Thursday, August 6, 2009

MLK, Michelangelo, Street-Sweepers, & You

One of the sentiments that has always stayed with me has been this quote, from Martin Luther King Jr:

If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great streetsweeper who did his job well.
Today, on assignment in Disney's California Adventure, I witnessed this first-hand. The gentleman I photographed here fit that charge to a T. I watched as he mopped the concrete walks. A stubborn stain he spritzed with his spray bottle, and his holster held other tools necessary to do the job as if he were Michelangelo. He even cared about his appearance as he was doing it, and he also worked during lulls in the crowd so his moping didn't interfere with the parks' guests. I watched for awhile, impressed by his overall approach as well as the details he cared about.

Next is Rutger Hauer, who played Roy Batty in one of my all time favorite movies Blade Runner. "The light that burns twice as bright burns for half as long", a reference to Roys' longevity and impending death.

Last up for the day is the tortise and the hare, and that tale of slow and steady over fast and corner cutting is a well known tale. These and so many other parables are guideposts to a future of success in this field.
(Continued after the Jump)

In photography, there are no real short-cuts to success. Yes, there are lucky breaks, yet often, those that experience those do not have the foundations laid for continued success, and often falter.

I'll recount for you a scenario from several years back, to illustrate this point. I had an intern working with me, and this intern had only been in Washington a month or so, and we were photographing the first lady. I was in a holding room doing meet-and-greet images, while the intern was tasked with holding a spot in the room where the press conference was taking place. During that time, my college graduated intern was talking with a young photographer, trying to make idle conversation to pass the time. My intern learned that another young photographer there had dropped out of college to shoot. When this photographer was asked why he would do that, his response was "I'm doing pretty well here, don't ya think? I am covering the first lady!" All in all, the conversational tone was him looking down on my intern and trying to promote his station in life. Fortunately for him, I learned a year or so later, he had returned to school to finish his degree. (Smart move there, if you're reading this and recognize yourself!)

Yes, in a short period of time you can be covering important people doing important things, but if doing so means giving up your rights to your images as a freelancer, or accepting a pay structure that is unfair and non-sustaining, then, as with Roy Batty, you may "burn twice as bright but half as long" and you'll flame out.

Returning to the street sweeper - if you're working for a small paper, a weekly, or doing what some might consider a menial photography-related job, take the sweepers' approach. Do your job well. Earn your respect. Shine brightly as a photographer if you are doing kindergarten snapshots or pet portraits, and you'd rather be photographing CEO's or globe-trotting on an important news story. More than once I've heard of photographers just starting dismiss immediately the notion of working for a small town newspaper, thinking it beneath them and instead believing they were owed a spot at a bigger named publication. Further, far too many photographers believe they are owed something, and that not only should they get a second chance when they screw up, but that they deserve a second chance. They also believe that it is their God-given right to be the next New York Times staff photographer. When you catch your lucky break, if you want to maintain the momentum that the break created, remember this - luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.

Please post your comments by clicking the link below. If you've got questions, please pose them in our Photo Business Forum Flickr Group Discussion Threads.


Anonymous said...

Shooting for a small daily newspaper is not a menial photography job. The readers of those newspapers depend upon those photographers to bring them the news, sports, etc. each day.

What experience do you have to make such a judgement? What newspapers have you been a staff photographer for?

John Harrington said...

I wrote:
>>>if you're working for a small paper, a weekly, or doing what some might consider a menial photography-related job

...and you are mis-parsing what I wrote.

1) the operator "or" distinguishes and seperates small papers and weeklies from "...menial..." photography.

2) I wrote "...what some might consider..." because, in point of fact, I know many upstart photographers who, as I note later in the piece, look down at those doing small-town and weekly paper work. I, on the other hand, do not look down on them, and I agree whole-heartedly with your point. In fact, there are some small town papers who focus on their local area are seeing an increase in their readership and circulation.

3) I am reporting on attitudes, and further pointing them out as bad. And, I have had been on staff before.

-- John

Anonymous said...

Hi John: Our young (I'm assuming) contributor missed your point. I've made a comment on my blog at

Rich Green said...

John, I agree with you completely. Luck can be an important, and sometimes a deciding factor in success, but if you aren't prepared, don't have the background, experience and knowledge, the odds aren't with you. But if you get lucky, are smart enough to realize your limitations and hire/find somebody who is willing to watch your back, you improve your chances of success.
Regarding Disney - I live on the East Coast and have visited DisneyWorld (with family) many times. Once I was confused with directions, a former employee came up and assisted me. I was impressed that someone, no longer employed, still had that Disney "help the guest" mentality.

Tyler Green said...

I work for a small daily, and my goal has been to do the best possible work I can. Perhaps one day I will be able to work for a larger publication but for now, I shoot kittens as if they were CEO's.

Anonymous said...

Hey Peter West,

You're not in any position to make assumptions. Nor do you have any real 'big league' photojournalism experience to make judgements on others or John's statement.

Your website talks about your community newspaper work, Toastmasters and teaching experience yet it does not contain your portfolio. Just a link to Flickr.

And why post your response on that amatuer looking website instead of here? Trying to drive page views up on your site?

Anonymous said...

Peter's photos can be found on his Smugmug page. He appears to be a camera club hobbyist.

Anonymous said...

God: I love the PhotoHatred that's being spread around here like cream cheese on a bagel.

You folks need to get a life, or better yet just get out of the business.

With attitudes like this no wonder people would rather work with hobbists or "semi-professionals"

Anonymous said...

"One last thing, incoming links are huge for search engines, and the text in the line is just as important. I try to comment on other peoples blogs as much as I can with Boston Photographer as my nickname. To see how it is working just do a search for Boston Photographer"
-My name is Matt Wynne and I am the designer, photographer and main contributor of Photography-

Michael Sebastian said...

@anonymous (one person or several? Who knows?) proves yet again why unsigned commentary should be banned, somehow. John's post was useful and informative, and he's willing to take the heat, by name, if someone disagrees. (Perhaps someone would want to claim that sloth and entitlement are useful attributes for the would-be Bigtime Shooter....)

Whether you are one person or several, @anonymous, the "contributions" posted here under that moniker have added nothing useful or positive to the discussion. Take your jealousy and rage elsewhere, please.

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