I had heard stories about starving artists living on pennies and paint, and actors who waited for years busing tables in the hopes that, somewhere out there, there was a breakthrough role waiting for them. You know, the stories mothers often tell their children to drive home how foolish such star-struck people are to try and live off of nothing more than dreams and ambition. And for the longest time, I really believed that. I could not understand why someone would choose such an unstable path in order to follow a dream whose outcome was so uncertain. Surely it was far better to pick a steady career and see it through. While such a life was unexciting, it had stability and assurance.
But then I became a photographer. And with that one simple turn of events, my view on how we pursue life completely changed. Suddenly I, too, wanted nothing more than to chase a dream I knew was probably futile. I didn’t want to learn about geometry or chemistry when there was a whole world out there waiting to be captured through my 50mm lens; everything I saw, every person who passed me by, every hill on the roadside lit up by the sun, every tree in bloom. Everything called out for me to try, just try, to do it justice in one frame. For the first time I had to stop and look at the world around me and re-examine the places I had once thought of as familiar. I would look out the car window and wonder if the trees I had driven by so many times before would make a good backdrop for my latest shoot. I started thinking more about light and how it fell and reflected off of people and objects.
I also re-evaluated my definition of beauty. While I had never paid much attention to the beauty in the world around me, suddenly it was my new fascination. I found that some people were pretty but not “printing,” (pretty and/or interesting) a term I use to describe people that have pleasing features but who are not arresting, not capable of captivating a viewer through a lens. Superficial as it may seem, it is the truth. I have become increasingly picky when I evaluate beauty. It does not affect what I think of the person, but it does effect how badly I want to “shoot” them. This realization forced me to take a closer look at the modeling world that I had always scorned. As a photographer, you come to realize why it is that models are supposed to look the way they do. Big eyes appear startling on film, and long limbs wind easily around other models and photo shoot props.
Sometimes I can find no reply to my mother’s acidic statements about the uselessness and vapidity of fashion photography. But all of this cannot make me love it any less. I love photography; I love organizing photo shoots and shooting events. The amount of work that I put into choosing a location, picking outfits, and getting models together is more than most people imagine, not to mention the actual shooting time. Photography has definitely allowed me to become less inhibited about moving people around and instructing them about the best way to hold themselves. I notice the odd looks people give me when I crawl under tables or perch on top of railings in order to get the best angle.
Sitting in the computer room while listening and occasionally singing along to Taylor Swift, I take pride in editing my work and seeing how results of my labors have come into fruition.
In this day and age, many people think that having a camera makes you a photographer. With a click of a button, you can consider yourself on your way to becoming the next Annie Leibovitz or Mario Testino. In reality, however, nothing could be further from the truth. You can dance without being a dancer and paint without being a painter. It is the passion, the driving desire, and the obsession to keep working at your art because nothing else matters, that differentiates the experimenter from the artist. Passion is something you are born with; it is not something you cultivate. You can be interested in many different things without binding yourself to any of them. And it is only when you truly become a slave to an artistic obsession that you can even begin to understand how it feels to be an artist of any medium.
I understand how people can view photography as frivolous when there are many other things to do in life that would cure cancer and prevent global warming from making humans as homeless as polar bears on icebergs. But if we all go into science- or math-oriented careers, what would happen to beauty? Nature can only provide so much; the rest of it we must do for ourselves. And it is my belief that you can never have too much beauty in the world.
It is important for us to realize how important passions are for the people who have them. There is a reason dancers endure back-breaking practices and black-and-blue feet. It is the same reason painters scrape every penny they have so they can continue doing what they love even if they garner no profit. And it is why I call myself a photographer. Art is a powerful empress, and we are slaves. Yet in our acquiescing we know an ecstasy of beauty that is unknown to the rest of humanity. Sometimes, nothing is as sweet as submission.
Teresa Mathew is a student at Presentation High School