Here are some words about the choices all photographers have to make and how we choose to make them.
A few months ago, I was sitting in front of my computer. I would say it was a slow day. But, truthfully, I had been hard at work since 5 o’clock that morning. Sending out cold emails. Networking with clients and contacts from my promo list. Doing everything I could to scream into the wind in hopes that my voice might make it into the ear of just the right client at just the right time. The day was only “slow” in the sense that despite me screaming myself hoarse, nothing seems to have paid dividends. So, by this point in the evening, I was less “still at work” and more or less just “still in front of my computer,” sitting dormant as a groundhog meandering through various YouTube clips of little to no importance.
Then, I got a text from a friend, someone who I had photographed years ago and stayed in touch with. They had a friend of a friend of a friend who saw my work and wanted me to shoot a project for them. To be honest with you, I’ve gotten so many such messages over the years that I’ve begun to develop something of an unintentional gut reaction. Don’t get me wrong. I love new business. But there’s a certain set of words and circumstances that I often hear in client requests that immediately triggers my flight instinct. The more he described the project, the more that instinct kicked in.
It’s not that it was a bad project, mind you. And I do like him, and I’m sure I’d like his friend who was doing the requesting. The problem was that no matter how badly I needed the money, and that month, I really did need the money, there was absolutely nothing I could do to convince myself that this particular gig was going to be even remotely interesting creatively. To be sure, I could have shot the project in my sleep. But did I want to?
Clearly, this is what is often referred to as a “first world problem” — having to decide whether or not to take money being offered to you. The real problem, you might rightly say, is to not have money offered in the first place. But, I can assure you, this was not a case of me having money burning a hole in my pocket and passing on a job out of laziness. More like I had an invisible hole in my refrigerator that was causing it to forever appear empty and someone was offering me a potential way to fix it. Yet, I still couldn’t seem to muster enough excitement to jump.
As I said, situations like this are hardly a rare occurrence. Every incoming email I receive goes through a similar analysis to assess whether it’s value creatively, practically, and economically. But I tell that story as it is a simple example of a larger quandary. Why is that we do what we do?
As a professional photographer, there is no question that generating income plays a huge part in my decision-making. After all, this is how I feed myself and my four-legged fur child. And Archibald eats a lot of food. But am I really doing it for the money? If so, it would seem as though taking less stimulating jobs simply because there was a paycheck involved would be a far easier decision.
Am I doing it purely for the sake of creativity? An argument could be made for that considering the number of unpaid personal projects I generate each year for no other reason than that I wanted to create. But, if it were purely that, I suspect I would have been more satisfied keeping my day job all those years ago and just taking pictures as a hobby on the side. I still would have been able to create art for art’s sake and surely would have spent a great deal less time worrying about return on investment or empty refrigerators.
Is it pride? Is there a part of me that is neither content with simply being good at something, nor content with whatever money is being offered, but rather is only happy when I am not only recognized for my creative achievements with metaphorical pats on the back but also by objective cash rewards as proof of my ability?
I’m writing from a personal perspective, as that’s the only perspective I have to work with. But I suspect many of you reading this have asked yourself similar questions. If you’re being completely honest with yourself in those thoughts you have late at night that aren’t meant for public consumption, what is it that you feel motivates you to be a photographer? Is it truly all just for the love of the game? Or does financial success provide you a certain level of satisfaction beyond the ability to pay for family vacations? Is the money a form of affirmation of your artistic skill set or your value as a person? And, if so, how does it make you feel about yourself and that skill set during the inevitable times when business runs dry?
I wish I could end this article with some sort of grand rant which provides all the perfect answers. But, the truth is that the answer will be different for all of us. And often, the answer we are providing ourselves might not actually even get at the real truth. Our inner motivations have a funny way of hiding things from even ourselves. And, like most things in life, the more we learn, the less we know.
I ended up not taking the job that my friend’s friend’s friend was offering. I did need the money. But, in my own experience, I find that taking jobs I don’t really want just for the money only ends up one of two ways. Either the client is thrilled, but I feel ripped off and creatively unfulfilled, because it feels like a violation of whatever gifts I’ve been blessed with. Or option B, I shoot the project exactly the way I want, am thoroughly artistically vindicated, but the client is less than satisfied because they wanted something less creative and more paint-by-numbers. Neither of us is wrong. It’s just not the right creative fit. And no amount of money can fix that. Yes, I am in business to create art. But it is still art. So, one cannot approach it the same way one does hammering out widgets. Or, maybe one can. But I can’t. So I guess money isn’t my main motivation. Go figure.
I love to hear more about what drives you to do your work in the comments below. Do you often have to decide between artistic merit and number of zeroes on the estimate? What do you use to guide your decisions? What does being a photographer really mean for you?