If you’re reading this — you might be considering whether to go to photography or art school.
I will give you some honest advice.
Who are you?
You might be 12 years old, 16 years old, 18 years old, 21 years old, or even older.
Whatever your position, here are some ideas for you.
1. Debt is death
First of all, avoid debt at all costs. Debt is death. Debt is slavery. Debt will have you doing shit you don’t want to do in life, just to pay off your student loans.
If you’re able to go to art school on a ‘full ride’ (100% tuition paid for, as well as living expenses) it might be a good idea. But if you’re going to go into debt for art or photography school, DON’T DO IT.
I have friends who go to photography/art school and go $200,000 (USD) in debt. Most of them don’t become commercially successful. They might start doing commercial or wedding photography. Yet it might take them 20-30 years to pay off their debt. Some of them will unfortunately probably never pay it off.
My friend did something smart (this is if you want to work the system) — he went to photography/art school, and after getting $200,000 in debt— he just declared bankruptcy. His credit was shit (it was hard for him to get a bank account, credit card, apartment, job) — but he literally erased $200,000 of debt— and decided to pursue some freelance/entrepreneurship opportunities.
2. You might be less creative
Art school is a good opportunity to meet other creative individuals. But unfortunately, a lot of art school kids are posers. Not only that, but a lot of art school kids aren’t very creative at all — you get stuck in an ‘art school’ bubble. You become disconnected with ‘reality’ and the rest of the ‘real world.’
In-fact, I have gained more knowledge and insight about photography by going to UCLA and studying Sociology. I was able to meet other thinkers who weren’t traditional ‘artists’ or photographers. I met my future wife. I was exposed to a variety (general) education — which ended up helping me in the long run. I learned about human psychology, human behavior through sociology, communication, technology, and other ‘soft skills’ that have helped me greatly in life. Everything I learned, and the ‘social media’ internship I did helped me learn how to build an online following, how to start a blog, how to start my own business, and to make a living following my passion.
The problem is when you are in an art/photography school bubble— you forget the sad part of reality:
How are you going to make a living from your art?
I personally believe in the following:
Pursue your passion in life, but figure out a way to pay the bills.
My passion was photography, yet I didn’t think I could make a living from it. So I decided to get a full-time job as an Online Community Manager (doing social media stuff) for a start-up tech company (Demand Media), earning $40,000 a year (plus benefits). It was good. I had a secure paycheck, and could pursue my blog, and photography on the side— without stress.
3. You can learn it all online
Not only that, but I was able to learn everything about photography/art through the internet. You don’t need need no professors teaching you. You can self-teach yourself everything.
I self-taught myself everything about photography. I only later attended a photography workshop at age 27 (Magnum workshop with Constantine Manos/David Alan Harvey) far later (I actually recommend workshops over going to photography/art school— because it is much more pragmatic, cheaper, and shorter).
I pursued my own curiosity. And the internet is the ultimate school (and it is free).
For example in photography, you can learn all technical settings on photography through YouTube. In terms of being creative, to find your own vision in life — nobody can teach you that. You need to dive deep into your own creative heart and soul — and ask yourself, ‘Why do I make art? And what do I want from art?’
In art school, you can be taught how to paint with oil, and perspective, and sculpture. Yet, you will never learn how to practically apply your art to the ‘real world.’ This is why a lot of art students become depressed after graduating— they go $200,000 in debt, get a job at Starbucks, and never pick up a paintbrush again.
4. What is an ‘artist?’
For me, anyone and everyone is born an artist (Picasso). The secret is how do we stay an artist when we get older?
So know you don’t need to go to no school to learn how to be ‘artistic.’ Just teach yourself.
Use your iPhone or smartphone to make photos. Use VSCO or Snapseed to process your photos. Study composition, the masters of photography, and cinema.
If you want to create drawings, paintings, or sculpture— just watch YouTube lectures. Self-teach yourself. The only way to learn any artistic improvement is to do it. To make 1-2 drawings or sketches a day, and publish them. To share works in-progress. To make more art.
5. What did I do?
For me, this is what I did:
At age 16, I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I just knew I wanted to help others, and to ‘change the world.’
At age 18, I didn’t know what I wanted to do (still). So I decided to follow in the footsteps of my grandfather to become a doctor (I applied as Biology as my undergraduate major). I got into UCLA. I did a quarter of pre-medical school classes, and hated it. I decided to do the exact opposite (with the least amount of science and math). I switched to Sociology.
I finally liked school for the first time in life. Sociology was practical— it dealt with practically living in society. I learned about human ‘societal rules’ and how bullshit it all was. I felt empowered through sociology. Thank you to Terri Anderson and Mark Jepson at UCLA for opening my mind.
At age 18, I got my first Canon point and shoot SD 600 camera. I loved it. I never had any ambitions to make photography my living. It was my passion, so I just did it on the side.
At age 20 (Junior year in school), I thought of becoming a sociology professor — because teaching was my passion. So I took some internships, and research assistant jobs. But then — the idea of studying my Ph.D. in Sociology for 6 years sounded horrible. So I decided to enter the marketplace — Cindy helped forward a ‘social media marketing’ internship, which was perfect, because I taught a course at UCLA called: “The Sociology of Facebook and Online Social Networks.” I was always interested the intersection of sociology and technology.
