You often hear the advice that one should ‘follow one’s passion’. I want to break this down a little. What exactly do ‘they’ mean by ‘passion’. According to the Oxford English Dictionary that I still keep like a bible next my desk, passion is: 1) a strong, barely controllable emotion, 2) an outburst of anger, 3) intense sexual love, 4) strong enthusiasm. The wording really revolves around the intensity of the emotion. In some ways the Concise OED doesn’t quite define the intensity of the interest enough. The online urban dictionary does a better job in my opinion (http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Passion):
“Passion is when you put more energy into something than is required to do it. It is more than just enthusiasm or excitement, passion is ambition that is materialized into action to put as much heart, mind, body and soul into something as is possible.”
We use the word ‘passion’ fairly flippantly, not taking full cognisance of what it fully entails. An example is someone saying they are passionate about coffee. What they really mean is they enjoy coffee and have an interest in it. To be passionate about it would be to source the beans independently, roast your own beans, read up and study about the different cultivars, know intimately the different ways in which to brew coffee, be able to identify different cultivars by flavour or aroma or even colour, spend time thinking about coffee and basically being completely absorbed by the topic. One of my mentors was passionate about his work. He was an antique dealer and was at times wholly absorbed by his passion (and it was most definitely a passion, not merely an interest). He happened to be an extraordinary teacher as well, but only found happiness in his work life once he left teaching entirely - the theoretically safe career - to be an antique dealer full time.
I often hear from people that I meet that they think they should potentially become photographers because they are passionate about photography. For many of them this is definitely the case. I have met several ‘amateur’ photographers who are absolutely miserable in their day jobs. In every spare moment that they have they are tinkering with a camera, shooting, processing, planning images, reading about photography. It is the thing that gets them through the day of their usual (usually relatively well paid) jobs. There are also several people I have met who say they are ‘passionate’ about photography where really it is only an interest and a weekend one at that. Importantly, this does not mean that the former passionate individuals are better photographers than the latter. It does not require passion to be a good photographer.
Which brings me to a conversation I was having with a fellow photographer, one whose work I admire. We were bemoaning the state of the industry as is often the case when you put two or more photographers together. He commented that he couldn’t comprehend why he would want to continue with this job when there simply didn’t seem to be enough money in it. As I have mentioned before, every day is a hustle. There is no such thing as an easy road in the professional world of photography. So I asked him what he would do if he had all the money in the world. Answer: create photographs. He turned it round and asked me what I would do if I didn’t have any money. Answer: I would try and make photographs. In short, in both the worst and best case financial scenarios, we would still try and practice photography.
There are successful photographers who entered the industry because they thought it would be a good way to make money. Admittedly I cannot think of any off the top of my head, but I am sure there are people with enough business savvy to be able to look at photography as an income stream first and foremost. The fact - and I realise that this is anecdotal - that I cannot think of any offhand is indicative that these are likely to be a small minority of professional photographers. Then there are the others that are, to all intents and purposes, passionate about what they do. The list of individuals I know ranges from the near destitute to the fairly financially successful. The thing about all of them is that they love what they do. It doesn’t matter what they photograph, they love the fact that they are creating something with a camera. For some of these the passion does die off as the realities of running a business take a hold. Then photography just becomes another job, or in other words, a good way to murder the enjoyment that a hobby brings.
Possibly it should be better to ask where the passion should lie. I suspect that for photographers interested in the gear rather than the image (and why not, photography equipment is fun), becoming solely involved in image-making is a mistake. The core passion doesn’t revolve around making photography, it revolves around playing with and using equipment. similarly for some would-be travel photographers, the passion isn’t in the photography but rather in the travel aspect that the photography happens to encompass. Saying you are passionate about ‘photography’ is an extraordinarily broad area of interest then.
I heard a good line this morning from another photographer friend of mine going through something of an identity crisis regarding his own feelings towards being a photographer; “passion is good for the soul, but nobody gives a shit”. He’s right. For someone viewing an image, it’s about the image. Their reading of the photograph has nothing to do with how passionate or un-passionate the photographer is towards their craft. The photographer can be as passionate as a hormone overloaded teenager besotted with a member of the opposite sex. It doesn’t make that photographer a good photographer. Possibly, where passion matters, is when it is the driving force to pick you up when you fail (because you will).
Ultimately, it doesn’t require a passionate approach to being a competent or even good photographer. For that matter, passion or lack thereof isn’t going to be the bell-weather of enjoyment either. All it needs is an interest for someone to enjoy photography. Passion only really becomes useful, I think, when you find yourself working photographically on something you wouldn’t do for pleasure (as a disclaimer in this regard, I earn a significant portion of my income photographing products and hardware for brochures and websites - not exactly creative stuff). Does shooting the mundane kill your theoretical passion? Speaking for myself, I get a thrill from problem solving image making whether it’s an extraordinary landscape in front of my lens or a chrome bathroom tap.
What it boils down to is, where is your passion? Is the passion in creating images, in being in different places, in experiencing different things, in playing with equipment. Is creating images the goal, or is the image-making process a means to another goal? Chances are if the image-making is the goal in itself photographers would be happy regardless of what they shoot. If the image-making serves a different purpose then, that other purpose may actually be where the passion lies and not in ‘photography’ per se (an old school colleague of mine who now shoots almost exclusively downhill mountain biking and extreme biking is passionate about what he shoots, far more so I’d argue than than in ‘photography’).
So no, passion isn’t vital to being a ‘good’ photographer…but it is imperative to be a great photographer. The caveat is that said passion does not have to be in photography.