Talking to beginners


An accidental image I recently discovered on my cell phone.

When does the moment come, for you, in which you lose the sense of being a beginner as you transition to the feeling of having mastered something? Are you aware of its coming, when it actually comes?

Most importantly, though, do you still recall what it feels like to be a beginner? I don’t mean remembering what exactly you did, but the embodied perception of not being sure how to move your hands and body in what you were doing, along with the exhilaration when things actually work?

I recently, almost by chance, joined an online group populated mostly by beginners in photography. In fact, I am a member of two of them. One is for women only, the other one has the familiar format of publishing one’s own photos with an invitation for comments.

My motivation? In the women’s group, I was added by someone else, but ultimately enjoyed the camaraderie in a community with simpler gender dynamics. It was not supposed to be for beginners, but either by chance or by its internal logic, it’s dominated by beginners and their questions. The second group? I don’t remember, but curiosity is the closest thing that comes to mind. I wanted to see how beginners approach photography now and how things have changed since I was a beginner myself.

Those who are at the beginning of their path, professionally or informally, may feel like they have nothing going for them, but actually they are in a wonderful position. It’s like falling in love. They have a lot of certain things that professionals may not have anymore: enthusiasm for every discovery, which might happen every day for them; the uplifting feeling of overcoming obstacles; the desire to connect with everyone and everything related to their passion and the opportunity to extract value from every lesson.

Long story short, it was (has been!) a revealing experience for me. I do enjoy to read about the recent developments in those practices of the medium I don’t really work in – weddings, for example – and follow up with all the new technology that has come forth recently, the new fads and tricks, the approaches, the new challenges in front of a beginner today. In fact, this new information is revealing and useful for me.

My relationship with the other group, however, has been very different. Even though I was willing to critique the posts that invited feedback, I found myself just unable to do it. It could be that my approach to photographs has changed so much that it’s impossible to answer  questions like “Is it good?” or “Does it work?”. My internal answer always is, “It depends”. Or, a counter-question, “What you are looking for?” or “You don’t have to ask – just explain to yourself what you like about it.” This way you would not depend on someone else’s opinion, which may be helpful but also limiting. And most importantly, you would go deeper in your craft, concept, approach.

That doesn’t mean that I have no use of communicating with beginners. This is what teaching is all about. It is a relationship with those who have started after you and you are guiding them on a path that you have both walked on but also giving them the chance to deviate and discover things on it that you perhaps didn’t. Or didn’t even know existed. I am just saying that a communication with beginners is not as simple as a one-sentence comment. And it is also is a relationship of trust, which takes time to build. Even if I were to write a long comment on some beginners’ photos, they would not necessarily accept it or even know where it is coming from. They have their own expectations and in an online community in which everyone is unknown and equal by default (in knowledge, too), one does not automatically trust an opinion that is too different.

But this post is not about the (re)discovery of my experience with beginners. Rather, it is about the big reminders of what it means to be a professional, in any area of knowledge or skill. First off, if you lose your beginner’s enthusiasm, that might be the end of your relationship with your passion. Just like a love affair, you may quickly get over the superficial thrills and sparks. And if that is all, you will leave the field or, if you can’t, every day in your work will feel like the doldrums. Then it is your responsibility to keep the flame going with a deeper connection and exploration of your chosen path.

At certain milestones in one’s professional career, certain questions have to be answered, once for all or every now and then. Why? Why do I do this? And then find that why in your works. Does it show? How can it show? Ask your photos, too.

Then, what. What do I photograph? Or, if you are working in another field, what do I work with? Not just the immediate subject matter, say, people, but deeper concepts like, I photograph vulnerability, or change, or what it means to be human. Or it could be a technical aspect that you embark on, like photographing through a technical challenge like an obsolete camera. That will eventually lead to a concept, too, if you keep asking your photos.

And finally, how receptive are you to change, learning and growing? How accepting are you of other opinions and willing to see another perspective, direction and possibility to interpret your own work? I think this is the corollary of the previous questions that will keep you inspired and remove any limits to your growth. There is so much to take from others, both as immediate advice, models to follow or just inspiration.

Following the recent deaths of friends and colleagues, I would also add, human connection. I am sorry that I didn’t reach out to some people who have inspired me to tell them so. That would have been important to them, too, perhaps, but most importantly, it would have kept me going further and better.


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