They say that when you find a career that you love, you will never have to work a day in your life. That’s bull. Well, sort of.
A career in photography is a marathon, not a sprint. There are peaks and valleys. There will be times to run at full speed as well as times to jog. It is as much about overcoming your own limitations as it is about competing with any external adversaries. It is about pushing yourself to the absolute limit, then summoning the will to push a little further.
If that opening paragraph sounded a bit dramatic, that’s because the situation itself can be. As an artist, you have chosen to pursue a life unlike any other. It may not be easy to become a famous brain surgeon, but there is at least an identifiable path. You study hard and get good grades. You apply and are accepted to the best medical schools. You study hard again and graduate top of your class. You get the right internship. You get the right residency. You land at the best medical center and begin to build your practice. You get published in the right journals. You build on centuries of medical knowledge to improve outcomes for your patients. Eventually you retire having hopefully improved the lives of thousands both in your care and as part of extended families. None of those steps is a walk in the park. But if you do each of them, there is a fair chance that you will be successful.
Art, on the other hand, doesn’t follow quite so succinct of a script. More like improv, you never know what scenario will be tossed at you from minute to minute. You may have an final punchline in mind, but, for most of your performance, you’ll have absolutely no idea how you are going to get there. A successful photographer is as likely to have been a high school dropout as having a PhD. He or she may have learned their trade through endless arduous years of assisting. Or, they may have just picked up a camera one day and taught themselves. Maybe they are masters of the technical aspects of their craft. On the other hand, they may just as likely know very little beyond the basics, but use those basics to illuminate such a unique voice that they stand out from the crowd. In seeking role models to emulate in photography, it can be as maddening as trying to swat down an energetic and elusive fly who has somehow found its way into your living room. There are very few constant themes for photographic success stories. Only one shows up in virtually every tale.
Hard work is the constant. Whether you are looking to be world’s best brain surgeon or the world’s best photographer, it will take a simply unconscionable amount of concentration paired with more working hours than you ever imagined possible. Sure, you may understand that concept on an intellectual level, but nothing will quite prepare you until you make the final jump into life as a full-time photographer for just how much of your mental energy will be consumed to turn your passion into profit.
It may dawn on you that time you find yourself sitting in front of a computer editing pictures at 2 a.m. and suddenly realizing that the previous day started at 5 a.m. and you’re only just getting started. Or, the realization may come when you find yourself moving from photoshoot, to client meeting, to creative call, and suddenly realizing that while you have prepared heartily and remembered all the bullet points, somewhere along the way you missed the fact that it’s 5 p.m. and you have yet to eat.
Not that you’ll ever complain. This is the life you have chosen. And, if you’re at all like me, you wouldn’t want it any other way.
I still remember my dark days of life in the corporate cubicle. Just doing enough to get through the day. Checking all the boxes required to keep my job, while secretly hoping I would commit some unknown transgression that would cause me to lose my job and force me to take a chance on my dream. Back in those days of Windsor knots and patent leather shoes, I would sit at my desk for the required time watching the hands of the clock round from 9 to 5. After years of this monotony, my focus migrated from the more vague movements of the big black hour marker to the chronic tick of the slim red second hand. I knew I had to be at work until 5 p.m. and not one minute longer. I used to work in something of a bank vault, a literal cage, whose doors had to remain open until closing time. Once closing time arrived, I would initiate the end-of-day ritual consisting of shutting down my computer, closing and locking the fireproof doors, spinning the safe, turning off all the lights except for the one that assisted the security cameras to keep an eye on said safe, and then ultimately following the steps to turn on the alarm in correct succession as to not accidentally set off the bells in the 60 second window allowed from the time I hit “set” to when I had to exit the building.
It’s funny, but even now as I recall those days I shudder a bit as if having lived through a past trauma. I have too much respect for people with actual PTSD to claim my first-world problem as a true injustice. But it is always remarkable to me just how strong of a physical reaction I have when I think about those 12 long years in the cage. My shoulders tense. My anger level rises. And I suddenly find my usually carefully measured speech to now be overcome by a litany of expletives which, try as I might, I can’t seem to stop spitting out as if I had suddenly become the offspring of a particularly blue stand up comedian and a long distance trucker.
Back then, my natural tendency towards efficiency and my barely veiled hatred for my position led me to develop what has to be the most efficient clock out procedure in the history of pinstripes. Knowing that the doors had to stay open until 5 p.m., but that I would blow my top if I still found myself in that office at 5:01 p.m., I would measure out the spiraled pace of that second hand to a tee. Counting the cash and having my co-worker standing by the safe to the closed, but not yet locked safe, ready to spin the dial. The computers would be ready to shut down. I would be at the ready to slam the fire doors shut to lock up the office. And as soon as 4:59 p.m. arrived, the whole plan would be set into motion. I had timed it so that the alarm would officially set by 5 p.m., I’d be in my car by 5:01 p.m. And I’d be off the lot and into L.A.’s rush hour traffic by 5:05 p.m.
It was all a bit dramatic. But, it was all mentally and emotionally necessary for surviving in a job that you hate.
Yet, now I find myself, only a few years later, willingly working into all hours of the night, and the only thing that really upsets me is the simply fact that sometimes there aren’t enough hours in the day to work more. I love photography. So I was always going to enjoy pressing the shutter. But, as you will also find out should you turn your hobby into a career, running a successful photography business is more than just taking pretty pictures. It means running an actual business. In my particular business, that means probably only 5 to 10 percent of my life is actually spent taking pictures. The rest is spent procuring new clients, nurturing existing relationships, developing new products, forming new connections, delivering on jobs, handling the necessary paperwork associated with each job, taxes, balance sheets, conflict resolution, market growth, and endless other activities that I would have learned about in business school had I not spent most of the time asleep in the back of the class.
OK, that last part isn’t true. I did go to business school. But I sat in the learning T, got along with my teachers, followed my parents’ advice and got good grades. And while the concepts I learned in business school bored me to no end, I still graduated at the top of my class with the misguided notion that those A’s would translate directly to lifelong happiness.
It wasn’t until I got out of college and got my first pinstripe job with a prestigious tech firm that I realized the simple fact of life. Whether you want to accel as a technology executive, a brain surgeon, or a photographer, there is no such thing as a 40 hour work week. You have to pour your heart and soul into every minute of every day and let your passion become as much a part of your life as your most meaningful relationships. There is no such thing as clocking out at 5 p.m. There is such a thing as a personal life, but more days than not, you will find it to be as mythical of a concept as Bigfoot.
You will work. You will work. You will work. And, if you are pursuing a career you are passionate about, you will love every minute of it.