From my recent essay in EP:
CLIFF NOTES VERSION
To survive the creative, economic and emotional chaos of a life in photography your career must be designed for longevity. To achieve longevity, you must reconcile the conflict between what you shoot for money and what you love to shoot. Ideally, you get paid to shoot exactly what you love to shoot, every day. Reaching this nirvana requires making tough choices, a careful business strategy and attention to basic business practices. (Or be super talented/lucky, born wealthy or marry a brilliant business manager.)
Simple, right? Not exactly, and this idea assumes you will survive the current financial disaster we are traversing. Some details are in order…
THE FREELANCE DILEMMA
We are like swimmers lost on a vast, dark sea. Lightning streaks out from a distant storm to show us a direction and off we go, furiously slashing the waves toward the light and hopefully land. Too soon, darkness settles back down around us and we lose our way again. Occasionally, we lose our faith in ourselves.
At least for me, that’s how it sometimes feels to be a photographer, as I struggle to find my true path. A few years ago I took a serious break to reflect on my goals and choices. This was tough; reflection involves actual thinking, as opposed to jumping on another flight to whereverland. Although blessed with outward success and a richly varied career over 30 years of non-stop travel, it slowly dawned on me that inwardly I was deeply unhappy.
Soon I had three epiphanies that opened my eyes to obvious truths I had ignored in my chaotic life. Based on these revelations I developed a set of new principals by which to live and re-direct my career. Almost overnight I was free of fear and felt true happiness probably for the first time in my life. Not everything was perfect but I had a plan and a renewed sense of purpose and belief in myself.
What actually triggered all this was hitting on a new way of thinking about my daily struggles. I gained a whole new perspective by asking: how can I build a satisfying and challenging creative life in photography over the long-term? It was clear that making longevity my ultimate goal was the answer to most if not all of my problems. By asking how each decision I made helped me achieve this goal—satisfying, creative work to last a lifetime—I had a framework by which to live a much happier and more meaningful life. Short term worries and roadblocks fell away. Thinking this way became critical to my very survival.
In a dinner conversation with Keith Green we touched on this subject of longevity and he invited me to share my thoughts with this essay. Perhaps I will seem the master of the obvious, but hey, sometimes I need a polo mallet in the head to really understand things. But in the workshops I teach I have seen firsthand that I’m not the only one going through this challenge. These are tough times and there is a hunger out there for answers. People are hitting the wall financially and creatively and can’t figure out the next step.
The effort to express your vision combined with the battle in the crowded marketplace to sell your talents during the worst economic crisis in history; well it’s dauntingly Sisyphean. Set that against the Congressional and corporate rights grabs and the need to balance work against time with your family and putting the food on the table, well, that will bring you to your knees. It’s not about f-stops and lighting, first you have to figure out who you are. It could be called a mid-life crisis but really it’s a creative crisis that ties together all the issues of our lives. I believe all photographers must go through this to remain relevant. Like Sisyphus, we have to embrace the dark sea as he did the rock, making each stroke against the waves a pleasure and an exercise in free will to create the life we want to live.
GET PAID TO SHOOT WHAT YOU LOVE TO SHOOT
Gearing up for longevity in large part means figuring out your true passion and how to get paid for that, as well as smart business decisions. I’ll get to the business side in a moment. But first think about what made you want to be a photographer in the first place. What makes you insanely happy to shoot? How much time are you spending shooting stuff that makes you sick to your stomach?
Many photographers in crisis did what they thought was sensible at first and got jobs that were practical, deferring the work most valuable to them personally. They feared their personal work wouldn’t sell, or they were advised to create a portfolio appropriate to the “market’ they wanted to break into.
To learn about longevity, it’s instructive to look at the great masters—pick any that inspired you in your early career or education. I doubt they thought consciously about having long careers. Instead they instinctively made choices that guaranteed that to happen. They were true to themselves from day one. They may have experimented with technique or style, but they were not out there early on with “safe” portfolios designed to grab a trend. Nor were they pulling punches, they were showing the work they were inspired by and passionately believed in. The price paid for their success was often inconceivably high, and sometimes the price was their lives, but I’ll venture that to them it was well worth it to be able to express their vision to the utmost. Ultimately, whether they were photojournalists, commercial or fine art photographers, they all got known and paid for creating images driven by their personal beliefs and vision.
(I’m sure many photographers know all this but in case there are few out there as thick as me I’m going to keep beating this dead horse in the event some younger shooters might avoid some of these pitfalls. Who knows, maybe they will even figure out how to re-energize the fight for our rights?)
ALL OR NOTHING
Here’s the rub: If you create a book that you think will get you work based on your perception of what sells, or on the advice of anyone who steers you away from your core, you have a complex problem ahead. Yes, you may find some work that way, which is really tempting short term, while you tell yourself you’ll do the real stuff on the side or in the future. “Show the work you want to get” is a lasting truism and if you have chosen to show work other than the purist version of your creative vision then whatever jobs do come in will be based on that work. There are many shooters who do this exact thing and end up with a middling level of success, stuck on a financial and creative plateau, slowly starting to run out of gas. After a few years they hate their their work and life in general. They are getting divorced or leaving the business or pursuing whatever diversion eases the pain. They are not living the dream. They are not challenging themselves creatively because they did not give themselves permission to be who they are as photographers in the first place. This is the road to being a burned out, bitter hack. Boring.
