I’m going to keep that one. =)

Daniel Solorio says:

on November 11, 2009 at 9:23 pm

Thank you, thank you very much for this post. I’m not young( well I’am) I’m certainly young as a photographer. A combination of all you guys (chase, strobist, annie Lev, kelby, syl, zack arias, and many others) i feel recharged, and push to go and push myself do things, and pursue what i always have really loved.

Thank you very much for the insight.


Fadi Kelada says:

on November 12, 2009 at 6:58 am

Thank you very much Joe for your letter and your thoughts.

Alex Pletcher says:

on November 12, 2009 at 3:53 pm

Thanks Joe! I’m almost 18 and I have a passion for photography, but am definitely having trouble figuring out what the best path for me would be. I’m planning on going to an art school next year and this post has definitely been an encouragement to follow in the path of what I hope and imagine myself to be someday.

Jake says:

on November 12, 2009 at 11:07 pm

Fantastic Stuff. Truly wonderful. Thanks.

GT says:

on November 13, 2009 at 12:46 am

As many mention, great post and thanks for sharing. I wish that I had someone who could have told me that when I was younger. Especially from someone that you admirer his work and to have a reply from him. PRICELESS advice!! Joe, you are an impressive individual all around and I sure hope to take a class from/workshop from you in the near future.

Short story, yeah, I’m like Joe in one aspect! In high school our art teacher made us do the Walt Disney drawing test. A few weeks after, I received a personal letter from Walt Disney Studio asking me to come down for further testing as an inspiring animator. I was the only one out of the entire school who got that letter, so I was happy because I really like drawing animation. So, here is my mentors advice when I showed them the letter, my parents: “How could you work in the US if you are from Canada!” my career counselor: “Ok, stop dreaming an come back to the real life. Nobody makes a living by drawing animation cartoon unless you want to have a house under the bridge…” Still, today, after 24 years, I remember those words! So, man, I wish that internet would have been invented back then and that I could have email Walt Disney or John L. or better yet, the man of the hour Joe McNally :)

Another advice for you aspiring photographer, take the advice and run with it, really run with it and in 20 some years, you will be writing a completely different story then mine!

Raymond Chou says:

on November 13, 2009 at 6:36 am

Your letter made perfect sense to me, and great quote from Einstein in the end.

Jack Flemmings says:

on November 13, 2009 at 2:13 pm

Joe, thanks for the sharing this letter. It’s good advice. I’ve just turned 60 and been seriously back into photography the past 4 years when I picked up a Nikon D70s and literally felt the passion return. Don’t know where it was for two decades but I’ll never let it go again. And digital rocks! Yeah, I make a living in another field, but thank God I’ve made an impact with photography. There is something about connecting emotionally with others through this media that keeps me at it. Saw you in Los Angeles on November 6; I was the guy that said you were also a good business man. Keep that old jalopy running at all cost, it’s really your soul. God bless, -jack

Jim Powell says:

on November 13, 2009 at 3:45 pm

Fantastic blog. Thanks for sharing this. I imagine it’s been helpful to more than you imagine.

anita says:

on November 13, 2009 at 9:50 pm

This letter is a parent’s worst nightmare. You do know what it takes to get a kid in ivy league schools these days, – four years of careful planning, marketing experts, etc., etc. But, of course, you are right.

We need more top-flight schools that provide engineering and art education so students aren’t forced to choose.

Jonathan Markworth says:

on November 13, 2009 at 11:22 pm

I have another Einstein quote: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler”.

Joe, please accept my gratitude for sharing this personal story. I read it with both joy and sorrow. Joy, as I see another soul like mine who has received a perspective that is admirable and practical. Sorrow, as I was that soul who didn’t have someone like you to offer.

Money pays the bills. To a point, we chose the amount of bills. Photography is about emotion, not money, and if the right emotion, the right philosophy, the right shot to the heart, the right punch to the gut – photography pays the bills and more. But photography is still the capture of the reflection of light off of a subject. Often we cannot control the subject, which controls the light, which by itself is often uncontrollable.

We have not met. I hope we do. But without restriction, you inspire. Please recognize that there are those of use who are not often vocal that are in your debt.


Steve Perks says:

on November 14, 2009 at 8:26 am

I am not a pro and have no real urge to be one.
I have a day job I love, and I love photography.
I have more than decent equipment and am comfortable financially.

I consider myself very, very lucky to be able to shoot what I love, when I want.

I don’t have to do corporate and headshots to put food on the table and if the creativity dries up, I can stop whenever I want until my creative batteries are recharged.

Sure, timing can be an issue, fitting into client schedules, and credentials can be another problem (I’m just venturing into live concert photography)but there are no shortage of opportunities to work in areas of photography that excite me.

I can be a landscape photographer one year, dump it completely and be a people photographer the next (I’ve actually just done this!)Next year, I might be a sports shooter…the ball is in my court (excuse the pun)

I guess what I am saying is don’t go pro to get away from a crappy day job, you could end up just as stifled and unmotivated.

Emulate the styles of the greats like Joe and others who freely and generously share their vast knowledge and experience, develop your own style and enjoy what you do.
If doing this for a living rocks your boat and you have the photographic and business skills to make it happen, go for it!

flounderman says:

on November 15, 2009 at 10:33 am

Serenity Prayer time.

Susan says:

on November 15, 2009 at 4:30 pm

A couple of months ago I turned 50 years old and I had somehow never been to NYC, so I decided what better place to celebrate? So there I was, walking through the city streets, camera in hand, and thinking I’m turning 50 and turning a corner as well…and I plan to keep moving, discovering, reaching, dreaming…life is too short not to.
Great, inspirational post that speaks to all of us….young, old, and those in-between.

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