Take This Job and Shove It: Leaving a Steady Income For a Career in Photography

Take This Job and Shove It: Leaving a Steady Income For a Career in Photography

For those trying to balance their passion with their paycheck, here's a quick word on the joys of taking the leap, and the sweet taste of being unemployed. Well, sort of.

We’ve all been there. Sitting behind the desk in an aggressively monotone office suite. Lit by drab fluorescent lights. The only soundtrack available being the increasingly agitated voice of your boss, behind a partially closed office door, screaming about spreadsheets and figures that you have long since ceased to care about.

Perhaps, if you’re lucky, you get to bring your headphones to the office to drown away your infinite boredom at a “reasonable volume,” so as to not disturb your fellow co-workers identically crammed into the puzzle-like custom configuration known as a cubicle.

Perhaps, if you’re lucky, they’ve given you a comfortable chair. Not too comfortable, mind you. Just comfortable enough to give the company a positive review when the time comes for the obligatory employee review. A standard form they no doubt require you to spend several hours of your lifespan to fill out while requiring of themselves only partial seconds to review before using it to line the inside of their wastebasket.

They want you comfortable, but not too comfortable. They don’t want you to fall asleep at your desk. The intense irony of that demand being that what they really want from you is to continue your endless sleepwalk through life. To efficiently and effectively spend your waking hours moving stacks of meaningless paper from one side of your desk to the other. To quickly reply to your emails, and fill your manager’s ears with catch phrases like “market strategy,” “account reconciliation,” and “taking a deeper dive into the numbers.”

Of course, the only numbers you really care about are the twelve being ever so slowly bypassed by the second hand of the clock strategically placed on the wall. 

You arrive at nine with dreams of seeing the short hand hit the five. With dreams of your “real career” as an artist bouncing around in your head, you simply can’t wait for the postgraduate school bell to ring and once again grant you permission to imagine yourself to be so much more than just an accountant with an interesting hobby. You leave aside for a moment the brutal fact that this body and soul sapping monotony of day job safety, while leaving you fed, will more often than not also leave you in such a state of exhaustion that, even once you do escape the corporate parking structure, you hardly have the energy to do much else than to go home, collapse on the couch, and fall asleep to the latest replay of your favorite movie while your camera stares at you through a dusty viewfinder as neglected as your forlorn spouse. You actually pray that time will fly.

Then one day you ask yourself the question. It’s not a new question. It’s been in the back of your mind for years. You’ve just been too afraid to provide the obvious answer. You spend your entire work week hoping that time will fly. You spend a minimum of eight hours a day, often more like ten or twelve, at the office. Another seven hours or so to get your required beauty sleep. Last time you checked there were only 24 hours in a day. So, by your own astute calculations, you are literally wishing the mathematical majority of your life away.

While certain religions may differ, it’s safe to say we only get to go around once on this beautiful ride called life. At least in our current form. And on a planet billions of years old, our own existence is but a blip on the radar. A combination of ever valuable seconds whose true worth is often only ever realized once they are gone.

So why would you spend your precious life wishing it away?

On the ceaseless journey, why wouldn’t you grab hold of the steering wheel and claim the birthright of every man and woman fortunate enough to participate in the game? The right to choose our own highway is within all of us.

It’s not easy. Giving up that comfortable chair, and even more comfortable paycheck, is not without risk. If we are allowed to captain our own ship, there is a very real chance that we will veer wildly off course. The mere decision to follow your passion and askew the gilded life will more than likely be met with a fair share of derision and questioning. It should be said that most of the people who give you hardest time will be those who also have a dream, but lack the courage to follow it. Do keep this in mind and always remember to be compassionate towards the doubters as you remember their objections are often more about them than about you.

Even aside from the external qualms, there’s the ultimate question you’ve been asking yourself ever since you were a young child taking your first tentative steps towards the edge of the diving board that is increasingly taking on the stature of a skyscraper. You carefully edge yourself along the damp platform with toes growing tighter with each small step. You ask the inevitable question, “What if I get hurt?”

I wish I could sit here and tell you that wouldn’t happen. That once you make the brave choice to follow you passion that life itself will all suddenly be puppies and Pulitzers. That it will all be smooth sailing and you’ll have the world on a string, just begging to hear what you have to say. Sure, those things can happen; in fact, one of the greatest skill sets required of an artist is the unshakeable belief that things like that WILL happen.

