Grand Central Station and Empire State Building, 2011, © Pilar Arthur-Snead and Photographic Expressions

In response to the answer of her previous query which had essentially boiled down to “What the hell are you doing with your life?” Mary (whose name has been changed for the sake of protecting her pompous anonymity) asked indignantly, “Well, what are you going to do with that?”

Mary is my husband’s former boss. (And apparently she had also dubbed herself ‘mother’ to my husband because she was grilling me as if we weren’t already married!) She has a couple of Ph.D. degrees in Education and Nuclear Science or some such. Neither does she see the value in nor the practical application of anything outside of these two endeavors. Basically, she is one of these people who lives to work. She sends emails to co-workers at 2 am and expects an answer.

So to tell her that I was getting a Master’s of Fine Art in Photography was like telling her that I was an idiot of the seventh level. She could not conceive of the answer I gave her in response to her second and equally invasive interrogation.

“Um, take photographs….”

Blink. Blink. Blank stare. Blink. Blink.

“Yeah, but….Can you? But, what are you…?”

You know, I recognize that where she was coming from was a prudish standpoint that only a person with a “proper” education, that is in math or science, could make or earn a living.  In my own family it was drilled into me from a time before I can remember that I would get an “education” and a good job. So I understand very well this idea that education and a proper job as a doctor, lawyer, or teacher are what officially grant you “productive member of society” status.

But I had done it. Or least I had tried to do it…I went to college got my BA. And then I worked as many things from child care worker to non-profit fundraiser.  Always, at the end of the day, I was miserable. I hated sitting at a desk all day or ringing the cash register or whatever.

For a long time photography served as a blissful escape. When I took photographs I got lucky more times than not with “good photographs”. I started to consider that maybe I had some talent at it. At the same time, I am totally technologically incompetent! My husband had tried many times to explain f-stops, circles of confusion, shutter speeds to  me but it was like listening to an adult speak in a Charlie Brown cartoon.

I could have just as easily taken a few workshops in photography, or just bought a myriad of books on how to make a great picture. Except that, I had not, to that point, ever acquired the skills through any of those means. Also, I knew I was never going to be happy “living to work” at just anything.  Photography represented a sustained love in my life. It was something that required little effort on my part to enjoy and for me to share with others in a joyful manner. What was I waiting for? Certainly not for the approval of Mary and those like her!

There was a career with my name stamped right on it. I just needed the knowledge, skill and confidence to make it happen. So I decided it was time to take my passion to next level. I decided to go to grad school and get a degree in photography.

I am at the tail end of my studies at the Academy of Art University. I do not think an MFA is for everyone. It has been for me though. It has been the best investment, financially and mentally, I have made in my life to date.  I needed a container and a space for which I could learn, test, re-test and do so with a relative safety net i.e. under the guise of the classroom and with other learners who, broadly, had the same desires and interests photographically speaking. Additionally, the process of “the getting” has encouraged critical thinking and research about photography beyond simply understanding and executing the technological how-to’s of exposure and composition.

And finally, the point I am making here, and rather long winded-ly, is that if you are passionate about this photography thing – or anything for that matter – you have the right to learn as much about it as you want to (or don’t want to). You have the right to make this passion your living.

Dare I say you have the obligation to fulfill your passion and to stop “living to work”?


2 thoughts on “Why I Went to Grad School

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