Following is a letter written by Magnum photographer Sergio Larrain in 1982 to his nephew, who had asked Larrain for advice on how to become a photographer:
First and foremost, find a camera that fits you well, one that you like, because it’s about feeling comfortable with what you have in your hands: the equipment is key to any profession, and it should have nothing more than the strictly necessary features.
Act like you’re going on an adventure, like a sailing a boat: drop the sails. Go to Valparaiso or Chiloè, be in the street all day long, wander and wander in unknown places, sit under a tree when you’re tired, buy a banana or some bread and get on the first train, go wherever you like, and look, draw a bit, look. Get away from the things you know, get closer to those you don’t know, go from one place to the other, places you like. Then, you’ll start finding things, images will be forming into your head, consider them as apparitions.
\When you get back home, develop, print and start looking at what you’ve done, all of the fish you’ve caught. Print your photos and tape them to a wall. Look at them. Play around with the L, cropping and framing, and you will learn about composition and geometry. Enlarge what you frame and leave it on the wall. By looking, you will learn to see. When you agree that a photograph is not good, throw it out. Tape the best ones higher on the wall, and eventually look at those only (keeping the not-so-good one gets you used to not-so-goodness). Save the good ones, but throw everything else away, because the psyche retains everything you keep.
Then use your time to do other things, and don’t worry about it. Start studying the work of others and looking for something good in whatever comes into your hands: books, magazines, etc. and keep the best ones, and cut them out if you can, keep the good things and tape them to the wall next to yours, and if you can’t cut them out, open the book or magazine at the good pages and leave it open. Leave it there for weeks, months, until it speaks to you: it takes time to see, but the secret will slowly reveal itself, and eventually you will see what is good and the essence of everything.
Go on with your life, draw a bit, take a walk, but don’t force yourself to take photographs: this kills the poetry, the life in it gets sick. It would be like forcing love or a friendship: you can’t do it. Take a new journey: go to Porto Aguire, ride down the Baker to the storms in Aysén; Valparaiso is always beautiful, get lost in the magic, get lost for days up and down its slopes and streets, sleep in a sleeping bag, soak in reality – like a swimmer in the water – and let nothing conventional distract you.
Let your feet guide you, slowly, as if you were cured by the pleasure of looking, humming, and what you will see you will start photographing more carefully, and you will learn about composition and framing, you will do it with your camera, and your net will be filled with fish when you arrive home. Learn about focus, aperture, close-ups, saturation, shutter speed. Learn how to play with your camera and its possibilities. Collect poetry (yours and that of others), keep everything good you can find, even that done by others. Make a collection of good things: like a small museum in a folder.
Photograph the way you like it. Don’t believe in anything but your taste, you are life and it’s life that chooses… You are the only criterion. Keep learning. When you have some good photos, enlarge them, make a small exhibition or put them in a book and have it bound. Showing your photographs will make you realize what they are, but you will understand only when you will see them in front of others. Making an exhibition is giving something, like giving food, it’s good that others are shown something done with seriousness and joy. It’s not bragging, it’s good for you because it gives you feedback.
That’s enough to start. It’s about vagabonding, sitting down under a tree anywhere. It’s about wandering in the universe by yourself: you will start looking again. The conventional world puts a veil over your eyes, it’s a matter of taking it off during your time as a photographer.