But as with anything worth having in life, nothing comes without sacrifice. No great success is born of absolute success. Instead, life is a steady stream of open ended examinations. A multiple choice test where the options continue to multiply. And our hardest choices are often not between good and evil, but rather between the greater of two goods, or the better of two evils.

Try to think of it like this. You’ve fallen in love with the most beautiful girl (or boy) in class. The moment you see her, you realize that she’s exactly what you’ve been waiting for your entire life. She understands you and laughs at your jokes. You find yourself unable to stop thinking about her when you have to spend even the shortest period of time apart. For some reason, when she’s around, the world just makes sense.

That’s the same way you feel about your art. And just how you’ll never feel complete until you’ve at least tried your best to make that girl your valentine, you will also likely never feel fully complete until you’ve given yourself the opportunity to pursue the career you’ve always dreamed about. 

Just like the girl, your dream may say "no," failure is a real possibility. But as Michael Jordan once said...

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. 

If you don’t take the shot, her image will continue to haunt you as you are herded with the rest of the pinstriped sheep into the next “optional” office party. You’ll be riddled with guilt as you cheat on your true love with a set of spreadsheets that mean nothing the you. You’ll be spending the time with your ill-fitting mistress, wishing the seconds away, then one day wake up and realize there’s only one woman you want to spend the rest of your life with.

And once you find the one you want to spend the rest of your life with, you know that you want “the rest of your life” to start as soon as possible.  

The answer is simple. You know what you need to do. Lace up your shoes, clear that ever present lump in your throat, stroll confidently across the overcrowded gymnasium, and ask her to dance.

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27 Comments

One of the best advices my father gave me was, "Follow your heart." In my experience, whether they work for themselves or for someone else, the happiest people are those who have either figured out how to get paid for what they're passionate about doing, or are in a place in life where they can do it without worrying about how well it pays.

Ian Meyers's picture

Hey Christopher, just a heads up... "You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take." is a Wayne Gretzky quote... not MJ.

Great article, I left my corporate management job last year to photograph full time and I am so glad I did. :)

Chelsey Rogers's picture

You mean, Wayne Gretzky, -Michael Scott... ;)

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Is it really? I've been quote the man wrong my whole life :-) Thx.

You may not know it but this was written just for me. You have literally described my day to day struggle. I am merely days away from giving my two week notice and I do not have another job lined up. I have saved and saved and am just being strategic with my departure. My wife needs to go to the dentist a few times and I am dust in the wind. Corporate life has its perks, like 24 paid days of vacation a year. But it sucks the soul out of you.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Absolutely. I did the same thing. Made sure I had a plan. Made sure I wouldn't starve. Its always a bit of a leap. But you'll never regret betting on yourself.

While this is a great article, it's doesn't really talk about the downsides of missing the shots you take. This can also be very much an outcome: http://www.theonion.com/article/man-leaves-position-he-would-kill-3-year...

Umar Junaid's picture

You do realize The Onion is a satirical site, right? haha

I do. That wasn't "source" but it still makes a point.

Chelsey Rogers's picture

hahaha ok, this is pretty funny though! It doesn't work for everyone!

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Haha. That's good. Gotta love The Onion.

Chris Gouge's picture

I'm about to quit my job so I can give 100% to pursuing my passion of photography. I too wrote a blog post about it just this week: http://www.chrisg-photography.com/blog/2017/2/why-im-about-to-quit-my-jo...

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Enjoy the journey, Chris. It's going to be great :-)

Weird "Al" Yankovic parodied a CS&N song about Corporate America:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GyV_UG60dD4

Interesting. I'm retiring this year, not quitting, after a lifetime of very non-corporate jobs in healthcare and research. I enjoyed what I've done and I feel that what I've done has been of real benefit to people so I never felt any push to move into photography as a profession from a career satisfaction point of view. I always made sure I had time for photography and now I'll have a lot more. I know I've been lucky that way.

I just quit my good paying, steady job 3 weeks ago to do freelance photography full time. No idea how it's going to go, but I'm going to make it work! Thanks for the write up.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

It's a journey. Put in the work and the rest will work itself out. :-)

That's the plan :)

Dan Howell's picture

Hate to be a Debbie Downer, but I am the flip-side of your equation. I never had a job past part time in college and have never worked on any projects outside of photography since. I have been freelance/sole-propriator/1099 my entire work life past my summer internship at National Geographic. I hate to say it but the industry is contracting.

