Just Say No: A Photographer's Tale

Just Say No: A Photographer's Tale

Getting to “yes.”  It is the story of our lives. Whether pitching a client a new idea or nervously asking the woman you met at the corner store for a date, that sweet little three letter word can be pure music to our ears. But as we progress in life and the choices become more complicated, we realize that the questions themselves aren’t always so black and white. And, sometimes, our three letter friend isn’t always the right answer.

Emphasis on the word “sometimes.” Like any experienced photographer will tell you, there is often more than one path that will lead you to your destination. Whether you choose school or learn on your own, prefer Canon or Nikon, shoot brides or boulders, there are as many combinations on a path to happiness as there are people pursuing them. Your individual choices will be based on your individual desires and circumstances. Where are you now? Where do you want to end up? What will make you happy?

Like most, at the beginning of my photographic odyssey, I was very much a “yes” man. Want me to shoot your wedding for free? Sure. Want me to shoot portraits of you where you tell me exactly what to do and I just push the button? Sounds great. At that point, I was just happy that my shots were in focus. I had no particular desire beyond that.

Things like artistic standards, best business practices, and brand identity take time to develop as does your skill set. At the beginning, you are far more likely to hear the word “no” than you are to ever consider saying it.

But as the years go by and your hobby becomes a career while your stylistic preferences become a branded visual aesthetic, the jobs you don’t take will shape your career as much as the jobs you do.

I am a fitness and lifestyle photographer. I create images of amazing people doing amazing things. I’ve written before about why I am a photographer. I’ve written before about my personal connection to my own niche. But the short explanation is that I do what I do as a way to hopefully inspire others to pursue their dreams. I love to connect with the subjects on the other side of my lens. And, for me, true happiness (regardless of monetary benefit), derives from being able to create art that can have a positive effect on those who view it.

I don’t mention that as a sales pitch. Merely giving you an idea of what makes me tick personally to give context to the story that follows. For you, the above paragraph would look completely different. But having that self-knowledge plays a crucial role in determining when to say “yes,” and when to say “no.”

Like many of you, my career as a photographer started as a side hustle and a distraction from a dead end day job that sapped my soul and tarnished my very existence in the name of steady employment and paying bills. I was fortunate enough to begin securing enough photo assignments (while living like a hermit to build up my savings), that I was eventually at a place where I could make a decision. I could go out on my own and make a go of it full time, or I could keep doing what I was doing, allowing my hope to die one day at a time with the only intermittent happiness provided by the occasional photo shoot.

As dire as I just put that, the decision was a lot harder than it sounds. A steady paycheck is no easy thing to give up. Believing in yourself is even harder.

Being the obsessively rational person that I am, I wanted to consider all options, including option three: getting a day job as a photographer. I figured this would be the best of both worlds. Steady paycheck and a chance to create images.

One of the first major opportunities that I had as a photographer was coming within a hair’s breadth of becoming the team photographer for the NFL team the Minnesota Vikings. It was early in my photographic learning curve, and through a series of crazy “what if” circumstances I found myself being flown out to Minneapolis to the team facility for a series of interviews. An amazing experience. Met terrific people. And, at the time at least, I envisioned the job as being the answer to all of my prayers.

Ultimately I didn’t get it. According to the HR rep,  I had come in second out of 500 applicants. That… sucked.  

In hindsight, I wasn’t yet ready for the job. I didn’t have enough battle scars. I hadn’t taken enough bad photographs to be able to delineate what was good. I was just riding on whatever raw talent was in my possession and a bit of good fortune.

Of course, all logic aside, coming up six inches short of the goal line has rankled me ever since. That was probably eight or nine years ago, and it still bothers me today. Even when I look at all the work I’ve done and clients that I’ve worked with since, and realize that none of that would have happened had the Vikings said “yes,” there will always be a certain feeling of the one that got away.

So, I spent a couple years after that, splitting time between my day job and my side job as a photographer looking for an opportunity to combine the two, pretty much applying to any job posting with the word photographer in the title, regardless of the job description itself.

Eventually, that would bring me downtown, sitting in an interrogation room of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Before you jump to any conclusions, no, I was not under arrest. At that moment, the room was simply serving as a place for a panel of interviewers to grill me about my work history.

On a whim, I had applied for a photography position with the City of Los Angeles. At the time, I didn’t know what I was applying for exactly. But, trapped in that awful gray cubicle all day watching my life slip away on a career and life I never wanted to live, I was up for pretty much anything when I hit send on the email containing a pdf of my resume.

In case it’s not yet clear, I’m the curious type. I like to explore as many life experiences as I can, so when I got an email back from the city asking me to go take a photography test to proceed with my application, I instantly said “yes” and booked my appointment.

A few weeks later, I found myself in a sterile testing room in Thousand Oaks (just North of Los Angeles) taking a standardized test of my photographic knowledge that brought back serious flashbacks to the high school version of me sitting down for the SAT. The questions themselves were equally banal, leaning heavily towards the scientific side of photography, but it was a fun and unique way to spend a Saturday morning, and I left the testing center without much expectation other than having a fresh story to tell at cocktail parties.

