I’m quite the answerable and have always had a hard time explaining to my non-photographer friends, the cost of a certain camera and lens. Back in 2008, when I bought my first DSLR, a Nikon D80, it cost me around $1200 with a kit lens. The same friends were shocked and complained how I could’ve bought a Macbook instead!
A decade down the road, having established myself as a professional photographer, my photography and gear have grown. Over the years, I’ve owned 100’s of lenses and a multitude of cameras. I recently splurged $5000 on a portrait lens. Wedding photographers here in Pakistan have spent a good $20-30,000 on bigger and costlier gear. There is certainly no limit, as they are also the ones who make the most with their profession!
Some of us have struggled over the years and feel great pride when we show off our photos and the costly gear that was used in the process. The rest of the majority are hobbyists who are more of collectors, diseased with GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome)
Amidst the hobbyist and the pros, there lies a third sect of photographers. We are not aware of their existence, as they are not photographers any more. This consists of people who were once photographers, or part of professional photography, but now have had to quit due to financial or personal reasons. In the last two years, on various trips to Pakistan and abroad, I’ve ran into such ‘ex-photographers’, each with a story of their own.
At a security check-post in Pakistan, I was stopped and asked to unzip my bag. I showed the security guard the contents of my bag and zipped it up again. I always get irritated when I am frisked at security check-posts and have to show the contents of my camera bag. A press card gets me inside many places, beyond general public access, but owing to the worsening security situation, you cannot be excused from checking. Upon seeing different lenses and cameras inside the bag, the security guard’s eyes sparkled. He told me that how he once used to be a photographer some years ago, but had to abandon it due to financial issues. “I covered a lot of events, but things were slow and I felt a job would give me more stability,” he explained.
I could almost feel his pain, but realised that he didn’t want an audience. He allowed me to proceed and I walked away with a heavy but “privileged” heart, thinking to myself,
“What if I had to abandon my photography some day?
Am I taking photography for granted?
Am I justifying my photographic equipment and time?”
The questions stuck around for some time, and then faded, until some days later, a photography assignment brought me to the capital of Pakistan, Islamabad.
The airport is a 45 minutes from the city, and the long and boring ride allows enough time to interact with taxi drivers. From a journalistic perspective, taxi drivers are always very interesting to talk to. They may not be reliable sources of information; but they interact with a lot people all day, are more open about their personal and professional lives, as they commute all day around the city, and are more aware of the problems and issues, and love to talk!
Afzal Masih is one such taxi driver in Islamabad. We became “friends” when he discovered that I was a journalist, after I showed my press card at a security check-point. He was even more excited to know that I was a photographer. It later turned out that he was once a wedding photographer, but had sold his photographic and studio equipment to buy his own taxi, as he felt it was financially “more viable”. He announced in a mix of Punjabi and Urdu “I started with the Nikon D70, but Nikon’s best camera was the D90, it had great results and I could shoot video too!” I was shocked to hear the names of cameras and lenses from a taxi driver!
And here he was, plying on the roads of the capital. It was difficult for me to visualise myself as a taxi driver, 10 years down the ‘road’, telling another photojournalist how I too once used to be a photographer. I’m sure Afzal too never thought he’d have to abandon his hobby/profession. It also made me realise how easily the privileged under-estimate fellow human beings, based on their appearances, income levels, professions and ethnicity.
You look at a gardener who’s inspecting your camera from a distance, and instantly laugh to yourself, thinking what would this mere gardener know what you’re holding and what it is meant for.
I hope we as humans, as photographers, as hobbyists, can support the less privileged who share the similar, or greater passion for the arts. Maybe you could let someone you know/trust borrow your backup camera for some days. Or invite them on a shoot maybe. I’m sure a lot of our seniors have been kind to us over the years, and clichéd as it may sound, you should be kind to people on your way to the top, as you’ll be meeting them on your way down, or when they overtake you in the fateful years to come! Cheers!