Photography: Ryan Libre
Making the shift from photography enthusiast to professional photographer is never easy. Plenty of people own cameras. Some of them have talent and a good eye. And there are very few buyers.
But the pleasure that comes from spending your days taking pictures, the satisfaction of making a sale and the thrill that comes from seeing your images on walls, in books and inside magazines can make the struggle worthwhile.
That seems to be the case for Ryan Libre, a former US soldier who became disillusioned with life in uniform, left the Forces and picked up a degree in Peace Studies. After spending some time as a peace activist, he took up photography, a medium that, he says, allows him to “be active and have a voice without being attached to dogmatism of any kind.”
Now dividing his time between Hokkaido, Japan and Chiang Mai, Thailand, Ryan is trying to make a living out of his photography. Shooting mainly photojournalistic and travel images, he has photographed Japan’s Daisetsuzan National Park, shot artistic images that portray “enchantment,” and documented the Kachin Independence Army on the border of China and Burma. So far, he has been published in thirteen books, five magazines and a newspaper, and his pictures have been profiled on both the BBC website and National Geographic’s Your Shot page. His photographs have also been displayed at several shows, both group and solo exhibitions, and it’s those shows, he says, that are most important for a photographer’s development.
“I learn so much every time I do one. It really forces me to think about what is my best work, and how to show a complete and diverse yet unified view of something. No matter how many times I have seen those photos before, when other people are carefully examining a large print of them in a gallery, I find mistakes and strong points I never saw before and may have never noticed otherwise.”
Nor are these benefits attainable by displaying the images online. While a website can provide access to images, Ryan argues, the resolution is low and the viewer’s attention span is short. Few people will spend more than a few minutes browsing images on a website. At a gallery, they’re likely to spend an hour or more, plenty of time to fully absorb the work.
Photography: Ryan Libre
Pictures of Graves are Taboo
Of course, obtaining those shows isn’t easy. We’ve described before how photographers are organizing their own exhibitions or teaming up with restaurants to find wall space. Ryan’s first shows took place when he was a student, and were group exhibitions held at the university and in cafes. His first solo exhibition was held at a local library in Hokkaido where, he said, he made plenty of mistakes. Pictures of graves were taboo in Japan, he discovered, and even flowers can have unique cultural meanings.
“Local knowledge is important to missionaries and businessmen, and important for photographers too,” he notes now. “If you just take photos and go home you can stay blind to many things, but when you show and sell them locally you have to be aware what the locals see in them if you want either to go well.”
Other mistakes were more prosaic. Ryan printed his photos in a size for which he couldn’t find frames, but most importantly, the exhibition had no story. “It was just 20 photos from that year that I liked.”
Those lessons were important when he approached more prestigious venues. Fuji Film Sapporo is an important photo gallery north of Tokyo and is usually booked two years in advance. Ryan was the first non-Japanese photographer to have a show there, and the first photographer under the age of 30. A long preparation time contributed to the show’s success, he says, but even more vital was a connection. The owner of the camera shop where Ryan prints his images knew everyone at the gallery and was able to get him the introduction he needed. In the end, Ryan sold $1,600 worth of prints at the show, allowing him to generate a small profit.
“[B]reaking even at a photo show is considered good,” Ryan explains “[T]he main goal is usually for publishers to see your work and ‘prove’ your merit as a photographer so you stand out a little from the crowd and get commissions and students easier.”
Pitch the Show, First Shoot the Photos Second
For his show at the Kinokuniya Bookstore in Sapporo, Ryan took a slightly different approach. Instead of showing the venue his portfolio and asking for a show, he asked if they’d be interested in displaying the images of Cambodia that he planned to shoot the following winter, images that he believed would suit the gallery’s style. The gallery couldn’t promise to display photos that they couldn’t see, so Ryan agreed to upload his pictures to his website as soon as they were ready. The gallery agreed to save him a space if they liked what they saw. Had he waited until he returned with the images to approach the gallery, Ryan explained, he would have had to wait a year for a space to open up.
In the end, the galley did exhibit his pictures. But here too, Ryan just broke even, a point that emphasizes the difficulty of earning with photography even when your pictures are good enough to win audiences.
In fact, Ryan describes his financial situation as “getting by” and says that he has to accept “being poor sometimes and flat broke others while I wait for [my photography] to grow.” His description of ten days in the life of an aspiring photographer contains plenty of interesting travel, far too much cycling to be healthy… and no billable hours. Although he’d like to be able to afford better gear and more travel options, Ryan tries to live cheaply.
He also tries to do more than turn his photography into cash. His images have been described as “a means of embracing the world” and he’s starting an NGO called Documentary Arts Asia which is intended to form a community and center dedicated to the “education, production and advocacy of the documentary arts in Asia.”
It might not be the way a professional usually measures his success, but it’s certainly a sign of enthusiasm for photography and it’s likely to be at least as rewarding as a profitable show.