Three Positive Things to Come From the Current Work Stoppage for Photographers

Three Positive Things to Come From the Current Work Stoppage for Photographers

With the news these days providing a constant supply of bad stories about our collective grief, I thought it a perfect time to shift focus to the upside.

I don't know about you, but if I receive one more junk marketing email from a company claiming to be just updating me on their Coronavirus preparedness or claiming to support me during our time of need, but just looking for a way to continually get their brand name into my inbox or social feed, I might just blow my top. Sure, my local government, state health agencies, and the like have a verified reason to want to keep me up to date on the situation. But, a random clothing brand whose clothes I have never bought, would never buy, had previously never heard of, and who only got my email address off a mailing list and are trying to convince me that they are now only sending me five Coronavirus updates a day out of concern for my safety might more accurately be described as being full of a certain word starting with the letter S.

The fact that every company on the planet seems to be following this same strategy of continuously bombarding me with COVID-19 sympathy means that I am now receiving and quickly deleting dozens of such emails every day. And while they leave my inbox indeed and surely unopened, the constant barrage of subject lines containing the words COVID-19 makes it somewhat impossible to shift my focus anywhere else. On a side note, the endless emails also make it a 100% certainty that I will never purchase a product from those companies in the future. But they also give me yet another reason to be less inclined to check my inbox regularly.

Yet, still, I persist. While the global pandemic has put almost all of us into an international work stoppage overnight, in the last few weeks, I have oddly found myself busier than ever. I don't mean making more money than ever. Like many of you, my clients have all shut down their photo shoots for the foreseeable future due to the outbreak. As someone who specializes in photographing people on sets littered with people, the idea of doing a large-scale shoot presents a bit of a challenge while maintaining social distancing. I've got a separate essay coming on the massive institutional change I think is just around the corner once we finally do get back to work. But today, I want to talk about the present. And I want to talk about why I am so busy, even if these efforts are not directly linked to a paycheck. Unlike the news or the constant barrage of marketing emails, I want to talk about the positive side effects of the global shutdown.  

So, what are the gifts we've been given in the face of so much being taken away?

Time to Step Back and Examine Your Direction

I've written before about how important it is to have a business plan as well as how important it is to periodically review that plan to make sure you are on the right track. But, in actuality, when work is in full swing, and you are executing that plan, it is very easy to suddenly find yourself too busy to pay your business plan much attention.

This is a good thing. The whole point of planning is that it aids you in execution. If you're working a lot, then the odds are that your plan worked. But did it?

If I am running a marathon from east to west and somewhere along the way, I take a wrong turn and end up running farther north than any runner who has come before me, imprinting my name in all the record books and becoming the most successful northern-bound runner of all time, have I been successful? Sure, it's nice to do so well going north, but if that's not what I was after, then the accomplishment doesn't mean a lot.

As we struggle, even before the outbreak, to sustain a living as a professional photographer, it can be very easy to miss the forest for the trees. We can get understandably so focused on finding the next assignment that we lose sight of the bigger picture. What is our ultimate goal? Why is it that we fell in love with photography in the first place? If we were to paint a picture of what success in photography looks like for us, how would we place the paint on the canvas?

With global quarantines in place, many of us are confined to our homes, aside from the most essential activities. For many of us, this feels unbearable and something akin to solitary confinement. Even a born introvert like myself would stir crazy if it weren't for the occasional visit of a squirrel or stray cat in my backyard to carry on a conversation with. Hey, don't judge. We do what we have to do to get by.

But the forced confinement and knowledge that work is unlikely to resume for several weeks, if not months, also gives us something else. It provides us with the gift of time. We have the time now to reflect on our businesses. Are you where you want to be as a photographer in terms of both commercial and creativity? Are you photographing the subjects you want to photograph? Are you photographing those subjects at the level you wish to photograph them? There's no better time than the present to take an honest look at your portfolio and see where you rank within your market.  

Not quite where you want to be? Well, that should be an honest response from 99 percent of the people reading this article. But luckily, this work stoppage has also given us a second gift.

Gives You an Excuse to Try Something Different

It is incredibly crucial if you want to run a successful business that you understand that you are building a brand. Yes, you are an artist. But, if you want to call yourself a professional photographer, then you are also selling a product. Your product might be artistic. But, in terms of selling your product, you are in much the same boat as every other brand out there from Ford to Coca-Cola. You are establishing a brand identity and delivering high-quality, consistent products to well-defined market space.

To that end, all your marketing efforts, from print promotions to social media posts, should be centered on reinforcing that brand. It's not that you can't experiment artistically. You just need to be careful about how much of that experimentation makes its way into the public.

