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Jesse Lizotte
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How to be a photographer without going to art school

‘Always shoot with a hard on’: read these practical tips and tricks for wannabe visionaries looking to gain their education outside of formal training

Photography is without doubt the artistic medium of our day: the fact that everyone has a portable camera and instant access to high level editing software has exploded the art form, and created an unprecedented number of amateur photographers. But not everyone can turn a social habit into a living, the sheer accessibility of images, for example – from flickr’s creative commons to Instagram – has had an inverse effect on the amount of paid work available for photographers. Artists now seem to spend more time building their networks and promoting their output than they do on developing and producing their art. To distinguish yourself in such a competitive environment, you need to be enterprising, as well as creative.

Jesse Lizotte is a Sydney-born, NYC-raised emerging photographer in his early 20s who started working in fashion photography aged just 17. We spoke to Lizotte (in Tokyo, where he currently finds himself) about his philosophy for starting out a career in photography with no formal training.

“No one gives a shit who you worked for or how technical you are. I’ve met people who have worked for some of the best photographers in the world, but can’t make a good picture themselves’’ – Jesse Lizotte


“Sometimes you have to fake it till you make it. I turned up to work as a photo assistant on my first day with no clue beyond how to set up a light stand. I was asked to do a light reading and I pointed my light meter at the model upside down and back to front – making it completely useless. She could sense my awkwardness and corrected me before I could embarrass myself any further.” It’s surprising to hear this from a photographer who shoots subcultures (currently he’s in Japan, taking pictures of Yakuza, bikers, punks and lowrider scenes) with a sense of easy familiarity. But what counts is how you move forward, says Lizotte, “do what you gotta do to get your foot in the door, and don’t wait around for things to come to you.”


Quantity gives quality when it comes to photography – especially when shooting digitally. The more you shoot, the more likely you are to get the iconic shot. The malleability of photography now means that so much can be applied and subtracted after the act, in the darkroom or on the computer screen. “No one gives a shit who you worked for or how technical you are. I've met people who have worked for some of the best photographers in the world, but can't make a good picture themselves.” The old adage practice makes perfect still applies, then. “Just pick up the camera and shoot. Knowing every technical detail doesn't make you a good photographer or make a good photo, learning from failures does. Sometimes the best pictures just come out of nowhere. It's really all about the subject.”


Art school – teaching any creative disciplines is tricky territory, ideologically, not to mention the cost. So is it worth it? In the end, it comes down to personality, and recognizing when you have a true vocation… “After I finished high school, I was looking for direction. Photography was the only constant thing in my life – everything else had fallen by the wayside, like when I was 13 and thought it would be cool playing bass in a punk band called ‘kinky therapy’. I didn't work hard enough and got kicked out of the band...” That’s not to say he went totally solo, but guidance can come from anyone with experience. “The best advice someone gave me when I was 17 and wanted to know more about photography as a job was ‘don't bother going to school.’ He was an accomplished photographer, having studied it and even worked as an assistant for Annie Leibovitz. “So I started assisting all different types of photographers (from lamp shades to lingerie) to earn a crust. What I learnt on set of a photo shoot in a day, would have taken weeks in school.” It’s clear that in addition to that, you need an innate sense of discipline, and a proactive approach to getting by: Lizotte has used his earnings from commercial fashion work to self-fund his art and zine projects.


Billboards campaigns now are being produced by smartphone cameras, a proof of the results you can get from all kinds of machines – and though these might not have the same kudos, they force you to be versatile. Lizotte works with a Yashica T4 picked up for $5 in a pawnshop, as well as his contax G2 and Canon 5DmkII. “Don't get caught up on what camera you have – film or digital just use what's available. I can't remember who said this but the best camera is the one you have on you – if it's an iPhone, that’s cool. I've had expensive cameras that I've taken shit photos with because I was spending too much time trying to figure it out instead of thinking about what I was shooting.”


Lizotte’s free, honest style has been presented this month at Slow Culture, LA and at a solo show China Heights, Sydney; but he doesn’t take pictures with an audience in mind, preferring to follow the energy of the moment in front of him, which translates into the picture, as something authentic:  “Photography can be pretty self indulgent. Someone once told me ‘you must always shoot with a hard on’ – not literally but you know what I mean. Seek out situations where you can photograph what excites you – even if you don't belong there, if you have a genuine fascination with the subject it will come across in your photos. Make images to satisfy yourself first of all – satisfy an obsession you have with a subject, even if it’s driven by fear or wanting to understand it. If you get a kick out of it then someone else with the same take on the world will vibe off it too.”


Being bold enough to shoot on the streets, to approach strangers – especially ones like Pancho (“he has more tattoos than skin, I’ve been to his house in San Pedro a couple of times, and he’d tell me stories about his friends, most of whom are dead or doing life sentences”) takes a certain amount of gall. “Don't be shy, just own it. You are a photographer – ask questions, direct people. It's not a chore, that's what you do. People will do what you want, provided you show them respect. Then you can get what you want – a good photo. Capture a beautiful moment. But you have to make people trust you and feel comfortable around you first. Even the toughest, hardest looking guy – when faced with a camera, can look awkward and feel vulnerable.”

Lizotte’s work is currently on show at ‘Deeds Not Words’ at Slow Culture, Los Angeles