This is a business of bounces, sharp turns, unexpected events, lean times, occasional joyous celebrations, and bouts of euphoria measured in slices of seconds. No matter what, be it an excellent day in the field, or a humdrum day filing pictures or doing billing, it is punctuated almost incessantly with the intrusive reality of just how difficult this is to do, over the long haul. Wonderful, but tough at the same time.
I’m the last staff photographer in the history of LIFE magazine. I had the job for a brief time in the middle 90′s and I’ve likened it to the photographic equivalent of a roller coaster ride. Intense, exhilarating, wild, constantly ironical, and relatively brief. I have to believe virtually any job in journalism nowadays is replete with almost daily irony. My boss when I joined the staff, a truly wonderful editor and wordsmith, and one of the few editors in the history of Time Life magazines who really, truly understood the value of pictures, stopped by my closet of an office at one point to tell me he was heading off on a corporate junket. Private jet to Ted Turner’s private island off the coast of Georgia, and in the middle of the this executive conclave, another private jet to Atlanta to watch a Braves playoff game from the luxury boxes. He looked at me and said, “And Joe, can you guess the reason for the meeting?” I answered without hesitation. “Cost cutting and layoffs?” He winked and nodded.
My own personal bit of irony occurred in my last year at the magazine. I won one of the first Eisie’s, for Journalist Impact, for a story called the Panorama of War, all shot in various stressed places on earth, all done with a 617 Panorama camera. (This and $2.25 gets me on the NYC subway system.)
I went to a swell party, and got a $1500 check and a sculpted Eisie eye. I thanked all concerned from the podium. The ironical part of all this was that during the week previous to the photo fete, I had been fired by LIFE. Shown the door, exited. Thanks for playing. At Time Warner, you are actually not fired. They refer to it as a “reduction in force,” or, “riffed.” I got riffed.
It was okay, actually. In my last year at the magazine, I got my kid on the cover! I was told later it didn’t do well on the newsstand but that was dad’s fault, not hers.
Cool. Once a freelancer, always a freelancer. Back on the street, once again jobless, which is a condition that has existed pretty unremittingly for me for over thirty years. I occasionally send in notes to the alumni magazine at Syracuse University when they send out missives requesting updates on the no doubt sterling state of their graduates’ careers. I simply say, after thirty plus years, Joe McNally is still jobless in the New York area.
At that point, though, I had to dig in, re-direct, and find work.
Point of the parable? No matter who you work for, LIFE, Time, the East Bramblebrook Daily Astonisher, your own blog about your own life, or just your Facebook page, you are working for yourself. You cannot take a camera in your hands and hope somebody just pulls you along. You can never feel safe, or self satisfied. If you predicate your sense of self worth, or self esteem, or fulfillment as a shooter on what somebody else does to and for you and your pictures, you will be miserable, ‘cause no one—certainly no publication—will treat your stuff the same way you would. If you hit a patch of easy street where some editor thinks you are world’s greatest picture maker and lavishes praise, high paying gigs and first class air tickets upon you, know that the editor in question will be fired.
Whatever good thing you have going as a shooter, understand this—it will evaporate, deteriorate, get worse, or just shrivel up and blow away.
The life of a shooter is driven by passion, not reason. This is not a reasonable thing to do. A colleague I know offers this advice: “If you want to do this, you have to make uncertainty your friend.” Indeed, you do.
In this life of uncertainty, it is, however, absolutely certain that some shit’s gonna happen to you. What follows below are some notions on coping.
If the angels sit on your shoulders on a particular day or job, and you knock it out of the park, feel good, giddy even, but get over it. Tomorrow’s job will be on you like a junkyard dog, and will tear the ass outta your good mood in a New York minute.
If you win a contest, appreciate it, be gracious, and give thanks to everybody involved, especially your editor and the magazine, even if they had nothing to do with it and actually did their level best to obstruct you at every turn. Contest wins give a warm fuzzy feeling inside but shrug it off ‘cause tomorrow you still have to put on your pants and go find work.
