Deep Breath: ­ Professional v Amateur

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John BantinMy family and I love going on holiday. Who doesn’t? My wife went with some girlfriends to the Costa Brava.

They had a great time. They sunbathed, they ate some fine meals, they drank probably too much, and they had a lot of laughs. I went to the Maldives. I enjoyed myself, I ate some fine meals, had a lot of laughs, but I was not there on holiday.

I have got a great job. A successful dentist friend of mine, just taking delivery of his brand new Aston Martin, told me that his real ambition was to change careers and become an ‘inspector of tropical dive sites’. That’s more or less the job I’ve got, and I ride a pushbike.

He takes dentistry very seriously. He is good at what he does and he obviously enjoys it. If he were not good, he’d soon be out of business. It’s the same if you travel the world going diving, taking photographs and writing about it. You have to approach it with a professional mindset or you’d soon be out of business. When you are surrounded by people who are on holiday, it’s important not to lose focus on why you are there. No one wants to hear that you simply had a good time. Where are the results?

Now you may think that I do a lousy job. That’s your privilege. I’m always interested to hear how I can do better. No one is more insecure than someone trying to keep up a standard. I can assure you that to compete with all the other contributors to magazines, you have to do the job professionally.

Some years ago, I travelled across the world to the Solomon Islands to do a feature for a magazine. I found myself sitting next to one of the paying holidaymakers also on the trip. He told me he was a professional photographer who had been assigned to cover the trip for a rival magazine. He showed me his camera equipment and I don’t mind telling you that he had twice as much, and better, equipment than me. I felt very insecure. I really didn’t see how the money he would be paid for a feature would warrant that kind of capital expenditure.

As it turned out, he was actually a successful car salesman who got satisfaction from seeing his stuff in print. There’s nothing wrong with that. The difference is that he was on holiday with his wife. He had a different agenda. I was there to do a job. I was not surprised to see that, despite his superior quality photographic equipment, his results tended to be strictly amateur.

Now that is not to say that amateurs do not produce some startlingly good work. The difference is that if your livelihood depends on it, you have to produce every time. No one wants to hear that you had a problem with your camera or that there was nothing interesting to write about. Amateurs are as good as their best work. Professionals are as bad as their worst.

So that is why I spend a lot of time in my room or cabin when I’m away. In fact since the advent of digital photography I no longer have a permanent tan. Downloading pictures to a laptop and backing them up on to another medium takes a lot of time. It’s got to be done. Jumping in and getting no pictures during a dive for whatever reason is not just irritating. It’s a disaster. It cuts into the overall time in the water and reduces the total throughput of work. Of course, if a trip goes dramatically wrong, that’s a good story!

When I’ve been on trips that have gone really wrong, it’s often heard from the malcontent fare-paying passengers that it’s all right for me – my trip was for free. Well, it’s worse than that. I’m being paid to be there, and I’d better come back with something good.

Scuba-diving, like all leisure activities, attract the serious amateur. In fact there is an ethos of amateurism about it. The man who owns you local dive shop probably got made redundant and because he was a keen amateur diver, he decided to start a shop with his redundancy pay. Few get into diving because it’s a good business. Instructors start teaching because they worked their way up through diving certifications until there was nowhere else to go. On the other hand my dentist friend did not simply drift into dentistry and I bet his patients are glad of that.

I often meet people at parties who tell me that they are a diving instructor. Why do they think I’ll be impressed? They obviously don’t recognise me and when I interrogate them, it usually turns out they hung round a dive centre in some far away place and helped load the tanks on to the boat. Similarly, I often meet people while on dive trips that tell me they are there to do an article for this magazine. I then wonder why the editor sent me, if that was actually the case.

So how do you get a job like mine? Well, first you will need to send in unsolicited contributions and bear the disappointment of the rejection slip. We all had to do this. However, if you really focus on doing a professional job, you supply eye-catching photographs accompanied by copy that is a little bit more than a diary of your holiday, copy that is well written and has a slant to it, copy that makes a point, eventually you might get noticed. It can take years.

It took me about four years before I started getting commissions. Once you get a commission, you’ve got a monkey on your back. You go off on a trip with the responsibility of the professional. Regardless of the weather conditions, the diving opportunities and whether the wildlife turned up or not, you need to stay focussed on coming up with the goods. That can be difficult when all around you are intent on having a good time and you won’t be doing it for the money. Be professional. My dentist friend can never say, “Oh sorry, I seem to have buggered your teeth but then the weather wasn’t right!”

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7 comments for “Deep Breath: ­ Professional v Amateur

  1. Ann Keller
    August 5, 2010 at 5:03 pm

    John, I’d love to know if you think you’re entitled to special privileges (ie. skiffs that take you out before the others, extra bottom time) when you’re out diving with “vacationers” since you’re working. Just curious.

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  2. John Bantin
    August 5, 2010 at 6:14 pm

    I don’t see myself as a wildlife photographer. I see myself as a witness. The other passengers are part of the story. In fact, when I regale the passengers with anecdotes, I hasten to point out that THEY are the NEXT anecdotes. Hence, I don’t ask for any privileges save for a larger tank because I am such a lousy diver!

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  3. Richard Jacoby
    August 6, 2010 at 10:31 pm

    Hey, it’s still a small pond. One need not be arrogant.

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  4. Bret Gilliam
    August 10, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    It may be a small pond… but the problem is Bantin’s height in the pond. He’s akin to a towering ungainly giraffe on valium and too much Grand Marnier. You don’t want to try to put your fins on next to him in a small dive launch. But he’s not arrogant. Although he did recently bring his wife and two daughters to visit me in Maine for five days. They were welcome company… until I found out that he also submitted a critique of my hospitality services all over internet and now I find that I have to justify putting ice cubes in a vodka tonic ’cause the Brits like everything at room temperature including ice cream sundaes. (Just kidding, John’s a great guest!)

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  5. John Bantin
    August 11, 2010 at 1:31 am

    …and Bret is a spectacularly magnificent host – but you probably guessed that!

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  6. October 26, 2010 at 3:42 am

    Have you ever considered technical diving or rebreather diving as a means to giving you more range. By that i mean more time in the water to capture the images you work hard for?

    http://www.bigbluetech.net/big-blue-tech-news/2009/11/07/technical-diving-camerawork-2/

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  7. John Bantin
    October 26, 2010 at 7:13 am

    I am TDI Draeger diver No4 and APD Inspiration Diver No4. I also have a manufacturer’s certification from Kevin Gurr for the Sentinel and first used a rebreather in 1993 with Peter Readey – so , Yes!

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