Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph Blog Some Questions for my Hero – Dr. Ellen's Blog

Some Questions for my Hero

Posted on February 6, 2012 By


Dr. Ellen, please forgive the unsolicited e-mail.  I keyed in psychology and photography in Google and your web page came up. You are my hero! My two main interests in life are these two subjects. I am 32 with a background in art history and museum work. I am planning on returning to graduate school. I want to get an MFA in photography and a masters in clinical psychology. I am so confused, and I am torn between which one I should do first. Did you get an MFA or did you just learn photography on your own? Your resume is very impressive.  I am reaching out to people who have the same interests as I do to try to get some helpful information and feedback.  I am keenly interested in the psychology of art and photography. I am researching graduate schools who may offer such a program. Do you know of any? Any helpful advice you can offer will be greatly appreciated.  My desire is to be a freelance photographer and travel.  Do you have any suggestions on how to get in the door of a publication and how to get started as a freelancer?


Dr. Ellen Responds

It’s nice being someone’s hero for a while! Thanks.

Where to begin? I was in the mental health field from the early 70′s through the late 80′s when I dropped back from full-time to part-time clinical work by opening my own outpatient practice.  The purpose for doing this was so that I could regulate my time more in the directions that I wanted to go.

The mental health field at the same time was becoming driven by HMO’s and ‘big business’ interests, and so it offered fewer creative opportunities for me. I really enjoyed my time as a public speaker and family therapist,  and I especially enjoyed working with people, but it just wasn’t enough for me once the system became overly burdened by regulation and stringent rules regarding fee generation.

My creative juices were stirring and I had to do something about that.

I certainly didn’t go home at night to read psychiatric journals during the years that I was a practicing mental health professional. I read instead about the world and about the planet earth. I also had avocations like music and art and animal welfare interests and even theoretical physics to beguile me.

I remember telling psychology students at the time that they had to be ‘bigger than life’ if they were going to be of any real help to others. That meant stepping outside the box that they were in.

I have always been an artist of one sort or another but photography intrigued me, in large part because of the obvious intersection with the study of humans. It was a good fit for me. A psychologist sees things through (her) lens that a non-psychologist wouldn’t see; just as I don’t see the world from an engineering perspective, or from a legal perspective. They see things that I don’t see. It’s all about perspective. We each bring our unique perspective with us to the work we do.

I studied and learned about photography on my own by joining some active nature photography collectives early on, and also by hanging out with nature photography professionals, and even traveling with them. I read all their books and studied their photos, and I got to know many of them personally and am still am in contact with  them today. I am a networker at heart so none of this was foreign to me.

It’s All in What We Know

A nature photographer who knows little about nature is a ‘nature photographer’ in name only. A portrait or street photographer who knows little about people is also that in name only. You can hardly call yourself a travel photographer if you don’t travel seriously.

But imagine the power of a biologist’s mind behind the viewfinder! Or the power of a psychologist’s mind, or perhaps even a combination of both perspectives. Or that of a physicist! Some of the most amazing discoveries occur every day in this world when an individual mixes together ideas and passions in a way that only they can do.

I was intrigued from the start by the power of the Internet for learning.

As a consequence, I became actively engaged with the emerging world of digital photography. The implications of this virtual reality were thrilling to me. Photography, in the wake of the digital revolution, is changing as we speak and, as it changes, we change in relation to it and to our subjects.

I was also attracted to the dynamic process of moving from film to digital media and all that that entailed intellectually.

Know Thyself

The art of living is to combine your special talents in your own way to meet your own creative needs. You cannot rely on an institution of higher learning to do this for you. An institution is just that: it offers you a well-worn path to follow with established guidelines (as well as some good models hopefully) for how to do things and how to think through things in the way that others have done before you. In graduate school we used to kid each other about finally earning our ‘union card’ on graduation day;  that is, we finally had jumped through all the hoops that were required of us along the doctoral pathway. Miss dotting one ( i ) or a couple of crucial (t’s) and we all knew that we might not find ourselves sitting there in our flowing black robes with the others on graduation day. Institutionally, things work that way. The institutional norm is conformity.

In contrast, your own dynamic process of combining thoughts and things is of a much higher order, one that is not to be underestimated.

What we learn in graduate school should be just the beginning. What counts is what we do with that learning as we move into the world with new tools in hand. Many students think in terms of ‘terminal’ degrees but that is myopic thinking! The only terminal thing in life is death. Degrees are not. Learning is not. Learning takes place with every breath we take, sometimes even despite ourselves.

I tell students to formulate a world view first, primarily through a rigorous exposure to a chosen profession. Then, while you’re still busy doing that, start weaving photography into the very fabric of your life. Grow them both together. Allow them to eventually form a whole that is greater than the parts; although, be advised, this process is not a swift one.

The Nuts and Bolts

As for how to become a freelancer, well, you just do it.

When I started freelancing I was already well-known in my area as a mental health professional and accomplished public speaker. I was also active in local politics and local animal welfare issues, including being the long-time chairman of the board of the local SPCA.

It was not that hard, then, to convince people that I would be equally professional with these new photographic services that I was offering them.

You have let people know that you have a skill that they need, and you get yourself out thereto show them what that skill is. It definitely won’t come by sitting there wishing for it. Or by just hanging out a sign that says ‘PHOTOGRAPHER FOR HIRE.’

Begin by working for people who already know you and trust you. Capitalize on where you are the most well known which is probably right there in your own backyard. Most of all remember that you first have to sell yourself. People really do want to know what kind of person they are dealing with, and they knew that of me.

Probably the biggest mistake that people make is to try to sell themselves as photographers too soon, well before they have the requisite skills in place.

Take your time. Become so saturated in photography that you eat and sleep photography and it finally begins to take on a life of its own in you. A sure way to truncate a promising career as a freelancer is to sell bad photos.

Like any form of artistry, photography evolves – we evolve – and in the process we hopefully get better and better at this thing called living.

You become a practitioner the day you pick up a camera but you become an artist much much later, if ever.

Dr. Ellen

*One of my many shadow portraits