A couple months later, I got the results of my test. Apparently, I’d scored well on the exam and was being invited in for an interview. That interview spurred another interview. Then a background check. Then another background check. Then another interview.

The process was exhausting. But it was also fascinating. An entire year elapsed between the time I first sent the application to the time I was called in for the final interview. That is twelve whole months. Whoever said that the city doesn’t fully vet their employees didn’t know what they were talking about.

Over the course of that year, I learned more about the actual job. It was paid through the city but was actually part of the Los Angeles Police Department. Like uniformed officers, the photographers are separated by rank, and I was being considered for one of the higher ranks. The specific job would be crime scene photography. Coming in after crimes had been committed to photograph the scene and provide evidence for detectives and eventual trials.

Now that is decidedly more exciting than staring at computerized spreadsheet from my perch in the office cubicle. Never a dull moment (although as I thought more about it, I began to wonder if I would quickly find myself wishing for a dull moment). And talk about a unique job that very few other people will ever have!!! On top of all that, I’d officially be a “photographer” and get paid more than I was making at my day job with full city benefits. Offered this job a few years earlier, I probably would have jumped at the opportunity.

But a lot had happened in the last few years. Heck, a lot had happened in the twelve months since I first sent in my application.

As a photographer, I was getting recognition from some very well known sources. I had shot assignments for some very big clients who, at the time I had desperately sent out the police application, I would have never thought possible. Those assignments gave me both the cachet and momentum to be able to call on other even larger clients. They also put enough money in my savings account to steady me should I decide to jump out on my own.

I knew I had a decision to make.

I could accept the position with the police department, continue to make a steady living (a better living actually), and potentially start in on a long term career. A decidedly morbid career, but a lucrative one. Or, I could bet on myself, follow my artistic inclinations, and forsake the security for the opportunity to build the career I always wanted.

It was not an easy decision. Preconditioned to expect a weekly paycheck, the promise of steady employment was a strong pull. Who cares if the job itself would be completely unrelated to the actual type of photography that I do? It’s money. Who cares if it didn’t meet my needs artistically or personally? Well, as it turns out, I do.

As all storytellers eventually come to realize, the hardest decisions aren’t those between good and evil. The hardest decisions are those between the greater of two goods or the lesser of two evils.

Both of my options in this case were good. Both would result in me doing photography full time. So how do you choose?

Well, it goes back to knowing what it is that you love about photography and why it is that you do it. Only one of those avenues would allow me to create the kind of images that made all the uncertainty worth it in the first place. Only one would have the power to make me happy on a personal level.

The other offered great financial stability. That is nothing to shake a stick at. Had the offer come along at a different point in my life, that may have been enough. But for me, personally, I haven’t had too many experiences in life where making a choice based solely on the money turned out to be the best decision.

I ultimately said “no” to the LAPD and instead decided to bet on myself and go freelance. Odd as it may sound, I’ve never regretted it.  Even when times get tough and numbers don’t add up, I still am thankful for my decision.  

And even after all these years, while I still wonder what my life might have been like had I gotten the NFL job at the beginning of my career, I still couldn’t be more thrilled with the way things have turned out.

Life and career have a funny way of working out how they are supposed to. Our decisions help us shape the contours of our own tale. Sometimes the answer is “yes.”  Sometimes the answer is “no.”

Know yourself, and you’ll always have the right answer to the question.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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What a great story, thanks for sharing! And congratulations! It's almost never about pressing the shutter, working with a camera and getting the exposure right. If the subject doesn't thrill you and excite you, then you might as well be working on a spreadsheet in a cubical, because it won't be long before you are bored or worse depressed... I don't think I could ever be a crime scene photographer. It may "sound" cool, but those pictures you are taking have real victims attached to them, lives and families... *shiver* nope, nope, nope...

You're right. An honorable profession, for sure, but takes a certain type I think to be able to handle it emotionally.

It seems that you were offered two vastly different jobs that weren't up your alley. So it was wise to turn them down and follow your instinct.
A friend of mine was a photog for LAPD for 10 years, it's not a cool job, although his badge did get him out of speeding tix. It is an important job like a coroner, but only a few people in med school are on the track to be a coroner. Only a few people in photo school want to be a forensic photog.
OTOH my friend worked in various City of LA departments after the PD and is now looking at a sweet ass retirement package with health care for him and his wife for life and a generous pension :)

Absolutely. A steady pension isn't exactly bad :-)

Super Story! I really enjoyed it and as someone who just jumped from a very nice weekly paycheck to a who knows _ I get it!

Hey! Second out of 500 other photographers ain't bad. You beat out 498 other applicants.

"If you don't build your own dreams, someone will hire you to help build theirs". 🙂

Well said

As a former forensic photographer I feel compelled to say that you passed on one of the most interesting and fascinating jobs in photography. You would have been part of a team of dedicated professionals, learned more about your fellow human beings than you can imagine and would have enough stories to last you a lifetime. But I'm glad things worked out for you as you take very nice photographs.

I was definitely intrigued by the position. Would definitely be an interesting career, and one where you would never get bored :-)