Looking Back At My Photography Career [Guest Post]

At the moment, I’m not filled with boundless new ambitions regarding my photography career.” – Serge Van Cauwenbergh

One of the topics in a recent episode of On Taking Pictures centered around recognizing when it might be time to take your creative dreams from the limelight to the wings. Living a creative life, or more to the point making a living solely by “being creative,” is enormously challenging – both the creativity part itself as well as the business savvy required to know how to get all of that creative stuff out into the world and in front of not only an audience but the right audience.  Our discussion struck a chord with one particular listener – a photographer in Belgium called Serge Van Cauwenbergh who himself has struggled with monetizing the muse. In an article on his blog, Serge discusses when he “…threw in the towel and put [his] photography business temporarily on hold.” Though he wanted to think of the move as merely a pause to regroup, he writes “somehow I already knew it would be permanent.” The post clicked with me and some of my own struggles balancing art and commerce and I asked if I could share his article here. Serge makes a very compelling case that I am sure will resonate on a multitude of levels with those who are able to hear it.

His article appears in full below.

Looking Back At My Photography Career

by Serge Van Cauwenbergh

Two months ago, a fellow photographer asked me how my photography business was going and where I was standing photographywise. Although I do reflect on (and worry too much about) my life and photography almost on a daily basis, it was a somewhat unexpected question, but at the same time an essential one as well.

That question got stuck in my head, and then recently, when I was applying for a new international passport, it reappeared. What’s the connection you may ask? Well, I have new photos taken with every new application. I compared several older passport photos with the new one. At that moment I started to reflect on my life and looked back at some major turning points. Did I got any wiser over the years? Am I satisfied with the course of my life and my photography career? Can I already look back on a life well spent? What were the results and consequences of my decision-making? And so on.

At the end of 2012, after trying to pursue a career as a professional photographer for almost six years, I decided to put that business temporarily on hold. As I had, and still have, a regular part-time day job, I didn’t have to worry too much about paying the monthly bills.

I’m not going to bother you with all the details, that would fall beyond the scope of this article, but in short, from the beginning, I struggled to find my voice in the photography industry. I also encountered difficulties regarding branding, marketing, and networking. During this period, it was slowly dawning on me that I didn’t have a nose for business. I never figured out how to successfully sell my work. Besides, I have never been a good sales person. Entrepreneurship is definitely not my passion, but it’s undeniably part of the daily business of any photographer.

The other day I found a quote I had written down in one of my Moleskine journals. It’s a pity I didn’t mention where that quote came from. It goes like this: “If you are not a businessman, you won’t survive as a photographer. Your photographic skill is irrelevant if you can’t market and sell yourself.” I tend to agree: being a good businessman (and getting to know the right people) is more important than the quality of your work. Perhaps a bold statement, but from my own observations and what I hear from people inside the industry, I’m not far from the truth.

When there was hardly any or no interest at all in my work from potential clients, or when photo editors rejected my work every time, my motivation and enthusiasm gradually faded out. The spirit was gone. I had no idea how to solve that situation. Maybe my work was simply not good enough, or my stories didn’t appeal to anyone.

Despite my efforts, my business didn’t grow nor evolved according to plan. At some point I had to make a decision: keep struggling and persevere, or take a step back and evaluate my attempt to pursue a career as a working photographer. I chose the latter. You could definitely argue that I chose the easy option, but I like to approach my decision with a more positive attitude and call it a sabbatical year (or two). I considered it necessary to recharge my batteries.

In high school and college, I was regularly bored to death. I was merely an average student. At that time I didn’t understand why, and nobody told me either. When I was about 18-19 years old, I attended an open house at Sint-Lukas Brussels University College of Art and Design with the intention of signing up for the four-year photography masters degree. That day made an overwhelming impression on me. I was so totally unfamiliar with such an artistically-minded environment, that in the end I was too afraid to sign up. Not a day goes by that I don’t wish I could go back in time and whisper into that boy’s ear: “Just go for it! Everything will turn out all right!” But I can’t.

However, I did go to film school with a friend of mine, but that attempt only lasted one year. In the end, I achieved a professional bachelor in Communication Management. Over a decade later I eventually started attending evening classes photography at a local academy in Brussels.

I often wonder what my life would have looked like today if I had made other decisions twenty years ago, or if I had had a mentor, someone who would have inspired me and made me aware of what potentials life had to offer.

Would my life have been different if I decided to attend that masters degree? It probably would, but that doesn’t cover the whole picture. If you want to build a successful business you have to work hard and put in the hours. Did I? Up to a certain extent I sure did, but it takes much more than that. I’m not trying to hide behind some lame excuses, but chasing your dreams is going to be very difficult when being easily distracted as I am, when being single and have to decide everything by yourself, when coming home mentally tired from your dead-end day job, and when competing against inner demons.

While I was about to finish this article, Dan Winters’ new book Road To Seeing arrived. I have been reading it for the past few days. On page 93 Dan says: “I spent almost every waking moment working on my photography.” This statement made me go back to my previous question: Did I work hard enough and put in the necessary hours to build a successful business? After completing the first chapter in Dan’s book I can conclude I probably didn’t.

My decision to put my part-time photography business temporarily on hold has also been influenced by other factors, which were to some extent perhaps even more of a determinant. Unfortunately, I’m not getting any younger, and aging makes me reflect on life more often than I expected. Life is short, and you only live once, right? Over the years, I developed an interest into other aspects of life. As a result, I established some new priorities on quite a different level. Not all of them are photography related. I want to enrich my knowledge of (world) history. I also want to spend less time online and more on reading books. Improving my knowledge of languages is also one of my aspirations. And last but not least, I’d like to travel more. Some processes are already running for several years now, albeit on a rather modest level. Lots of ambitious plans. Some of them can be easily carried out; others demand more far-reaching measures.

You know what’s on my mind those last few months? It’s something David Alan Harvey said during a photography workshop in Mexico last year. The first evening, where every student had to present their portfolio to the class, David told us that my portfolio was very consistent and very tightly edited. I was completely speechless: David Alan Harvey (70) who has more than 50 years of experience in photography, liked my work. Because no photo editor or other decision maker has ever said something similarly positive or encouraging about my work, I can’t get his remark out of my head. What if I had met someone like him a few years earlier?

I was hoping that after all those years I would have learned the ins and outs of the industry, but that turned out differently. More questions and doubts originated from that search.

Up to some level, my journey has been rewarding those last few years, despite the struggles and obstacles I still have to cope with every day.

At the moment, I’m not filled with boundless new ambitions regarding my photography career. In my actual capacity as an enthusiast amateur photographer, I keep working on personal projects only, not bound by limitations and deadlines imposed by clients. Right now, I feel relieved and less stressed. I’m enjoying photography more than before, even when this means I shoot less than before.

I can’t look into the future, so I don’t know what will happen, but I certainly keep my eyes and mind open.

I’d like to thank Serge Van Cauwenbergh for allowing me to share this article. You can read more on his website, where you’ll also find a number of interesting photo essays, including Survivors of Chernobyl, for which Serge photographed survivors of the 1986 nuclear disaster as well as the the surrounding areas.

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