That’s the number of photos I shot, captioned, and submitted for publication as a staff photographer at my former newspaper before going freelance. Why does this matter? Because it is an insane amount of photos which represent a lot of time spent shooting for the proverbial “Man.” It’s not a bad thing. In fact, shooting for The Man gave me ample time to learn, develop my vision, and figure out what didn’t matter to me and what did in my photography.
The newspaper was my first full-time newspaper gig, which I left last year to pursue my freelance career. In the matter of 8 years I made a lot of bad photos at bad assignments. I also made some great photos at great assignments. Making great photos from bad assignments? It was a challenge to myself. It’s not the newspaper’s fault that bad assignments exist, it’s just the nature of the grind at a daily newspaper – especially this day and age with dwindled staff and depleted resources. Most of your time is spent feeding the beast, churning out 2-4 assignments a day for prominent display in next morning’s recycle bin. It’s making Chicken Salad out of Chicken Sh*t. I’ve made my fair share of Chicken Salad.
Working as a staff photojournalist has its challenges. How do you stay inspired, happy, and passionate about photographing a white guy in a suit standing in front of a building? How can you make compelling images that give your photo subjects a voice in their own community when you can only stay for only 10 minutes? Why am I photographing this plate of food that barely resembles food? How do you make a picture that says “ribbon-cutting” without literally shooting the ribbon being cut?
You just do. Here’s how:
Shoot for yourself.
He won’t remember this at all, but I sat down with Los Angeles Times photojournalist Rick Loomis to get my portfolio reviewed at the Eddie Adams Workshop right after landing my job. I admired his work and wanted to show off my stuff. I had won some contests, and was totally confident. He flipped through my work quietly, took a pause, looked at me with a straight face and said, “You shoot like you want to win contests.”
My initial reaction? Well, isn’t that the point? I had no idea what it meant at the time. I was in my 20’s (I’m 33 now) and full of eagerness to get to a big city metro paper and take his job. It stung. All of my portfolio reviews for years had gone amazingly well, and he crushed me. I didn’t know how much his honest assessment in one short sentence helped until a couple years later.
My work wasn’t personal. I was pressing the shutter, but what came out wasn’t by me, for me, or my subjects.
I made a huge decision after that realization. I knew how I wanted my vision to look and made the decision to just start shooting for myself. I stopped looking at contest results. I stopped caring about how my photos ran in the paper. I turned in my photos and forgot about them. It wasn’t about my paper and the newsroom, which I loved, it was more about myself. I knew the only way to grow my vision was to kick my own butt. I started caring immensely more about what I was placing inside the four corners of my viewfinder. I started seeing images that only I could see in a way that made me excited.
I stayed at a job for 8 years I had plans to stay at for 2 years max, because I knew I could make pictures where I was already happy – building myself both professionally and personally. Sarasota is a small town full of snowbirds, weird news, and a palate of colors that I began using as my muse to change my work visually. I fell in love with my community, this strange state of Florida, and everything about both. Once that happened the picture-making process was less of a job or career, it was what I loved to do and happened to get paid for.
It’s one of the main reasons I left a cushy job and solid paycheck. I was getting too comfortable. That breeds staleness. Stale is not what I want to be.
All of this has culminated to this point where I am on my own doing work for myself and marketing Me. “The Man” is now me. I control my own work, growth, and success. This is a new thing for me, and it was quite an adjustment going from 15-20 assignments a week to maybe 1 or 2 a week for editors that are sometimes a voice on the phone or email address. I’m shooting weddings, commercial, and learning how important retaining my copyright is. I can say “no” to bad gigs and bad contracts. It’s nice to land a photo on A1 or double truck in a magazine, but it doesn’t drive what I do anymore. I make photos that I want to make, publish them on my blog, and if a new client likes what they see and can use my vision, then sweet. When I don’t have a client, I go shoot a self-assignment as a sort of visual pilates. It’s a refreshing way to work.
How all this relates to you, my friends, is that it doesn’t matter where you are, what you do, or what you shoot with. You could live in a one-stoplight town. You could be an accountant with a love of photography. You could have a shiny, new Leica and not know how freaking jealous of you I am. You can make pictures in any situation with the right attitude. That attitude may not adhere to company policy, but in the end it is about the rectangles – and your happiness with what’s in them.