Understand that the money monitors who show up at these contest driven rubber chicken dinners and breathlessly exclaim, “Love your work!” while shaking one of your hands with both of theirs’ are simultaneously eyeballing you and wondering why you cost so much money and there’s lots of pictures out there for free nowadays and why aren’t we using them? Smile back, and be thankful to them that for a brief interlude, they lost their sense of fiscal responsibility, and somehow you got a bit of budget to do something that was terribly important originally only to you, but because you executed it with such passion and clarity, it has now become important to lots of people, given the impact of your photos.
Know that whole bunches of folks will try to take credit for everything you just did. It’s okay. You got a chance to do it.
Understand that in the world of content-desperate big publications, and the multi-nationals that own them, that next year’s contract will be worse than this year’s. And if the contract is real, real bad, they might actually hire somebody to come in and explain why it is “good for you” in so many ways. Know that the phrase “good for you” is interchangeable with, “you’re screwed.”
(Recent update on that type of language. Lots of contracts now are accompanied by language that state that what’s being offered is in keeping with “current industry standards and norms.” For the translation of that, see the paragraph immediately above.)
Know there will be days out there that feel like you’re trying to walk in heavy clothes through a raging surf. The waves knock you about like a tenpin, you have the agility of the Michelin Man, and you take five steps just to make the progress of one. The muck you are walking in feels like concrete about to set. Even the cameras feel heavier than normal as you lift them to your (on this day) unseeing eyes.
There will be these days. You must get past them with equanimity and not allow them to destroy your love of doing this. Know on these days you are not making great art, and that every frame you shoot is not a shouted message of the truth that will echo down the corridors of time forever. You are out there with a camera, trying to survive, and shoot some stuff, however workmanlike or even outright mediocre, that will enable you to a) get paid, and b) live to fight another day.
There will be times when you cannot pay the bills. You look at your camera and desperately wish it was an ATM or the stock portfolio of a far more sensible person. Have faith. Return your phone calls. Keep shooting, if only for yourself. Actually, especially for yourself. Use this work to send out reminders that you are around and alive. Stay the course.
Love this fiercely, every day. Things change, and generally for the lonely photog, they don’t change for the better. What you are complaining about today, after the next few curves in the road you’ll recall with fond reverie. “Remember those jobs we used to get from the Evil Media Empire wire service? The ones where they paid us 50 bucks, owned all our rights, and we had to pay mileage and parking and let them use our gear for free? Remember those sumbitches? God, those were they days, huh?”
Remember we are blessed, despite the degree of difficulty. We are in the world, breathe unfiltered air, and don’t have to stare at numbers or reports trudging endlessly across a computer screen. Most businesses or business-like endeavors thrive on a certain degree of predictability, sameness and the reproducibility of results. They kinda like to know what the market’s gonna do. By contrast, we are on a tightrope, living for wildly unlikely split second successes, and actually hoping those magic convergences of luck, timing and observation will never, ever be reproduced again.
We don’t know what’s gonna happen, and most of the time, when it does, we miss it. Or what we think we’re waiting for actually never happens. It’s anxiety producing, and laced with forehead slapping frustration. If we were a stock or a bond, we would undoubtedly get a junk rating. Not a smart pick, no, not at all.
But what a beautifully two edged sword this is! What shreds your hopes one day cuts back, just sometimes, and offers up something to your lens that’s the equivalent of paddles to the chest. Clear! You’re alive again, and the bad stuff and horrible frames fall away like dead leaves in an autumn rain.
At those moments, the camera is no longer this heavy box filled with mysterious numbers, dials and options. It is an extension of your head and your heart, and works in concert with them. Whereas many times you look through the lens and see only doubt, at these times, you see with clarity, precision, and absolute purpose.
Know these moments occur only occasionally. Treasure them. They make all the bad stuff worth it. They make this the best thing to do, ever.
(A good deal of the above is reprinted from a book called Sketching Light. I hope the author doesn’t get teed off I swiped it.)