On a cold and rainy day in Tucson I had the opportunity to present to a special annual high school workshop for aspiring photographers. Myself and several other photographers spent the entire day teaching hundreds of students everything they could or would need to know about photography and growing a career in the photo industry.
Each photographer had his or her own unique business and lecture and students got to select two half-day sessions to attend throughout the day. For example, there was a fashion photographer, a commercial photographer, a photo journalist, a food and beverage photographer and myself which was teaching how to light and photograph the athletic form.
This was probably my 6th or so year doing this conference and in that time I’ve witnessed a growing and (honestly) unnerving trend. It seems like each year, on a whole, the students attending feel a bit more detached, a bit more apathetic, a bit more uninterested in absorbing the information being presented.
Granted, I do not expect every 16-to-18 year old to know without any trepidations what they want to do with their lives and careers. When I was that age, I was clueless on that I would be doing with my future. The difference, however, was I was voracious about finding things out.
I think that came from absolutely hating what I was doing at the time. To make money while I was a teen I worked at a grocery store for a handful of years. I hated everything about it. I hated the rude customers. I hated the snarky bosses. I hated the awkward rules and regulations like when I got in trouble for being too slow on the cash register and later got in trouble for being too fast on the cash register. I hated my job so much that I just knew I had to work hard at something else to get out of there and move on with my life.
Around this same time I was studying journalism and was one of the editors of my school paper; which I loved and would spend all the spare time I could learning more and more about that craft. I would even do unpaid internships and work on unpaid projects with weekly and daily newspapers to entrench myself further in that industry. Yes, I said “unpaid.” The real world experience was everything I needed.
And although I’m not a working journalist today (with the exception of contributing a few articles here and there to publications), it was working in the media which led me to photo journalism which led me to photo editor positions which led me to a career in photography.
Back to that cold and rainy day in Tucson. I, and the rest of the professional photographers in attendance, are spending an eight hour day without pay to pass whatever knowledge we can onto these high school students who signed up to be at this event on their own decision.
In each of my two sessions that day I had a handful of students who took full advantage. They were engaged, they asked questions and when it came time for them to take images with my guiding them; it was apparent that they were invested and trying.
Unfortunately that was a small percentage of all of those who attended.
One teacher, who I’ve known for about a decade, came up to me to tell me to look out for his award-winning student that he was proud of and was excited she was taking my class.
It was not hard to find her. During my entire presentation she sat slouched in her chair (which she brought over because she couldn’t be troubled to stand like the rest of the class) with her face down or in a whispered conversation with her boyfriend. At one point, in the middle of my presentation, she actually got up and walked away with her boyfriend to take photos of him. Apparently my lecture was that boring and too much of a time drain for her to pay attention any longer.
Later when I asked her to take some images using what I was teaching; she declined.
At this point I believe it is important to note that my ego is not fragile enough that I need it to be valued and reinforced by high school students. That is not the point.
The real point is that she was the award-winning student I was told to look out for. Why was I told to look out for her? Because my company hires. We hire interns, we hire assistants, we hire aspiring professionals. Part of being hired and being paid to work as part of our team, they have the opportunity to learn how to grow their own business or careers.
I don’t think this ever crossed this student’s mind. But why on earth would I ever consider hiring or investing into a lazy, apathetic and truthfully rude aspiring photographer, despite how talented he or she may be?
Perhaps that is the most important lesson these students need to learn, that talent alone will not be enough to grow a career. That requires professionalism, hard work and (most importantly) relationships.
The end of the day-long seminar involved a panel where all the photographers got to sit up in front of all the students who attended that day to answer any questions they may have.
Yet the questions that were asked included:
“What are your biggest pet peeves?”
“Is ISO pronounced I-S-O or eye-so?”
What another blown opportunity. I sat there frustrated on the verge of shouting out “you’re all asking the wrong questions!”
You have an entire panel of professionals here who can give you several lifetimes worth of knowledge and the best question you can come up with is to ask what our biggest annoyances are?
You need to be asking about how we got our starts, how we learned to market ourselves, how we got our first big client, the mistakes we have made and the lessons we learned from it, what we did after high school to get to where we are now, how we leverage social media channels to grow our businesses, how we continue to learn and refine our own abilities… the list keeps going on.
Perhaps, going back to remembering when I was that age, these students are not uncomfortable enough. I hated my job at the grocery store so much that I knew I had to find a way out doing something I loved to do.
Maybe then they could start asking the right questions.