I would not recommend it as a vibrant career path any longer. I spent much of my time working on magazine assignment work. While some of the magazines I shot for still exist, most do not. Even with the transition between print and electronic publication, the value of original photography has seen downward pressure.

What I have seen in the current environment vs. a decade ago is more photographers chasing fewer projects for less pay. Those are some stiff odds. Good luck.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

There have been huge changes from when I started as a photographer. If you are going to be solely shooting still photos you better be very very good at the craft, very good at the business and know what to charge to make a profit. Otherwise you need to have multi income streams, photos, video, workshops, blogging, social media presence. Content Creation is King.

IT used to be my clients knew about 4-6 local photogs and would send us on location to shoot. Today if a client in Miami needs a photographer in Memphis or Seattle 99% of thetime they can find whatever they need because of the internet and social media.

Like Dan says there are more good photographers (many don't know how to charge, leaving a lot of money on the table) chasing smaller budgets. In my world there used to be a lot of little jobs $2k-$4k and then the occasional big $15k-$20k jobs. Today they will often bundle everything together into a huge job ($75-100k) which included all the small and large projects, videos, BTS, library "packages" more often than not goes to the huge studio who can produce a 4 - 6 week project and front the money for 45-60 days.

Another thing to consider is health insurance and 401k retirement, having a spouse with family coverage save the sole proprietor a lot of money. Saving money for many self employed people is sometimes difficult.

Finaly :) In commercial (not retail) photography most of the mid level jobs are gone, the only things left are the bottom and the top. Sadly the middle is where most of us are/were.
Maybe wedding, portrait, direct to consumer is still a strong market.

Phil Lambert's picture

Sadly, Dan is telling the truth. I do mainly sports and commercial photography for outlets and in today's industry, we are 1099'd to death. ESPN has changed so much in the last 5-10 years for contracts and assignments and how we submit and get paid. Mr. Hogwallop is cor rect that it's a bundle these days for commercial shoots and his point about insurance is huge.

Past magazines, as Dan stated, have either gone to the wayside, went full digital with hardly any images other than Adobe Stock to alleviate some of their costs.

I wish everyone that does "Go for it", to chase that dream, but without the commercial clients that have been good to me (as well as some gimme's to them over the years), it grows harder every day.

Éric Livernoche's picture

Amazingly well writen text. Wow. Thank you Christopher.

Eric Brushett's picture

Just catching up on some reading this evening, and finally read your post. "The intense irony of that demand being that what they really want from you is to continue your endless sleepwalk through life."

Wonderfully written, cheers!

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Thank you

In my town, which is small but has an disproportionately large number of relatively wealthy people, the business model for photographers is to be a woman with a husband who is an engineer/scientist/doctor so that he can pay the household expenses while she puts everything back into the business. There's also a very strong social aspect to it- if you are fortunate enough to be a part of the upper-class social circles, you are going to get a lot more business from those people. One of the best photographers in town quit a couple of years ago because, while her work was equal or superior to that of anyone else in the area, she wasn't able to charge what others did and maintain steady business because she wasn't part of the elite crowd socially. I know of one man who is able to charge pretty significant amounts of money, but he was doing it before the photography market became what it is now. There is one outlier- a guy who is in his early 20's who has been able to go full-time and make a good living as a senior portrait photographer. The vast majority here, though, are women who can take a lot of chances with their pricing and all other aspects of business because they are not solely dependent on their income for the financial security of the family.

Ben Pearse's picture

Keep your day job as the market is well oversaturated atm...

Alistair Thacker's picture

Okay, so I love the momentum of this article, but as someone who actually quit his job to set up a business, I think you are WAAAAAAAAAAAAY oversimplifying this.

I think everyone should work for themselves at least once in their lives. It's a great thing to do. But be ready. You need money, resilience and energy. You need to know how to sell and you need to be comfortable asking people for money.

Don't take this on if you have young kids and empty pockets - that's just reckless and unfair of your family.

Wait until you have money that you can afford to lose if you had to, and a support structure that will keep a roof over your head, until it all takes off.