I had an email exchange recently from a high school student, who asked me, sight unseen, to fund the camera of his dreams. Although he might have been off base with his request, his issue is not an uncommon one with photographers struggling to get to the next level who confuse creativity with tools. I took his request seriously and gave him a serious response. Here is the exchange.
I'm a High School student from Costa Mesa, CA and i am writing this email for one specific reason. To get straight to the point I am writing this to ultimately ask you for a professional or a semi professional DSLR along the lines of a 5D Mark II. My rational behind this is that I think I have earned this camera. This coming from a person that you have never heard of, and me having no credibility may make this claim of "I think I have earned this" seem ridiculous, but the reality is I have put so many hours and days and months and years into my photography with the camera I possess at the moment that I want to step up to the next level and get the next best thing which is a better camera body. Since I am in high school sports I can't find time to get any kind of job and no job means no money so my dream of possessing a professional camera of my own is virtually impossible to fulfill on my own.... My Canon Rebel XS has been pushed to it's limit, but this limit is not enough. You may say it is the photographer and not the camera that makes the picture that comes through that lens. Yes, I 100% agree with this statement but, as time goes on and you start pushing your creative techniques farther you need more advantages and this is what I think this professional camera body would give me...I hope you can really give this thought and not throw it out like it is just another email. It would mean the world to me! And even if the answer is a no I would still love a response! Thanks!
Here is how I answered.
It should not surprise you that I'm turning you down. I am not going to buy you a shiny new camera. Whether you deserve it or not is irrelevant. With luck, you will find out that it is not life's job to supply us with what we deserve. You will be happier and more successful if and when when you outgrow entitlement, which is tough to do in this climate. Every message in our culture clobbers us with this notion that we need to buy our way to contentment and that we need the latest gizmo to do it. It's hard to step outside that, but you can't grow creatively without questioning the reality around you.
Consider that Damon Winter won an award in the Picture of the Year competition (the most prestigious photojournalism award out there) with a shot he took on his iPhone. Constraint is what drives creativity. If you're not frustrated with the limits of your tools, you're not doing it right. You are probably right that you can't take the photos that you've seen in the media, and that you have in your mind's eye, with the equipment that you have. This is the constraint in your life right now—you don't have the gear that the pros have. When you're a pro, you get to. Not now. Prove you've got the goods inside yourself first.
So, how are the limits of your tools going to drive your work? What creative capabilities can your tools show you that aren't in your mind yet? What can the camera you have teach you? Believe me, you haven't reached a tenth of the potential of what the camera you have can do. Or a hundredth of what you can do.
As a pro, I can say that I can't do the work I do without the gear I have. But, the gear is, perhaps, 10% responsible for the images I make. The more important pieces are my social skills, my business skills, the curiosity I nurture, the physical condition I keep my body in, the attentiveness I give to the environment around me (and it's not just visual)--all those result in the kind of images I make, and the kind of life I have built.
Good luck, and keep me posted.
He wrote me back to thank me, though I couldn't tell if what I said sunk in. He gave me permission to share this, though he hoped that he didn't sound spoiled (well, that didn't work.) It reminded me of a certain stage in my growth, when I was sure that if I used the same film and developer as the photographers I admired, that would be the key to unlock my creative drive.
The only piece that really matters is the drive and the committment. This kid sounds hungry. That's good. He's a bit sidetracked at the moment thinking the equipment is the salient feature. With luck, he'll outgrow that.