When It Comes to Photography, Be a Shark, Not a Jet

When It Comes to Photography, Be a Shark, Not a Jet

A brief story to round out the year and launch us into the next.

Yes, I am a fan of West Side Story. And, yes, I may have just walked out of a screening of Steven Spielberg’s remake. But aside from borrowing inspiration for my title, I promise you that at no point in this article will I break out into song. Nobody wants that. Nobody.

But, all joking aside, this is that time of year where we not only drink a little too much eggnog, but also make some truly questionable decisions in the presence of mistletoe, and take stock of the 12 months that have come before. This is also the time of the year where we, or I, at least, start making plans for the next 12 months still yet to come.

Usually, for me, this comes in ways both formal and informal. I almost can’t help but ponder what might lie ahead. It’s a quirk of the human condition. It’s only natural to wonder what comes next. Then, there’s the formal planning. This is the time of the year where I wrap my books and set about financial planning for the business for the next fiscal period. More often than not, this is accompanied by a quarterly review of my business plan to see what initiatives have been working and which could use a little readjustment.

I’ve done these little reviews since I opened my business. And, generally speaking, the overall goals don’t change so much from quarter to quarter. Guess I should take that as a compliment that I had such a firm grasp on the type of artist I wanted to be before I started. But the small details about how I get there do change. And, lately, in most recent drafts, I’ve found the very definition of what exactly “there” is to have done some shifting as well.

Largely, this is driven by natural currents within the business. Customer needs and demands shift over time. Naturally, any good business person needs to be able to shift with them. And that’s not even taking into account the shakeup caused by a certain pandemic that shall go unnamed. Ironically, these customer-driven changes have coincided with changes in my interests. I accepted a long time ago that I am someone who loves to learn. Reaching my goals and being able to revel in the pride of accomplishment is great, but what floats my boat is the idea that I can go to bed tonight as a better artist than I was when I woke up this morning. Or that I’ve learned more about history, become better at navigating social situations, or simply, to paraphrase one of my favorite movies, “The Apartment,” taken steps to try to become more of a mensch. Whatever form the progress might take, I want to keep moving forward. And this is what leads me to the title of the essay. The idea is that we should all choose to emulate the shark rather than the jet. But first, a song.

Okay. Not really. But I think you may be able to relate to a bit of a visual metaphor. Think of a jet. It’s all about speed. You get where you want to go quickly. It’s possibly at its fastest in the beginning, when it is trying to build up the speed to take off. Then, it gets in the air, hits its cruising altitude, and glides along for the length of its journey. But, of course, no matter how long the journey might be, eventually, that jet has to come back down to Earth. It was fun while it lasted, but, in the end, the jet will end up right back at ground level where it started.

Now, think of the shark. Constantly on the lookout for the next meal. Always, always, moving forward. A shark has to move forward to survive. It thrives or dies. On a side note, being a big fan of my pajamas, I found myself wondering how sharks manage to sleep without breaking their stride. The swimming motion of the shark is controlled by its central nervous system rather than its brain. So, they can let their brains go to sleep while allowing their bodies to continue going through the motions. And while I have serious doubts about my potential for a career in marine biology, I thought that the metaphor of constant motion was an apt one for how one might envision the journey of their career. You might not be able to turn your brain off on set. But, you can follow the sharks' example and choose to keep pushing forward at all costs.

Rising fast, then burning out just as fast, is exciting. And that’s one way to go. But, from the standpoint of longevity, a career in the arts is more of a journey where you have no choice but to move forward. As much work as we put into developing our skill set, we can’t fall into the trap of ever envisioning our skill set to be a finite thing. We have to keep improving, because every day that we don’t improve we are falling behind. Other artists are coming up behind you. New techniques are being developed that might aid your craft. There’s so much to stay on top of just to stay within touching distance of the pack. This doesn’t mean that you have to change who you fundamentally are from day to day to keep up. It simply means that life is the one factory line where you work on the same product day in and day out to make it better, knowing all along that the product will never actually be finished.

I have to keep this in mind every time I revise my business plan and realize that some of my goals for the next year might be wildly different from the goals I had the previous time my clock rolled over into the new year. I have to overcome the natural hesitancy to theoretically risk previous progress to take one more step ahead. But, like the shark, the real risk is in standing still. You have to improve just to tread water. If you want to do more than just tread water, you need to swim twice as fast. And while looking back is helpful to planning our next steps, there’s little point in obsessing about what’s behind us. After all, we’re not going in that direction anyway.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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In terms of animals as they relate to professional photography, I would much rather be a bear or a groundhog than a shark.


Because sharks have to keep working and working and working just to stay alive. How horrible that would be!

Bears, groundhogs and the like forage for about 8 months a year, and then they get to take the next 4 months off to relax and take it easy. A much deserved sabbatical after a period of work. And that's how it should be.

Honey Badger don't care!

We would all like to be the honey badger. lol.

But when you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way...

Nice. Beat me to it!

I don't understand what this means. Would you be so kind to explain? Thanks!

West Side Story reference - Jets and Sharks were rival gangs.

Oh, okay. No wonder I didn't get it. That kind of entertainment is not my cup of tea.

But I still don't understand what is meant when one says, "if you're a jet, you're a jet all the way". Is that a line that was in the West Side Story thing that you mention?

But don't eat your clients. That'd be a bad shark.


Not the best analogy...If you're a jet you take off have a great adventure, come home, refuel have a day off and then take off and go on another adventure somewhere else.
If you are a shark you are constantly moving, sometimes in circles sometimes making progress, evena as you sleep you need to move or die.