Making a Living as a Photographer

I saw this sign taped to the floor at a graduation I was covering recently, and I ignored it.
I saw this sign taped to the floor at a graduation I was covering recently, and I ignored it.

There is certainly no paucity of opinion about why it’s so hard to make a living in the 21st century as a photographer. A growing consensus claims the problem is that “everyone is a photographer” because every has a camera. It’s a pretty solid idea, and it’s difficult to refute.

But I have some different notions about it.

If you have seen documentaries like The Corporation or Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Roomyou probably have a pretty firm grasp of the idea that right and wrong have little bearing on the actions of corporations, and that corporations are the most powerful institutions in the world. As long as that’s true, photographers will struggle.

Some examples…

  1. In 1991, I learned of an opening for the chief photographer job at a major state university. I applied, as did many in my field, and didn’t get the job, despite the fact that I felt certain I would have been a great choice. The selection was made by a committee, and they picked an applicant who was the most “quailfied” on paper, but was such a terrible jackass they had to fire him 18 months later, and I knew when they hired him it was a mistake.
  2. In 2016,  during a period when I felt our editor (who was later fired) was trying to force me out, I applied for a staff photographer position with the media relations department of a very fast-growing organization. I felt I was perfect for that job as well. The position went to someone who seemed to have all the perfect qualifications and accreditations, but early on, I would not only see his work and wonder why it was so weak, I would see him at events we were both covering and be mystified at the way he was photographing the situation. I remember one time I was at the front of a large meeting room photographing a keynote speaker, and getting pretty good stuff, only to look up and see that photographer at the back of the room 30 yards away, and I never saw him move. The images they send to my newspaper are mediocre, far beneath what I would demand from a professional photographer.

    There is certainly no shortage of bullies in the workplace, and one of their favorite tricks is to use the work "just" to denigrate your work. I had an editor tell me once that this image was, "just a bunch of clouds."
    There is certainly no shortage of bullies in the workplace, and one of their favorite tricks is to use the work “just” to denigrate your work. I had an editor tell me once that this image was, “just a bunch of clouds.”
  3. Two years ago local hospital hired me to shoot some images of their new medical staff members. They were happy with the images until the people who hired me left or were fired, when the corporation decided they were “going a different direction” with the staff photos.
  4. This year I was approached by a long-time admirer who worked for a growing financial institution, who told me he wanted to bring me on for a number of projects. I shot one for them in March and they paid me, but then I didn’t hear from them in many weeks. I emailed them, and they came back with, “In the past couple of months, the Marketing and Communications Committee of XYZ has discussed various budget items…” Okay, a committee, where ideas and creativity go to die. This was followed by… you can guess: they sent our newspaper an unbelievably terrible photo of their latest groundbreaking ceremony. Good enough for a committee, I guess.
  5. A newspaper in another community sent us some storm damage photos this week, two of which were obviously shot with a cell phone through the windshield of a car as it made its way down the road. How is this good enough for … anyone?

One very frustrating thing corporations do is refuse to tell you not only why they didn’t hire you, but even that they didn’t hire you. “Please contact me and let me know your decision” is always met by silence.

What can we conclude from these odd outcomes?

  1. Corporations have difficulty recognizing talent, and can only understand tangible credentials like certificates and degrees.
  2. Corporations make their money by getting more for less, and are often inclined to try to cheat photographers and other artists in the less-tangible fields by offering them something non-monetary, like “exposure.” I had someone offer me exactly that… “a chance to hand out your business card”… recently.
  3. Money people almost always discard artistic endeavor as being too expensive, and rely on cheaper alternatives, the way that the Chicago Sun-Times did by laying off all 26 of their photographers and training their reporters to take pictures with their phones. An overworked PR clerk with an iPhone seems like enough to the people with tailored suits.
  4. Corporations by their very nature are mostly concerned with the next month or the next quarter. Their vision is to keep the stockholder happy when the next report comes in, no matter what that night cause in five years.
  5. No corporation needs or wants journalists. A journalist takes pictures of people when they get laid off by corporations. The creative and photographic banality is part of why a corporation desires boring, “safe” people. Corporations don’t actually seek out creative people, people who scratch and claw to get to the truth.

I don’t want to sound bitter, and compared to a lot of other photographer’s complaints on social media, I don’t.

Add to this that someone recently posted a link on social media to a CBS story about LGBTQ people being concerned they are being passed over or even fired because they are “out,” openly practicing their sexuality.

Do I think I have lost job opportunities because I am an atheist? Yes. Do I think it’s possible I could be fired because of it? Yes.

I thought about all this as I received yet another grimly disappointing photo, submitted to my newspaper, from a photographer who was chosen for a position for which I applied.

From a friend of mine in the arts...

I just got turned down for a job, the third time that’s happened to me so far this week. Of those jobs, I was phone-interviewed for one, a conversation that lasted seven minutes.
I’ve been an actor and writer for decades. I can handle rejection. Boy, can I. But it’s one thing to face rejection when I know my application was a stretch. It’s another to know for an absolute fact I was qualified and would’ve excelled in the position. That type hurts. It depletes my mana for a while. I’m not gonna lie and say it doesn’t.
But of course, then I dust myself off, square my shoulders and brave the rain again in search of sunnier climes

All is not lost, however, only misplaced. I am employed as a professional photographer, and the community regards me as a rock star. I do good work, and we publish it every day.

Corporations don't care if you walk or crawl to get your photos, as long as they don't have to pay for it.
Corporations don’t care if you walk or crawl to get your photos, as long as they don’t have to pay for it.

2 Comments

  1. Rejection by silence appears to be increasingly common. I’ve seen it from magazines and other publications for years, but it’s been creeping its way through the mainstream sector too. I admire your stick-to-it-iveness. It’s hard to keep putting yourself out there. I…kind of stopped doing that. It makes it more difficulty to get going again.

  2. Yes to all of this. I regularly see major news companies (NBC, CBS, etc.) on Twitter, asking regular people if they can use their photos. Any time the photographer responds with “my normal fee is…”, the news organization disappears from the thread.

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