But by defining what you show based on what you truly are and what you want to do, you create a self-selection process: you are not for everyone. You are different. Be courageous enough to show that you see in a way no one else does.
Art directors that actually get this will hire you. That’s a rare thing. That means someone actually values your voice as unique and sees how that can be useful for their magazine, or to sell a product or whatever. And unique is expensive, unique is a brand. It can be a small thing that sets you apart, but it’s a different tack nevertheless. You can build on that for a lifetime because you are now being paid to do what gives you great satisfaction. The serious risk is that nobody will grok your special talent. True indeed, yet without this risk there is no great reward, just stasis and keeping your head above the waves while jostling with packs of terrified competitors.
Time and again we see that the dollars always, always follow those who hew closely to that little voice in their brain and heart. Once you truly recognize how short and fragile life really is you understand that this is not a risk at all. If you take yourself and your work seriously it’s actually a life or death decision. It really is all or nothing.
THE THREE EPIPHANIES
I’m here to be witness to the fact this approach does work. Although only recently have I been able to put all the pieces together and articulate the principals of my new philosophy, in retrospect there are a few good instinctive decisions I made during my crazy years that formed the foundation, almost by chance, that I continue building on. The first good thing I did was to create what I called my “fuck you” portfolio. Deep down I knew I had ignored my inner voice and creative needs for years. So I put out a book of work that I felt reflected the real me. My career exploded.
Ironically, that new level of success ultimately led to my own burnout, mainly because I stopped thinking about my choices. I allowed myself to move on the momentum, working endlessly. I was unconscious of the underlying forces at play that were undermining me. I had drifted away again from my true voice and was taking on more and more work I hated and pretty soon I was cooked to the point where all the external success was meaningless to me. That’s when I began looking in earnest for a better way to live, and out of the blue one day I had my three epiphanies. I happened to be in Paris that day, so I can’t discount entirely the geographical cure.
EPIPHANY #1: LEARN TO SAY NO
Once I figured out that my goal was long term, and got back in touch with what I love to shoot, it came to me that I had to say no to anything that didn’t fit the plan. Especially the things that I really didn’t want to do and which made me ill to even think about doing. This was tough after having come up in newspapers and magazines where you are in the case of the former a team player, and for the latter a freelancer. Saying no goes against the grain of the business of photography. But it’s the core principal of being happy as I discovered. Another way to think of it is to view the decision as if this is the last day of your life—how do you want to spend that time?
EPIPHANY #2: LET GO OF FEAR
I had to admit I operated out of fear of financial and creative failure. This meant I never enjoyed any of my success. So I had to learn to embrace that fear, to lean into it, and let it go. This meant being willing to fail. It helps to know that no great success comes without some level of failure. And the beautiful thing about fear is how clarifying it can be: when you suddenly find yourself standing at the edge of the abyss priorities realign pretty quickly. Instead of backing away, the trick is to say, “fuck it” and jump way, way out off the edge into the unknown. Tequila helps.
EPIPHANY #3: BREAK FREE OF CATEGORIES
Third, I had to break free from categories. I realized I’d let myself be defined to a large extent by the business and those who classify us by style, type, market or what have you. I resolved to move beyond categories, to recognize my core was about simply being an artist who uses a camera. Now, If I wake up one day with an assignment to shoot a story on AIDS orphans in Uganda, or the next with a commission to shoot an ad campaign for a car company and the next with a yearning to shoot my son playing his guitar, the category of journalism, commercial or personal work is irrelevant. What is critically important is that I am always tapping into my core beliefs and inspirations, to express a clearly defined vision of my work in whatever genre I happened to be working.
Just to totally go all in on this stuff: I also had to throw in the admission that a lot of the hippie clichés I used to mock back in California were true. You have to find the balance in life, it can’t all be work. You have to find time with family and to enjoy small pleasures or life will find a way to re-balance you. Never get too high or low from the vagaries of the business. One day they love you and the next day they “are going in another direction.” I find also the principals of Zen very useful, especially learning to enjoy where I am and what I’m doing, staying present and not mentally planning the next thing. And it goes without saying you must constantly challenge yourself creatively to grow as a photographer–a cornerstone principle of longevity as well.
But the creative and life questions are just part of the equation. Once I figured out these issues around my work and how to live my life I suddenly had to devise a new business model to sustain my family for both the short and new long-term plan. What with all the time I took off and the thrill of saying no to a significant amount of work, my income was dropping precipitously. Luckily in my early days I’d been through a money meltdown and learned then, against my will, about how to run and grow a business. I just had to apply what I already knew to support this new vision of my future.
A SOLID BUSINESS STRUCTURE TO SURVIVE AND THRIVE
The business side is one area most photographers hate, for good reason, but if they are to create longevity they must understand and apply business fundamentals. You can keep it simple and just be frugal as hell, but it is wiser still to educate yourself to the things they usually don’t teach in photo/art/j school. Cash flow management is a good place to start. How many of you read your P&L every month? Your balance sheet? Who knows what their cash position is every day? Some of this stuff was very difficult for me to learn, but it was also liberating as I gained control.
