Running a Photography Business With a Chronic Illness

Running a Photography Business With a Chronic Illness

If you've ever experienced a flare or diagnosis of a chronic illness while being self-employed, you'll understand the overwhelm of navigating your health and your business interests. It can be hard to focus on rest and recovery when you're fearful about the longevity of your business and the cash flow you need to live. 

I was diagnosed with Crohn's disease in 2020 and I experienced a particularly nasty 3-month flare that had me severely fatigued and unable to move beyond the sofa or the bed. Thankfully I'm now in remission, but I want to share the tactics I used, and still use, to navigate this time in the hope it's helpful for others struggling with running a business and managing a long-term health condition. 

Spoon Theory 

An essential part of moving through any chronic illness is spoon theory. How many "spoons" do you have to spend today? On some days, that might look like showering and making lunch, but on other days you might have more spoons to spend than that. Honing an awareness of your energy and what your limits are for that particular day is an important part of navigating a chronic condition. Learning to be ok with a reduced schedule and cheering yourself on for small wins — which in your pre-illness life weren't even considerations, like taking a shower - is really important to keep your spirits up. 

Delegate 

Part of running a business with a chronic condition is learning to let go of needing to do everything yourself. What areas of your business can you get help to remove some of the daily burdens? If outsourcing professional help isn't an option, who in your network of family and friends might be able to offer you assistance? This doesn't have to be taxes or editing, but it could be the kind assistance of a friend helping you to clean your office each week, or a family member bringing over a hot meal. Lean into the help, and things might become a little easier. 

Diversify Your Income Streams

If being on your feet for 8 hours or longer is no longer possible when your condition is flaring, think of ways to diversify your income streams that don't require you to be physically on your feet. Ideally, these will be streams you can do from the sofa or your bed. You could consider:  

  • Photography mentoring 
  • Selling E-books 
  • Online classes
  • Editing or retouching services for other photographers 
  • Social media contracts for other photographers 

Cultivating a few different income streams based on your strengths and any other skill sets you have, will give you a greater foundation of stability. Not only that, but you're laying long-term foundations and creating relationships that you might need to fall back on in the future if your condition flares again. 

Automate

I recently wrote an article about templates to speed up your workflow. Alongside implementing stock emails and templates to help you manage workflow, investigate what systems you can use to automate processes. This could be anything from social media scheduling to using something like Notion or FreeAgent to handle contracts and invoicing. 

Adapt to Your Needs

If you're able to and you've kept some shoots in your calendar, think about how you can make those as manageable as possible. That might look like reducing the number of hours you commit to shooting, bringing in an assistant to set up, pack down, and do the heavy lifting of the day for you. If you need to, reduce your capacity and commit to fewer photoshoots until you're back on your feet and schedule regular short breaks where you could sit down for a few moments on set.  

Start an open dialogue with the client and let them know where you're at with your condition. You'd be surprised at how accommodating clients can be if you let them know what's going on and how you might need to tweak the day to make it work for you. If the client loves your portfolio and has a great relationship with you, they will understand and be willing to be flexible. 

Take It Slow and Take Care of Yourself

The reality is that living with a chronic condition often means you just can't move at full speed anymore. Learning to accept that is part of a process. For many chronic conditions, stress is a trigger that can worsen symptoms. Staying on top of blood tests, pharmacy runs, medication deliveries, scans, and outpatient procedures is so important, and all part of the new normal. Yes, it's long-winded and tiring, but it's essential to stay on top of your health. After all, what's your business without you at its heart? Spend time recharging in ways that fill you up and don't guilt yourself on the days when not much gets done.  

Conclusion

If you're also navigating a new diagnosis, a recent flare, or have been managing a chronic condition for many years, you're not alone. I would love to hear how you approach running your creative business in a way that's sustainable for your health, too.

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6 Comments
John Cliff's picture

while I have never relied solely on photography & video as my main source of income I did rely on it to top up my main source...I don't own a home so rent and my main income source (a disability pension) didn't cover all my living expenses by a long shot. I have had 3 brain bleeds requiring craniotomy surgery and have had ongoing fatigue problems from those...the most important strategies I used were: to pick and choose jobs I felt I could cope with at the stage of my recovery that I was at, to enlist help if needed and accept it (not easy for me), to learn to say no (again not easy for me) when jobs you would love to do but knew they were beyond your capabilities at the time came up and lastly to clearly communicate about your limitations to your clients so there are no misunderstandings and so they can, if they are willing to, make accommodations for you in their schedules and expectations. My main work consisted in videography...art galleries commissioned interviews with artists that were about to exhibit with them, coverage of arts events, coverage of musical events (opera, big band etc)...all required a lot of gear to transport to venues and set up then the reverse at the end of the gig.

Helena Murphy's picture

Hi John, thank you for your comment and sharing your experiences. I'm sorry to hear about the fatigue as a result of those surgeries - it sounds hard. Accepting help is a challenge when you are used to doing it all solo isn't it. it sounds like you've honed your intuition about when a job will be suitable and when it won't be. Sending my best.

Patrick Hall's picture

As a photographer who has struggled with Crohn's Disease most of my life, I totally sympathize with everything you have said. I was diagnosed with the disease in 6th grade (however old you are then) and now I'm 40 so it's been something I've had to deal with most of my life. Fortunately for me, my case seems to be fairly mild but that isn't to say I haven't had a surgery here and there. I've been on Humira for the last 3 years and so far it hasn't been to bad. Strangely, I actually feel like my body does better when I'm away from home in higher pressure environments and then when I get back to the house it lets loose (figuratively and literally haha).

Keep trucking and stay strong!

Helena Murphy's picture

Hi Patrick, thanks for your comment and I'm sorry to hear that you also know the struggles, but glad that your Crohn's feels relatively mild at the moment - I'm fortunate to say that mine seems to be too with the aid of Adalimumab - at least for now! Interesting that higher pressure environments aren't a problem for you - we are all very different with this disease aren't we!

Carl Svanfelt's picture

Hello and thank you for your article.
I am working as a full-time professional photographer here in Finland. My diagnosis is autism, and I also have spinal degeneration. Many see these diagnoses as an obstacle to work, but I see them as an opportunity to create something new constantly. There are no limits for us who are disabled.
Thanks for sharing your experiences.

Helena Murphy's picture

Hi Carl, thank you for your comment and for sharing your experiences. It's really interesting to hear how you see your diagnoses as an opportunity for creativity - I hadn't thought of it like that before, but definitely rings true for me too. There are challenges, but no limits! Sending my best to you.