Shooting sunset in the Maasai Mara, while a ranger keeps an eye out.
Photo credit: Regis Vincent.
When Nicole S. Young’s ebook on MicroStock came out last year on the Craft&Vision site, we caught some flack for “supporting the microstock model.” We were told how unfair the model is, how it’s going to put photographers out of business, and how irresponsible it was to put out a book that helps people navigate these waters, unfair as they are. Then I read some bits and pieces of woe about the state of journalism and the decline of print media. Then this morning I spent time reading the blog of Joe Konrath, also not a photographer, but a well-known self-publisher in the fiction world. The pieces came together.
In VisionMongers I said that our businesses should be an act of creativity as much as our photography is. I believe that more now than I did before. So, if you’ll indulge a rant/sermon, hear me out on something. This rant’ll get worse before it gets better, so read through to the end. I promise to try to end without completely shipwrecking this.
One of the currents I detect in the arguments against microstock, though this rant is not specifically about microstock, is the same one I think I’d get from a whiny teenager whose father won’t let him use the car, except in the business world there is no father and if you want a car, you have to buy it. No one is going to hand it to you, no one owes you anything, most especially not a business model that’s just like the so-called good old days. The good ol’ days never were. The world changes, it’s not easy, it’s not fair, but it’s the same playing field we’ve always played on. People whining about the unfairness of the microstock model, or __________________ (insert random unfairness here) have forgotten that if they are self-employed, they are the rainmakers. No one else. So bitch about the lack of rain or get out and pound the button on the cloud-seeder like a rented mule. The question is not: is it fair? The question is: how badly do you want it?
Yes, once upon a time you could wait for the phone to ring and someone would pay you $500 for a photograph of a plate of pasta. ChaChing! They would tell you how to shoot it, when to shoot it, and you’d do it with a stylist and art director hovering over you, making you wish you were photographing drooling kids against wooded backdrops in KMart instead. But now the phone doesn’t ring. So some photographers, wanting to spend their time creating instead of bitching, still shoot the pasta. And pizza. And, well, whatever the hell they want. No art directors. Few stylists. And no, no one writes them a cheque that takes 6-8 weeks to arrive after you’ve invoiced them twice. Instead, they post those photographs to a microstock site, and they make $1. But they make that dollar 500 times. Or 1000 times. Or they don’t make a penny because their photograph isn’t remotely as good as others available to the same market, and they have to go back and do it better, get a little more creative and make a photograph that hasn’t already been shot. Unfair? It’s the fairest it’s ever been – it’s fair because it relies on how good your work is and how hard you hustle. But let’s be honest, the business world isn’t about fair. It’s about responding to how the world functions, and the needs of the people in that world, and finding a market for what you offer within that world. The ones who meet this challenge in the most creative ways, and with the most amount of elbow grease are the ones who make it, not the ones whining over a latte in a Starbucks somewhere.
So why did I mention self-publishing? Because the world of publishing is changing the same way the world of photography is. Is there as much money to be made by authors? Absolutely! In fact, there’s more! But it’s different. The same is true of journalism. Things are changing. Is it easy? No. Is it fair? Does it matter? EVERYTHING is changing. It always has. It always will. If you are in business for yourself as a photographer, your job, as the CEO of You Inc., is to meet those changes head on, to navigate the rough waters and do it in a way you love, while not sinking the ship. No one promised you safe passage. No one owes you a waveless voyage. You will get “there” (wherever there is) not by how good your photographs are (there are a lot of amazing photographers out there, have you noticed?) but by how creatively you engage your market, and how hard you hustle. Read that again. If you are floundering, it’s not because you don’t have a better camera or the same 85/1.2L lens that that other, more successful, photographer on the other side of town, or the other side of the internet. It’s because you aren’t being as creative as you thought you were or you aren’t hustling. That’s a broad brush to paint with but I believe it with all my heart. Everything I’ve learned in business tells me that. Stop buying gear and start buying books about business and new media. (BTW, how good your art is matters tremendously, it’s just a different conversation about a different thing.)
Yes, things are changing. They always have. But you can either make the change or react to it. Either way you need to be creative. You can do two things with your time on this earth – play the cards you’re dealt with all the energy and conviction you can, or whine and moan about how lousy your cards are. But whining and moaning never once changed the cards in anyone’s hand. Yes, Detroit was decimated by the economy, and it was left in literal ruins. But it’s making a come back. Not because it sat there feeling sorry for itself (ok, some did, but they aren’t the ones making the comeback), but because they got creative. They stood up, dusted off the seat of their jeans and looked the situation square in the eye and said, “OK. Now what?” It’s hard work. It’ll take time. And if you don’t love that work, give up now.
The opportunities to make a living doing something you love in the creative arts has never, ever, been like they are now. The same things causing the massive shift away from old models (insert whining) are the same forces allowing us these new opportunities (insert creativity and hard work). There are more opportunities to show and sell our work, whatever that is, to more people on this planet, than any photographer or artist has ever had in any previous generation on this planet. If you want to make a go of this, the time has never been better. Assuming one of the reasons you want to do this is to be creative, to sail your own ship, and to enjoy the journey. There is no path waiting for you. You have to make it. There are no charts for where we’re sailing to, these are unknown waters. No one promised us a safe passage, and anyone that thinks they’re owed one will never get there – not because the waters are rough but because time spent whining and feeling entitled is time wasted while others are creating new sails and patching holes in the boat so they can sail a few days longer, or a little faster. It’s not easy. If you want easy, you signed up for the wrong journey. But make no mistake about it, everyone is on a boat. You can sail your own, or you can work for another captain. The difference is merely in who makes the decisions, not how rough the water is. We all weather the same economic weather, and ride out the same waves of change in technology, history, etc.
I want to say “you can do it!” and be really encouraging. And some of you – no, many of you – can do it, and can do it brilliantly. But only you can decide how badly you want it, how hard you’re willing to work for it, how creative you’re willing to be to get it, and how wet you’re willing to become in order to get there. To get to the other shore you need to let go of the one you’re leaving, accept the unpredictability of winds and waves, and shout into the raging storm at times, “is that all you’ve got?!” and then pull the sails a little tighter. I wish I could tell you more. But all I’ve learned from my journey that universally applies, is that the journey is worth it, and that it’s often harder than we wish it were. You’ve got a handful of years to do your work, don’t you dare waste those moments whining instead of creating something amazing. Don’t leave a legacy of risk-aversion and “I wish I’d…” to your kids. Don’t settle for hours in front of a large screen TV when you can have a larger life. Don’t settle for watching great stories when you could spend your time living one. Whether you can or can’t, whether you do or don’t, is up to you.