Let’s say you’ve now got the right portfolio that’s really you but you still have not inherited the estate or married correctly and bills are piling up. A solid marketing strategy is now required to get the word out. Trade ads in sourcebooks, direct mail, email blasts, word of mouth, shoe leather and getting face time, contests, a blog, all of these and more must be systematically and carefully put in play. That is all pretty basic and most likely you’ve done all or part of this before with varying degrees of success. Hopefully you have an agent and there is lots of follow up and continued execution of the plan. Plan? What’s interesting is how often I find there is no plan behind the marketing. It’s completely random for most photographers and usually only one or two of the listed items above applied. What the cliché “it’s not brain surgery” means is that this stuff is not so hard, but you do have to get organized, get busy, and get it done in a consistent way. Whoever has a plan and perseveres the longest wins, it’s just a fact of life.
Yet all that marketing and portfolio work costs a lot of money. During a creative transition money always gets tight.
So actually marketing is premature, what is needed is a complete business plan, of which marketing is just one key component. With a proper business plan you have thoroughly defined your business, based on your true passion, and in addition, researched your market, competition, and created five-year financial projections. You’ve written a marketing plan that shows how your “products” and “services” (yes, you will use banker business lingo in your plan, sorry) will stand out because of your unique talents, as well as providing examples of other similar businesses that have succeeded in your chosen market. It also has a complete budget, which ties into your financial projections. The budget tells the story of what will happen and what is possible. Your overall projections show both the costs involved in growing this business and the income. The most critical part of that income is the initial capitalization needed to start the business.
The astounding thing now is that with this well constructed plan based on hard numbers and thoughtful projections you have an excellent chance of getting the money you need to fund your marketing, new camera and computer equipment you need and to provide cash flow for the projected period of time you need before income is rolling in. Prior to this economic meltdown I would have even gone so far as to guarantee it. But even in the throes of this financial disaster, the SBA is still making loans to qualified applicants who do their homework. And you will be surprised to learn there will be plenty of small banks looking for qualified lenders for traditional business loans. True, there will be some months more or years of downturn ahead but there will still be magazines to get out and corporations with products to sell, all needing amazing images. Life will go on and survival will depend on the details of your plan.
So to survive and thrive you must develop your underlying business structure in ways you probably never contemplated before. The exciting thing to me though is how something like making a plan becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You start gaining momentum from day one. Because you have now defined your dream you are clear on your goals. That builds your self-confidence and causes others to support you. There are lots of other basic fundamentals of business that most of us practice without realizing it. One important one I always follow is the 80/20 rule, which basically means you get 80 percent of your work from 20 percent of your clients. Repeat business and building long term relationships ties in perfectly with the philosophy of longevity.
Basically, without commerce there is no art, no dream, no longevity. Respect the learning curve.
A DIFFICULT TRUTH
The sad reality is that if you follow all my advice you’ll probably fail. Hopefully this won’t include starving to death, homeless, under a bridge somewhere. Nevertheless, the odds of success as I’m defining it are astronomical.
An even starker reality is that if you don’t do this you’ll fail anyway. You certainly won’t ever hit it out of the park and most likely you face a life of increasing disappointment. The truth is that you ignore your own creative needs at your peril. Everyone will eventually go through this painful process of self-examination, catharsis and renewal at some point in their lives, and if they don’t they will be living the consequences, unconscious of what’s eating them alive, becoming more bitter and unhappy by the day. From what I’ve seen and experienced it is absolutely imperative to at least try. The safe choices we rationalize away our dreams with are just illusory.
You just have to be willing to fight for your beliefs and your goals and that means some sacrifices will have to be made. Nothing about life is fair but sometimes you can get lucky when you align your actions with your beliefs, and luck favors the prepared photographer every time.
So how to adapt some of my philosophy to the real world of having to pay the bills? A good solution is to use “kaizen”, or incremental change. Most big life shifts don’t happen overnight of course. But if you work toward balancing your work and life in the direction you desire you will have some measure of immediate relief. Small steps can yield results that are surprising. And you must pair the creative work you do with a solid business strategy—make a plan, seriously.
Mistakes? I’ve made all of them, probably three times each, and will make some more. I’ve got the scars on my ass to prove it. Regrets? Aside from any needless offense I may have caused in my youthful inexperience, time away from family, and all the money I blew on stuff I can’t remember, my only real regret is that I did not have the maturity to understand the concept of longevity and make better choices when I was younger.
A few tweaks earlier in my career could have saved a lot of angst later on. You don’t have to wait for your midlife crisis to deal with these issues. You can examine your choices and start to re-balance how you live now. You have the power to design your life and work around choices that yield longevity. Imagine a lifetime of satisfying creative challenges and the financial structure to support that life. It can happen.
Or, you can just continue living in denial and get on that next flight to wherever. If you choose the latter, I do hope you get upgraded.
New York City
October 10, 2008