It's World Photography Day today!
I don’t think I’ve ever consciously chosen to celebrate World Photography Day before. Photography wasn’t really a goal I had - in fact, I’ve never really had a ‘life plan’ for myself. When I was little, I actually wanted to be a palaeontologist and dig up dinosaur bones - until I grew up a bit and realised I’m not a fan of dust and mud!
My Grandpa had once given me an old Kodak Instamatic camera to play with as a toy when I was about 3 years old. For whatever reason it no longer worked, but I would wander around the house, “taking pictures” of all sorts. I think I also loved the sound and and feeling of the wind-and-click mechanism to move the imaginary film spool forwards. That Kodak still sits on my desk, and sometimes I find myself lost in thought, “winding and clicking” - I guess you could say it’s my photographer’s equivalent of a fidget-spinner.
I didn’t give much more thought to photography as I was growing up. At school I was pretty good at history, languages and writing, and by my Standard 9 (Grade 11) year, I had mostly settled on doing a journalism degree. But I was also pretty good at art, and at the very last minute changed my mind and applied for a Fine Art degree instead. “Best you pick a major you can make some money out of” was my family’s general consensus (my Dad has a stainless steel construction business and my Mom an office manager/PA) and to be honest the idea at the time was to go on to paint wall murals. True story!
I got accepted at Rhodes University and I packed up and moved across the country for my new adventure. In my 1st year, we did a term of each discipline: painting, sculpture, graphics (the old school type, like linocuts and etching) and photography. And that’s when I got hooked.
Even though I sucked at first, like really sucked. I look at some of the photos I shot in my first year and cringe...but it’s also a great reminder of humble beginnings. The dark room became my safe place. My quiet place. For the first two years of my degree I only worked with black and white film, hand processing and developing my own spools and prints. Unless you’ve had the experience yourself, I don’t think I can adequately explain the feeling of anticipation of watching your image quite literally come to life on the paper in front of you. In 3rd year we progressed to colour printing - developing a colour print was done through a machine in the complete darkness, no red safety lightbulbs there.
By 3rd year I had a pretty good idea that I was going to continue with photography as my chosen career path. Although, most of my University work was very conceptual and to be honest by the time I completed my degree at the end of 2005, I still wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do going forwards. It had to be in photography, but now what? I did a few odd jobs in those first few months after graduation, photographing residential homes and hotels and the like, but not only did I not have the skill or equipment for architectural work, I also didn’t have the passion for it.
Then, I saw an advert in the paper (yes, these were the days before online job portals and Facebook) for a junior photographer at a family portrait studio. I didn’t even know what a family portrait studio was. Family portraits was never something we had experienced while growing up, and in my mind I was going to be taking photos against those mottled blue backdrops - like my graduation pic. Or our school photos! But, nevertheless I applied, and when I went for the interview imagine my surprise to see this all white studio with happy, fun images printed and framed hanging on the walls.
By then I was shooting on digital cameras and learning how to edit in Photoshop. The whole industry was starting to change, and it was pretty exciting to be part of it. And not only that, I discovered I loved photographing families and kids. And family portraits became my first love. At the end of 2006, I was named the studio’s Photographer of the Year. It wasn’t just the achievement that meant so much to me, it was what I had been able to give to the clients I met and photographed.
Over the next 10 years, my photography journey took me to another portrait studio closer to home (that I managed for a year), and then to a different side of the industry as account executive and then media sales manager at Gallo Images. It was quite a shift from kids to corporate, but the years I spent there gave me a whole new appreciation of the value of correctly pricing and licensing content. Those years gave me the business knowledge I needed when I officially launched Leigh Benson Photography at the start of 2017.
And straight away, I knew that family portraits would still be my priority. It was never in doubt. I never lost the drive I had for creating images that really meant something to the people I created them for.
It’s been quite a ride since those early days, especially with Covid turning our industries and economy upside down. But honestly, I wouldn’t trade this for anything in the world. Being a portrait photographer has never just been about taking a pretty picture. Maybe it’s because I don’t have any formal photographs of my own family that I see the value in it even more. And even though my packages are based around digital images, I am a big advocate of printed artwork. Although it’s been years since I hand-printed my own work in a darkroom, I still love the feeling of prints. Digital images are great and social media lets us share our images with friends and family all around the world, but printed artwork just has that extra something.
A tangible, physical connection to a moment in time, otherwise forgotten.
I think the day that I stop getting butterflies before a shoot is the day I need to retire. The butterflies aren’t due to nerves, they’re the same butterflies I would get standing at the developing trays 18 years ago watching my images reveal themselves on the paper in front of me. I’ve never wanted to be a cookie-cutter photographer. I’ve never wanted this to feel like a “job”. As much as I appreciated the years I spent learning sales and strategy and business, a corporate life wasn’t for me.
I knew I’d been given a gift to share stories through my photography, and I’m filled with gratitude every day that I am trusted to tell those stories.
Happy World Photography Day!
From then, to now!
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