Well, the currently shared separation throws a bit of a curveball into that plan. You shouldn't completely abandon your brand. After all, this work stoppage will eventually end, and you will need your brand identity more than ever to come out on the other side with your business intact. But the understanding that all of us, including your clients, are having to operate day to day in a different manner than which we are used to gives you just a little more latitude to experiment than you might typically have.

I'll use myself as an example. I photograph models and athletes for fashion and fitness brands. If you look at my portfolio or social media feeds, you will unsurprisingly find a constant stream of this work. That's the product I am selling, and my marketing efforts reflect that. Well, since the models, makeup artists, and stylists in my Rolodex are all under the same stay-at-home order as I am, producing a constant stream of model shoots for social media gets interesting during a time of social distancing. Understandably, I can't be creating new work in the same way without being able to organize a shoot. Yes, I have years worth of archives that I can roll out well into next year without much effort. I've started to do that to a degree. And my portfolio itself is well stocked with options for the foreseeable future. But what about social media? The insatiable beast that is Instagram has not been affected by the stay-at-home order. If anything, it's more important than ever with clients sitting in their home offices, making it even harder than usual to reach them via their work email address. You have to keep feeding the beast.

To continually meet content obligations, in addition to repurposing older content, we have to find ways to continuously produce outside of our standard methods. Different photographers have different techniques. I've seen artists use social media itself as an inspiration to create work. I've seen photographers take more of a sniper approach to portraits to maintain a safe distance but still photograph faces. I've just taken my lighting practice sessions to a new level and have been producing more self-portraits than the world will ever need, not that I share them all publicly. These self-portraits would usually stay well hidden on my hard drives, but since clients understand that I am trapped at home alone, the same as them, it gives me a specific license to post more of these images without confusing my customer base. After all, who else am I supposed to shoot?

I still need to make sure that these images are of the same level of quality as my professional work. There is no experimenting with my quality standard. But a bit of experimenting in terms of subject matter is understandable. And I've even found ways to create new lighting techniques during these sessions that I might not have tried were I shooting a paid assignment or even a test shoot, which, once the work stoppage ends, I can now offer to my clients and add value that might not have existed before the time off to experiment.

Forces You to Sharpen Other Skills

An extension of experimentation is that being robbed of your natural resources encourages you to sharpen other skills that you lack or that might have laid long dormant.  

Again, I photograph people. A long-running joke between me and anyone who will listen is that if a picture doesn't have a face in it, I get bored rather quickly. Landscapes, still life, and any other form of photography that doesn't present me with a person that can be styled, lit, and directed have never really given me much inspiration. Not that those are lesser art forms, it's just that I learned long ago that those things don't get my creative juices flowing. With that in mind, I intentionally built a career in the realm of photography that centers around people. So, while I am asked to shoot the odd still life or landscape to fill out a campaign from time to time, those have never been areas of photography that I put out front in my marketing efforts.

Well, months separated from other faces to photograph makes for strange bedfellows. Yes, I do a lot of selfies. But there are only so many ways I can shoot myself before running into the need for the different subject matter. This is one of the rare times in life where I can say that my proclivity towards being a hoarder has paid off. My house is filled with an endless supply of knick-knacks and forgotten souvenirs, just begging for their closeup. So, in the absence of models, I've been spending a great deal of time doing still life photography. I hardly consider myself to be a master still life photographer, but, in a way, that only makes the activity more lucrative.  

The work stoppage is forcing me to strengthen an area of my photography arsenal that, given a choice, I might otherwise ignore. Yet, it is a skill of value. Still life photography seems to be one of the areas of the photography business less affected by the outbreak. There's a lot you can create in still life photography from the comfort of your own home. It's not that I have any intention of changing my brand as a people photographer. As we discussed earlier, branding is more important than ever. But being able to strengthen this secondary skillset can only help to weather the difficult months ahead. And it's a skill I likely would not have spent a great deal of time enhancing had it not been for the stoppage.

Even when times get tough, I think it pays to remember just how fortunate we are. This article has approached the current pandemic from the perspective of business and creativity. But others are dealing with it in the far more practical terms of their survival and the survival of those they love. I am fortunate just to be able to sit here behind my computer in relatively good health. You are lucky to be able to read this from the comfort of your own home, even if both of our doors are currently designed to lock us in.

The current pandemic is terrible. I don't need the news or a million fake sympathy emails to remind me of that. But, as always, there are silver linings. Remember to smile and take advantage of the time we have.

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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1 Comment

I'm not a professional but one thing is now I have the time to go through all my old photos and work on them and am getting ready to post a lot of them on line.