The Passion

It became apparent to me as I began to experience life that there are three types of people at work in the world: Those who have jobs, those who love what they do, and those who have both.

I have both and am thankful for it. I make my living from assignment work (although, like most, it’s not always easy). And, like most, you don’t always get assigned to what you truly want to shoot. When that happens, what do you do?

Shoot it anyways.

Doing so should not be confused with shooting assignments “on spec,” as previously posted. That can and will be detrimental to your own business. This is different.

If there is a social issue or event that gets to the heart of what you’re about as a photographer, that exemplifies the reasons you became a photographer, then shoot it regardless of whether you are on assignment. Such “personal fulfillment” work is important to keeping the passion alive for what you do. I have shot many personal/self-assigned stories over the years as have many of my talented friends and colleagues. Several of my personal projects have gone unpublished but I get such a high from shooting them that I will never hesitate to pick up my cameras and record something significant to me.

I am in the midst of shooting another immigration related story. There is no assignment for it. But one of the issues close to me as a photojournalist is to dispel myths about people and cultures, so I will continue to document this story on my own time. If it fails to make it into a magazine, I have no concerns. In this day and age, we can self-publish books at little cost as well as display on the web at virtually no cost. The passion that is derived from such work is reason enough to shoot the stories.

The way I see it, we photographers are lucky to do what we do. Passion for your job is so important. Looking at the work of James Nachtway, Sebastion Salgado, Steve McCurry and Tony Saua and many others only drives home how passion can fuel great work. And it’s not just in photography that great minds are fueled by passionate people. Nobel prize winners are driven by their love for unraveling life’s mysteries, doctors and lawyers aiding those most in need are passionate, as are environmentalists, civil rights activists and scores of others.

Are you passionate about your work? If so, then shoot what is important to you and feel the passion energize you.

The Economic Impact

A high school yearbook teacher has asked me to speak to her class about being a photographer. The teacher is aware of my experience as a magazine photographer and thought I could inspire her students. I love to give back and have done so on many occasions over the years, but with the publishing world in a state of major flux, I find myself in a bit of a quandry.

What exactly do I tell them? Should I be brutally honest or should I temper my words to not appear so draconian?

I figure I will do a bit of both. No one really enters into photojournalism with the intent to become wealthy and they should know that. The vast majority of us hope to make images that matter while earning a modest living. It’s a very rewarding profession. And, being a true optimist, I believe that after the magazines and newspapers emerge from this transitional period, there will be opportunities to work as photojournalists. All that is true. However, it’s also necessary to tell them that they must be extremely devoted and diligent in their efforts because fewer and fewer assignments and positions will be available in the future (see previous post). As we speak, a major international magazine prepares for more layoffs, the LA Times continues to trim it’s editorial force including the photo department, magazines continue to slash their photo budgets, Time magazine closed many of it’s bureaus, including L.A., last year and entire publications are foregoing print for an online presence only (the widely respected Christian Science Monitor).

The news comes daily of new layoffs and closures. So being optimistic and positive when speaking about photojournalism is important, but it’s also important to be truthful, look at reality and understand the task in front of us. Evolve and adapt are words that faced photojournalists decades ago with the transition from bulky cameras to lightweight rangefinders and SLRs. The transition wasn’t purely technological either. The advent of the lighter cameras resulted in the birth of a new style of documentary photojournalism with photographers like Robert Frank and Dorothea Lange producing iconic images by working in quiet, discreet ways. That also resulted in the emergence of photo publications like Life, Look, Paris Match and others.

Are we seeing that change again as “traditional” photojournalists evolve into “multimedia” journalists?

Perhaps the internet and multimedia are the new frontier in the same way that Look and Life magazines were, but whatever the case, I have to be truthful when speaking of the profession while also being mindful of not discouraging others pursuit of a passion.

Freelancing: The 80/20 Approach

I’ve been wanting to write about this for some time after having had many personal discussions with other photographers and editors. Any photojournalist who hasn’t been embedded with Bin Laden in the mountains of Pakistan is well aware of the transition our industry is experiencing. Cutbacks upon cutbacks and consolidations are daily reminders of the evolution we are experiencing. And as a result, so many young photographers emerging from J-schools nationwide, if not world wide, are faced with a shrinking marketplace. Hoping to gather experience, more and more of these young photographers are taking on spec assignments from places like US Presswire or succumbing to terrible work-for-hire agreements from (fill in the blank here). The problem with this business model is there that there is virtually no way to sustain a living when you factor in cost of doing business. Undeterred, young photographers in increasing numbers are drawn by the excitement of covering an NFL game or hanging with a celebrity in a behind the scenes shoot that they never stop to consider the future ramifications of their actions. By foregoing a assignment/creative fee, the photographer is only setting the table for even less assignment work in the future. I can tell you without argument that once publications become used to getting assignments covered on spec instead of on assignment, they will issue less and less assignment days.

As an example of that, I recently had a assignment offered to me to shoot for a high profile non-profit campaign. The editor explained that the last photographer essentially handed over everything. No licensing involved. Pure work for hire. I explained the options to the person offering the assignment so that I would retain ownership of the images. Ownership is key to generating future income through sales to other outlets, and experience clearly points to the fact that most outlets don’t usually need full ownership. Those that do want to own images, or have unlimited rights, do so for obvious reasons: Those images are valuable and they want the revenue they will generate. If they own them, or have unlimited access, they don’t have to pay the photographer for usage. But most young photographers don’t understand this. Back to the non-profit………After negotiation, it became apparent the organization wanted a work-for-hire agreement but didn’t want to pay upfront to compensate for my loss of future licensing income. They decided to look elsewhere. Although I certainly would have liked to shoot the job, I can not afford to contribute to the demise of my own business by agreeing to bad contracts.

As the industry continues to evolve, this model will become more and more common. Photographers have to make their own choices, but I can guarantee that those who continue to work  under this model will not make enough money to stay in business. As a friend and colleague once said, “Freelancing is 80% business and 20% photography.” The 20% gets you the work and the 80% keeps you in business. And he was 100% correct…………

todd