How to Succeed and Survive as a Photographer and Artist

Istanbul, 2014
Istanbul, 2014

I am currently reading: “Akademie x Lessons in Art + Life”, which is probably one of the most inspirational art/life books I’ve picked up as of late. It is a beautifully printed and bound book, folding open like a school instructional manual.

I personally never went to art school. I entered college as a Biology major (to become a doctor like a good Asian kid), but upon going into school (and realizing I hated science and math), I switched to the exact opposite: sociology.

Studying sociology really helped me in my life. Sociology taught me to “unlearn” a lot of the social constructs and “rules” in life. It was probably the most practical major out there, and taught me how to better interact with society, people, and groups.

Switch gears to the book: “Akademie x Lessons in Art + Life”. The book is a compilation of ideas, lessons, and assignments from some of the best leading artists and educators from all over the world. Many of the ideas in the book are quite stirring and inspirational.

One of the concepts I came across was from Sanford Biggers, currently an assistant professor of visual arts at Columbia. Below in his essay titled: “This is a marathon, not a sprint”, he writes the importance of perseverance and work ethic in being an artist:

“To succeed and survive as an artist, one must develop serious perseverance, strength of character, an unshakable work ethic and confidence. Artistic trends, attitudes, and appreciation change frequently, so you must be able to see beyond the successes and failures you may experience.”

Being an artist is one of the most difficult occupations you can choose in your life. But then again remember, you don’t need to be a full-time artist to call yourself an artist. You can be a lawyer, a banker, or a school-teacher, and simply do your art after-hours.

The 3 Traits of a great artist

Better-yet, treat your lifestyle as being an artist (and your job as something that just pays the bills). I don’t think that making a living directly off your art makes you somehow a “better” artist or more “successful” artist. The quality of your work is what matters the most at the end of the day, not how much money you make, how may awards you’ve won, or how many exhibitions you’ve hosted.

I want to explore some of the treats of a great artist in-detail below:

1. Perseverance

If we treat art (and life) as a marathon, not a sprint– we’re going for distance and longevity, not just a short burst.

I think being an artist is like being an athlete. You can’t expect to just work out once a month and expect to stay physically sharp and in-shape. You need to train everyday, always be mindful of what you’re putting into your body, and make training a part of your lifestyle (rather than something you simply do on the side).

As an artist you need to find perseverance as well (just like an athlete). You need to train your visual muscles everyday, whether that means practicing your art, looking at other artists’ work for inspiration, or being mindful of what kind of art you are consuming. You can’t expect to just be really artistic one day, and hope that you will stay strong and sharp as an artist. Rather, you should treat your art as a “daily practice”, and focus on small increments of progress.

Perhaps you can also think about the life of an artist as nutrition. You can’t expect to simply do a one-week “diet” and stay healthy and fit for the rest of your life. Rather, you need to find out some sort of nutritional system and lifestyle that you can stick to for a lifetime.

As photographers, how can you persevere as an artist? How can you put in a small “daily practice” to stay sharp creatively?

Some ideas:

  • Shoot at least 1 photograph everyday: You don’t need to dedicate an hour of shooting everyday. Not all of us have that kind of free time. Rather, I think by focusing on the smallest possible task (like shooting one photograph a day), it is easier to get into the rhythm of creating photographs everyday. It doesn’t even need to be with your fancy camera, you can just use your iPhone.
  • Be mindful of what you eat: I think just as an athlete doesn’t eat junk food (cheetos, doritos, deep-fried foods), an artist shouldn’t eat junk food (random photos on Instagram, Flickr, and blogs). Rather, you should try to nourish your body with healthy foods for your creativity. Try to consume amazing work from the masters, to buy photography books that inspire you, and to surround yourself with positive influences whom support you.
  • Find a creative circle: I find that having a creative circle of friends is absolutely essential to staying inspired as an artist. Just like going to the gym, it is often good to have a “gym buddy” who makes you accountable for constantly going to the gym on a regular basis. If you have other photographers who keep you inspired, they will keep you accountable for constantly creating new images, and to also help support you with recommendations with photography books, help editing your photos, and also perhaps to go out and shoot with.

2. Strength of character

I think it is important as an artist and photographer to have confidence in yourself, by being able to stick to your ideas and beliefs.

It takes a lot of courage to have a “strength of character” when it comes to defending our work and artistic vision. It is easy to fall into trends, where we are just copying what is popular and in vogue when it comes to photography.

In regards to street photography, sometimes shooting with a flash at a close proximity is popular (like Bruce Gilden), sometimes shooting color with multiple-layers is popular (Alex Webb), other times creating classic black and white photos of people jumping over puddles is popular (Henri Cartier-Bresson).

But what is your artistic vision, and voice? What kind of photography truly makes you happy and feel fulfilled?

Disregard the trends and how others shoot, publish, and share their work. Stay true to what feels right to you.

3. Unshakeable worth ethic

Lastly, having a strong work ethic is key.

One of the lessons I’ve learned about success is that if you link hard work and success, you are more likely to become “successful” than someone who thinks that talent is something that we are innately born with.

For example, if a child in school is constantly told that he/she is “smart”, they won’t work as hard or push themselves as hard as a child who is congratulated for being a “hard worker”.

At the end of the day, you need to put in the hard work to flourish and thrive creatively. But don’t treat this artistic and creative work as agricultural labor. You should absolutely love what you do. It should be hard in the sense that it challenges you to the utmost of your creative abilities. You should reach a state of “flow” when you are creating your art, whether that is shooting in the streets, editing your work, reading, writing, or whatever.

Know that as an artist you have no limits. You have limitless potential. The limiting factor is always how much work and effort you put in.

Art for art’s sake

I feel the only true way to live as an artist is to produce art for art’s sake. Meaning– don’t create art to simply please others, do it to make yourself happy.

Sanford Biggers shares:

“Understanding where you are in relationship to other artists is useful; however, do not allow it to turn into envy or self-doubt. When I was beginning I was advised by a mentor: ‘Only be an artist for the love of art and the act of creation. Nothing else is promised.’ Accolades, fame and fortune may come and go, and that’s only if you’re lucky.”

No matter how famous, rich, or popular you become through your art, it will never satisfy you. Personally it was my dream to make a living from my photography, to teach and travel the world, and to gain a strong following. I have achieved all of those dreams, but honestly, it hasn’t made me deeply fulfilled. I still am frustrated, feel like I am lacking something in my life, and want to achieve more.

The time I am truly happy and fulfilled is when I am doing something creative and artistic. I feel supremely happy when I am researching (reading books), when I am writing (like this article now), when I am photographing and interacting with strangers on the streets, when I am teaching and empowering other photographers, or when I am engaged in a critique & editing session with other photographers.

Only do your photography and art for the love of it, and for the act of it.

Nothing else counts.

What do you want out of your photography and art?

What do you ultimately want out of your photography and art? Is it for external recognition, is it for self-fulfillment, or something else? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Also I highly recommend picking up a copy of “Akademie x Lessons in Art + Life”, which is incredibly affordable at only ~$25.