So I get that internship, and end up getting a full-time job there after I graduate. It was perfect, because I learned a lot about business, the ‘real world’, how to send a proper email, and all that jazz. I also started my photography blog (this one) on the side— as a passion.
I then built up this blog in my free time. Before work, after work, during work— whenever I had a free chance. And it was good. No pressure, because I had a steady paycheck. So this strategy of having a ‘day job’ and pursuing your passion on the side worked out well for me.
But after a while, I felt like a cubicle slave. I hated working for ‘the man’. I wanted freedom and independence desperately. I started to plot my escape. I tried to figure out how to save up money, and pursue my passion (photography) full-time.
6. Losing my job was the best thing that ever happened to me (thank you God)
I got lucky enough that fate (and God) helped me make the decision. The company IPO’d (entered the stock market), but unfortunately a few weeks later— the stock started to crash. Half the company lost their jobs. I lost my job (even my boss, Mateo Gutierrez— who I greatly admired, and loved).
Therefore fate made the decision for me. I decided, ‘I guess this is God’s message to me — Eric, take this chance in life, and see if you can make your passion into your living.’
I was lucky— my mom was behind me 100%— so was Cindy, and my roommate Kevin McKenzie.
I am very grateful to those who helped me when I started off. My friends Todd Hatakeyama, Charlie Kirk, Bellamy Hunt, Kaiman Wong, Darren Rowse (guy who started Digital Photography School), and many others I forget (sorry).
Leica supported me a lot (thank you to Christian E, JJ, Ehbi, Sunil Kaul, Shiyo Takahashi, Jasmine Aum, Shannel Woo, and many others I forget— sorry again).
Once again, I am forgetting a hundred others who helped me get me where I am now — I am sorry, you know who you are. But I had so many people helping me along the way. I had determination, hard work, and hustle— yet, without the grace and help with others, I couldn’t have made my passion into my living.
So my formula for making your passion your living is:
Hard work (Hustle) + Luck (Right place at the right time) + Mentors (people who help push you forward) = Success
Faith in yourself, help from the community, and love from your loved ones who believe in you.
7. What is your end-game?
If you go to art school or photography school — why do you want to go? What is your end-game?
If you want to make your passion your living — you might be better off taking that $200,000 and traveling the world, experimenting with starting your own freelance or business, studying entrepreneurship, and studying business books.
If your goal in life is just to make more art, know you can do that regardless of what your job is. Einstein made the theory of relativity while working at the Swiss Patent Office as a 9-5 office clerk. Elon Musk started his own company with his brother, living on $1 a day in food (spaghetti and hot dogs), taking showers at the local gym, and sleeping in a sleeping bag in their office. They even shared just one computer.
What is your ultimate goal with art?
For me— I think art can change the world, and fix the problems of the world. Art can reduce suffering in others. When I look at a great Edward Hopper painting, I feel great ease, tranquility, and elation of my soul. When I look at great photos, I feel encouraged to also go out and create my own art. When I look at the work of Picasso, I remind myself to stay like a child— and be creative for the rest of my life.
The last thing I want to leave you with is this — you are guaranteed nothing in life, except having the privilege of doing your creative and artistic work. You are not entitled to becoming rich, famous, or gaining a following from your art. You are only entitled to have the opportunity to make your artistic work.
For example, you are entitled to have the freedom to go out, make photos, or throw paint on an easel.
You might be unlucky in life — and never gain fame, money, or rewards for your art. But the greatest pleasure of an artist is to have the opportunity to create your own art, in your own apartment, in the streets, or at the local coffee shop.
Lastly, you need to hustle. The more you hustle, the luckier you get in life.
Be like Dr. Dre. He is ‘rich as fuck’ but he’s always working — because working and creative hustle is what keeps him alive. He has been 30+ years in the rap game, hustling, and making art.
Even Kendrick Lamar— he has a tattoo that says something like, ‘Hustle like you’re broke.’ Because the truth is, when you become ‘rich’ from your art— you become lazy, and complacent.
9. Free resources
If you want guidance to become the best photographer you can — check out my free photography bootcamp. Read my free ebooks. Learn form the masters of photography. If you don’t have money for photography books, check out my free photography book reviews.
If you want a personal 1:1 street photography workshop, pick up a copy of Street Notes. If you want more personal fulfillment in your photography or art, pick up a copy of Photo Journal.
Or attend a photography or art workshop. Check out my workshops, or attend a Magnum Workshop.
Teach yourself. Learn everything you need to learn by your own accord. Study composition or cinema. Make better-looking photos with my free Lightroom Film Simulation presets.
If you want a good digital camera for photography, pick up a Ricoh GR II. Or just use your smartphone. Study all art — no limits. Study Renaissance, like Leonardo da Vinci.
For inspiration, make WikiArt.org your home screen. Also teach yourself the masterpieces of art from ‘Every Painter Paints Himself’.
If you want to learn street photography, attend my free online street photography course: “All the World’s a Stage.”
10. Start your own blog
The last thing — start your own photography blog. Start your own blog, and share what you learn — and you will internalize these lessons even better. If you don’t know how to blog, check out my blogging tips.
You got this shit.