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On Becoming a Photographic Citizen

Craig Varjabedian on photographic field trip with students from the Santa Fe Community College, c.1988

Yours truly on photographic field trip with my students from the Santa Fe Community College, Santa Fe, New Mexico  c.1988.

I have been teaching photography for a long time now; well over twenty-five years.  I have noticed there are many things that bring people to photography. Besides the desire to make beautiful pictures of their worlds and sharing these with their friends and family, there is a sense of wanting to be a part of a larger photographic community that is important to them.

Deep down, those of us who teach, know that every one who attends a workshop will not become a professional photographer; though we know that the dream still burns brightly for many. While some do indeed go on to a career behind the lens, many are hoping to simply make great pictures of the people in their lives. Others are hoping to make some beautiful images of their next trip to Tuscany. To borrow from my 17 year old daughter’s vernacular, “It’s all good!”

Recently I have been thinking that perhaps the reason I teach photography isn’t just to help create photographers, but is instead to help create a group of people who deeply care about images and image making. I want to “move the needle” as my friend Ron would say, away from buying camera gear or discovering yet another tool in Photoshop, towards a practice I would like to call “Photographic Citizenship*.”

How does one practice Photographic Citizenship you might ask? Let me count the ways! Below is a list with a few ideas:

  • You buy books of photographs by photographers you love and study their work again and again and again. This in turn teaches you something about images that only time and repeated study will allow and your purchase supports that photographer’s work.
  • You attend lectures/presentations by photographers to better understand why they make the photographs they make, so that you might discover new ideas and perhaps learn new ways of seeing.
  • You send e.mails and notes of appreciation to other photographers for their incredible work so they know how much their images are being appreciated.
  • You learn about the photographers of the past and present (Niepce, Daguerre, Day, Ray, Kertesz, Weston, Adams, Bullock, Lange, Liebovitz, Capa, Smith, Cunningham, Bresson, Gilpin, Winogrand, Avedon,  Meyerowitz and so many others) to better understand where and how the work you want to make fits into the history of photography and maybe even the larger continuum of life.
Craig Varjabedian's daughter works with a 4-month old Great Dane puppy at the Santa Fe Animal Shelter, 2013

My daughter works with a 4-month old Great Dane puppy at the Santa Fe Animal Shelter, 2013. She loved the puppy so much that he now resides here at the studio.

  • You find ways to give something back. The animal shelter where my daughter volunteers, invites photographers from the local community, after minimal training, to make pictures of the dogs and cats needing to be adopted.
  • And, you buy a print or two occasionally, to support the work of photographers you love because it’s important to live with beautiful images and because the old adage is indeed true that, “what goes around, comes around.” I don’t think there is a photographer out there who would not be thrilled if someone purchased one of their photographs.

Ultimately I believe when you truly become a Photographic Citizen, you move away from focusing on the material side of photography (camera, lenses, computers and software) and refocus yourself on something deeper and more lasting and maybe even more meaningful. You come to understand that having a life in photography is about the images we make and about the people who are touched by them. It’s what we learn about the places and people we photograph and ultimately, about what we can learn about ourselves along the way.

 * This blog piece was inspired by an idea of citizenship in the literary world proposed by author Cathy Day.

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CRAIG VARJABEDIAN is an award-winning photographer who explores the back roads of the American West, making pictures of the unique and quintessential. He shares awe-inspiring stories of the land and the people who live on it . . . one photograph at a time.


  1. Beautifully said. A good set of goals to strive for. Especially enjoyed your final thoughts in the last paragraph. Thanks for sharing.

    • Lisa, You always have the nicest things to say about my writing. I have become increasingly frustrated with the way photography is being portrayed to people who are now just picking up their first serious camera. What folks are reading and learning, at times, seem to lack a real soul that all true art forms have but do not always practice. A soul in the end, is what makes an art form authentic which is why I photograph the way I do and the same reason I think you make photographs as well. So glad to hear from you.

  2. We are very fortunate that Craig is so willing to share his insight with the world. I am so appreciative of his beautiful work and that it can be regularly enjoyed via his book in my home. A workshop is on my bucket list.

    • Carl, I really appreciate your kind words and am grateful to now that a workshop is “on your bucket list.” I miss the crew from Oklahoma and hope that I might see you and little Carl again. So I send you my best and please pass along my best to your son as well.

  3. Well said Craig! Thank You for sharing this. I will share this with my students and hope they take your advice – and of course hopefully take some of mine 🙂

    Mark Zimmerman

    • Mark, Thanks for helping me get the word out. Photography has to be a larger and more thoughtful experience than the one that many people perceive it be for it to be a true art form. You’re an amazing teacher and I am sure, your students are listening albeit each in their own way. I can’t tell you the number of times over the years that something my photography teacher said 30+ years ago all of a sudden “made sense.” I guess that old Zen saying is true, that the student has to be ready for the lesson being given. I have no doubt that you have seen this again and again in your own teaching. Best to you!

  4. Very nice article. I think most advanced amateur photographers worry more about having the latest and greatest equipment than practicing the craft. I am one of those who like to have state of the art gear but don’t get the opportunity to really use it. I know when I am in the field making photos I feel relaxed, my mind is concentrating on my subject and the results show in the photos. I am now moving to be less “gear” and post processing driven and moving to getting it right in the camera in the field. I want to minimize my time at the computer and maximize my time in the field. Craig, I like the passion you project in your writing and photography. Thanks for sharing.

    • Hi James, I appreciate your taking the time to comment on my recent blog post. I used to know an old photographer in Pennsylvania who began photographing in the early part of the last century. He told me that when he first started out he had one camera and one lens and he made hundreds of pictures. Later he purchased another lens and he started making less pictures! LOL. I am pleased that you are working harder to connect more with your subjects and trying to get the image right in the camera; I’ll bet it is showing in the quality of the pictures you are making. That’s how those old guys (and gals) did it back in the good ol’ days; back when Ansel made his Moonrise and Edward shot his peppers and Bresson shot that incredible image of the man jumping over the ladder. I send you good wishes and lots of good light and hopes for many good images to find their way into your camera.

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