In 1987 I was awarded a foreign exchange semester abroad by The Cooper Union. I spent July in Arles, France for the Rencontres workshops, and then did my fall term in Paris at the Ecole Nationale Superière des Arts Décoratifs. My instructor in Arles was Patrick Zachman, a well respected Magnum photographer. We were encouraged to make use of the space we were in, to take advantage of the unique possibilities in every situation. I took that advice to heart.
I remember being in South Central Los Angeles to photograph a Community Development corporation for a non-profit organization. This was around 1993-4 and the film "Boyz n the Hood" had been released a few years earlier. A police officer walked up to me and asked if I was lost. He reminded me that I was on Crenshaw Blvd, a known gang territory. He called Compton a ghetto. I said officer, "all I see here are single-story houses with grass yards and palm trees. I'm from Brooklyn and our projects don't look this nice." He offered to stick around until I finished my portrait session.
Twenty years later, I was a stringer in Dakar for European PressPhoto Agency. Nic Bothma was returning to South Africa and I was asked to step in and cover the elections in Sénégal and Mauritania. The first thing I learned was that you don't have editors and agents like you have in America. Each photographer is responsible for their own travel arrangements, lodgings, visas and translators. I had to call a Toureg guide I met in St. Louis to arrange for me to cross into Nouakchott. Driving through the desert reminded me just how far I was away from home.
It makes me happy to see my son take an interest in my cameras. He likes the mechanical shutters and the weight of my Leicas. It makes him feel grown up and professional. Eventually, I will impress upon him the difference between holding a camera and making images. They are not at all the same thing. Photography is a very specific language that uses light, timing, and social context instead of words. But for now, it's fine.
Photography has changed very much since I began in 1980. Today, very few people shoot film, medium format or larger. Practically no one develops their negatives save a few dedicated dinosaurs like myself. We didn't have Instagram or Facebook back then. We didn't waste film photographing our meals or our latest fashion purchases. We didn't ask whether you liked our post. We asked what you thought, what you felt. Getting published meant a corps of photo editors agreed your work had merit. Making an image required hours of precise labor in the confines of a small darkroom breathing sodium thiosulphate. We made every image count, never being truly sure we had it until hours later. I am grateful for that training.
I take offense at amateurs pretending to be professionals. They want to be paid to learn. But they aren't invested. Making money supercedes developing their craft or vision. And when they can't deliver the assignment, they want to be forgiven as amateurs. But many events cannot be duplicated. They occured at a specific time and place, with certain people, that will never again be assembled. To miss those moments is to miss out on history itself. I wouldn't want an amateur lawyer, or an amateur doctor. I want my children to have teachers that are experts in their fields. I don't believe in "good enough." That's lazy bullshit. I believe in mastery and the time it takes to attain it. In 38 years I've never had to say sorry, I don't know what I'm doing.