Or why does success have a paywall?
If you didn’t immediately delete this, thank you. I would have. I get a new email or two everyday about some contest, book prize, or portfolio review. There’s always some all-star panel of judges, eagerly awaiting my entry. It could be my big break!
As someone who comes from a blue-collar family, the “success paywall” of photoland is often disheartening and demoralizing. So what is the “success paywall” you ask? It goes something like this:
At the low, low cost of $50, you could have a chance to show the most exclusive photographers, editors, and publishers in the world your work. One lucky winner will get $XXXX, along with a book deal, and your very own yurt in the Himalayas! This could put you on the map, make your career, solve your problems, prove to photoland that you are a real photographer!
My favorite ones are in some beautiful destination, allowing you complete access to the gatekeepers in some lovely Rocky Mountain hot springs or some rustic-chic European villa… for only $4,000! Now, that may not be very much money for you. In fact, I hope it is not. But for me and those at my income level, that is my housing and utilities for four or five months.
I remember during my graduate school interview, my mentor Robert Lyons said, “So you know only wealthy people get to be artists, right?” And there is a measure of truth to that. I wish I could say that I was secure enough in my work and my personhood to not be jealous when I see my friends traveling around the world for workshops, reviews, and festivals. I wish I wasn’t envious of those relationships that happen in and around those events, leading to more opportunities in photoland. I wish I wasn’t shallow and could take some anti-capitalist moral high ground. But I’m not (Newsletter!).
I would like to take a moment and applaud opportunities like the New York Portfolio Review, which is free to photographers. I was fortunate enough to be selected to participate in 2017 and it was a wonderful, enriching experience. I would gladly recommend applying. Now back to the show.
So what is the answer? I wish I had the time/energy/resources to work towards a solution. I constantly have to remind myself about the purpose of my work. Is it to be on the inside of photoland? Is it to be lauded by the small, niche group of my peers? Is it to win awards?
These actually are legitimate questions I wrestle with. Honestly, I’d love to be invited to review other photographers’ work. I wish my book was on someone’s 2021 Favorite Photobook list. I envy the tables full of food and amazing photographers that I see on social media after events. But it just isn’t realistic for my finances or my work.
So what do we do if we are outside of the gate? What then does success look like? I want to be (foolishly) vulnerable with you and share a few fragments of a project that I had once given up on, but am now restarting.
In early 2018, I began a project about a closed school that was the first integrated high school in my part of Tennessee. This once illustrious institution slowly bled to death, closing its doors in 2016. The more I dug into the project, the more I felt extremely inadequate to carry the narrative. As I pealed back the layers, I discovered a widespread culture of re-segregation through private education, re-zoning, and funding cuts.
But the abuse and demise of public education wasn’t unique to my town. I was afraid that I couldn’t do my community justice, let alone other’s like mine. I was afraid of being another 30-something-year-old white guy talking about race, socioeconomics, politics, and segregation. I felt like an outsider trying to assert his opinion, while my neighbors lived in this reality.
My daughter started first grade in the Jackson-Madison County School system this year. For the first time, these realities began to impact my child and my family. She comes home each day and tells me about her classmates from all different walks of life. These children have such a distinct opportunity to share their lives with each other despite cultural, economic, or racial differences. I’ve realized that these kids have something to teach us. And I shouldn’t let my fear of failure get in the way.
That means I will need help. For those of you that know me personally know that I don’t like asking for help. I tend to fly solo. But the work needs historians, writers, and community members. It needs me to take a step back and just make the photos. The story is worth being more than what I could do alone.
My goal is to publish a “yearbook” that will be donated to every high school and library in West Tennessee, giving access to those with lived history. It will be from and for my community. Hopefully, one day my daughter her friends can check the book out from their library, and ideally not joke about her over-woke white dad photographer.
You know, that $4,000 I wouldn’t (can’t) spend on a portfolio review would start to knock a dent in printing costs for a book like that…
Thanks for reading,