“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear”

Buddha Siddhartha Guatama Shakyamuni

Blog post by Phlock Live speaker Chloe Lodge

Recently on the Phlock community Facebook page the question ‘who is a self-taught photographer?’ was asked by one of its members. The response was unreal, literally dozens of artists stepped forward and raised their hand. It was incredible to see name after name many of us recognize of those who create stunning work and to those just starting out it will hopefully be comforting news that our thriving industry is wall to wall with self-taught photographers. Those who are pushing creative boundaries, industry stereotypes and leading the way. Photographers who have strived, googled, experimented, failed, experimented some more and grown. Many who have stayed focused and been intentional with the stories their hearts have been yearning to tell. 

By contrast, I started off the block in a different way. It was ten years ago and the number of diverse online, one-one and in-person learning opportunities were a drop in the ocean to what there is now. It was a time of my life when I was in-between jobs and lucky enough to devote a year of my thirties to attend photography school. I won’t lie, it was wonderful, challenging but wonderful. However up until recently, I have been a little nervous to share that I went to school within photography communities and peer groups. Last month I returned to my school and gave a talk to the current body of 200 students, I was also invited to exhibit in their gallery with the brilliant Wish You Were Here Project. Whilst I was there some thoughts cemented in my mind as to why my education has been a strange emotional sticking point for me during my career and the Phlock girls agreed that it would be great to share them with you here today.

I graduated from photography school in 2011, since then we’ve moved country five times, I’ve established new businesses and experienced some wonderful high points but also some dark times including creative lows and mental blocks. I feel like I’ve spent more years than not banging my head against a wall. I don’t blame my schooling for these as they’re more to do with my personal circumstance as well as not always knowing what or whose story I was telling. What I will say is that I kicked myself on a regular basis because I HAD been to school. I thought I should have the answers, after all I was trained, I knew how to take a picture, tell a story, edit, curate, I got it. I’d already learnt so many of the answers, so why was it still so hard? Why was I struggling to create images that I consistently loved, where I could feel a connection and to build the confidence I needed to be happy in my work? 

A year ago we moved to New Zealand and finally some pieces of my puzzle finally fell into place. Ironically it’s also been a year when I’ve had the least head space, time to create and income I’ve had for years and yet I’ve learnt more about this creative journey than at any other point in my photography career. I now appreciate, more than ever, that there are a few key things that are needed to succeed at anything, and most importantly at being a photographer. 

First up is desire. If you have the desire to create, to document and to succeed you will find the time. You will push yourself through, you will appreciate the falls as the wins that they are and you will keep going through the patches of uncertainty. You will find a way to fit in that online class or weekend retreat. You will save for, rent or borrow the gear you need, you will take the loan to invest in your start up or you will work another job to help carve the way. If the desire is strong, your story can and will find it’s voice. 

The next is confidence. I’m not referring to arrogance, the big ‘I am’ or that moment you start calling yourself ‘a photographer’ because I know for me that was far from my defining moment. My defining moment was the day I woke up and realized that out of habit I had started to notice stuff, well more than just stuff, I had started to notice everything. The way the light fell in the hallway before sunrise, the colour of my family’s toothbrushes lined up, the washing through my shower and the glass door framing our dog as she watched the chicken cross the lawn. Calling yourself a photographer is not defined by a certificate, award, qualification or pro rating. It’s not defined by the fact that you’re being paid for what you do or not, whether you have a website, Instagram feed or Facebook page. It’s deeper than that, it’s when you start noticing life’s details, seeing light in all its wonder, how shadows dance and how almost everything creates a leading line to something, this is where confidence plants its roots and starts to grow. 

Lastly is a belief in the process. Belief that once you start getting a hang of your gear you will be able to translate what you feel in a moment to something you can see and hold forever. Belief that the process of learning is a journey and one that takes time. It’s about remembering that everyone (schooled or not) is on a similar journey, they may just be traveling at a different speed, at a different time and getting to pitstops and vantage points a little earlier or a little later than you. And that it’s ok because this is your story and your creative life, it’s so important to be kind to yourself.

From my own experience going to school can not guarantee these things. It’s not there to fill your heart with desire, nor will it hand you confidence on a platter (well not that hard core from your belly kind of confidence that takes time and a lot of picture taking), it may not even manage to convince you to believe in the process. All of these things come over time, from experience and from within YOU. Photography school can not guarantee you an income, it will not take away the uncertainty of life and it’s knocks, challenges and changes. It won’t give you a free pass to the jobs you feel you deserve and it definitely won’t give you a script to follow. What it will do, if you are paying attention and work hard, is give you tools to create with and incredible teachers to learn from. It will carve out lesson time, it will facilitate accountability and it will give the opportunity to make contacts and friends you can create a network with and a community to thrive within. 

Now take a moment and read that list back – it will give you tools to be a more consistent shooter and storyteller, it will give you time to create, accountability and a possible network. All of these things are obtainable to the self-taught photographer. The beautiful difference is – you are in full control from the outset and what a true gift that is. You can dictate where and how you build your community, you can map out a plan, find a rhythm and pace which works for you, you can attend the courses you want and need, with whoever inspires you and at a pace that suits you. You can foster accountability through the power of personal projects, my very favorite topic and the focus of my talk at Phlock Live in March. 

You can find in-person learning at enriching and value-filled conferences like Phlock Live, you can find mentors and those who will give you portfolio reviews and you can fill your tool box with resources via Google and YouTube, from conversations with fellow photographers, artists, creatives and other small business owners. You can also find answers and inspiration in the pages of beautiful books such as ‘For the Love of the Photograph’, a little something I recently wrote where I’ve shared many of the valuable and inspiring lessons I definitely did learn at photography school, and even more from my years as a professional. I wouldn’t ever say it was a wasted year, far from it and anyone who has the opportunity grab it with both hands but I will say that there are other ways, not lesser, easier or more difficult, just different. 

We’re in a new era of learning opportunities; so tap into who you are, the story you want to tell, grab your camera and simply start. I promise you there are literally hundreds of grads who aren’t working as professional photographers, and thousands of self-taught ones who are.

Chloe Lodge

Photographer and author of the wildly popular ‘For the Love of the Photograph’
and soon-to-be-released ‘For the Love of the Photograph, a creative journal’

Buy Chloe’s book: https://www.fortheloveofthephotograph.com/shop-2/for-the-love-of-the-photograph