Why Many Photographers Don't Work on Projects They'd Love

Why Many Photographers Don't Work on Projects They'd Love

I will speak from a perspective of a non-American here. I find lots of U.S.-based photographers who are working on projects they hate, and they admit it. I tried to dig into the reasons for that, and here are my conclusions, and my advices.

If someone works on a project they hate, there are two reasons: they agreed to do it, or they made a mistake accepting the project. The second reason is not what I'm going to talk about, because it's not the usual way of doing business, but rather it's an exception. I want to emphasize on the regular agreements photographers do to work on projects they hate: money.

Business man with an umbrella in the rain

What Happens When You Work on Projects You Hate?

Ignoring, for now, the causes of the decision to work on projects you may hate, let's think how that may affect your career:

  • You may market yourself as a photographer who does only such projects. You will become famous for that.
  • You get more projects of this kind because of referrals and word of mouth.
  • You do work you don't like and thus you don't invest your full potential in it.
  • You get nervous and act in front of the clients pretending you like it. You are not a photographer, but an actor who can shoot pictures.
  • You don't want to show it in your portfolio, but this may look like you don't get hired for any jobs.
  • You show that work in your portfolio and it brings you more of the same.
  • You invest your time and your money in these jobs.
  • You don't have time to hone your skills in areas you'd love to work in.
  • You live in a constant state of dreaming of dream projects.
  • Building a different name for your business will be much harder, because you are known for the work you hate.

Do I need to discuss what happens when you love the project you work in? You. Just. Enjoy. Your. Job.

Money

The basic needs of a human being are food, water, clothing, and a shelter. Unless you have a garden or a small farm, you need to pay for your food and water. The shelter is something very expensive in the U.S. and in many so-called First World countries. In developing countries, having shelter is not that of an issue (what a paradox). Having a space to live may cost you mortgage payments, taxes, or a rental fee.

People work on projects they hate because of covering the expenses for their basic needs. I haven't heard of someone doing unwanted photography jobs to buy a Ferrari.

A hard working typist (night scene)

How to Avoid Working on Projects You Hate

  • Minimize the need of money. This may sound ridiculous to most of you, but you probably do not need most of the things you think you want.
  • Don't go into debt. I understand if you already did that or you've been born in this situation, but don't go deeper.
  • Don't buy expensive gear if you can't afford it. Cheaper gear can go a long way. Today's digital still cameras are way better than many of the digital cameras professionals used in the past. You can shoot commercial work with cheaper gear that can buy you a more durable one. Try to be creative. Limitations are a great way to fuel your creativity.
  • Do extra work on the projects you hate, making pictures you'd love. This way you will get partially paid for what you love. This is possible with clients that are open for ideas you would do as a complimentary work.

Conclusion

We are not born to be slaves. You won't have other chances to enjoy your work than in the days of your life. If you are wise enough, you can turn the projects you hate into a fuel for your creativity, and make you more organized. You can build a portfolio and a name as photographers who only do work that they love and share.

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22 Comments

Jonathan Brady's picture

In short, there's no reason for you to be the Walmart of photography. You don't have to have everything, for everybody. Ask yourself, "what does Walmart specialize in?" The answer? Low prices and miserable people. People go there because they have to, employees and customers.

Johnny Rico's picture

Who hates work if the price is right, it's called being indifferent.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I have rejected many profitable projects just because I don't find them interesting or they would not fit in my preferred style of shooting.

It's not just profit. It's an overall enjoyment in the whole execution process and the profit from it. Sometimes there's an indirect profit (e.g. personal projects or complementary work for a paid project).

Do you think garbage men do that job because they love it or find it interesting? Grow up!

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

The article is clear that people do jobs they don't like just for the money. If someone enjoys what they do, they don't do it just for the money, but money is an extra to the happiness the work gives them.

But you make it sound like, if they're doing it "just for the money", at least if they're American, they're greedy or something. It gets old having non-Americans tell us what's wrong with us.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Don't be over sensitive. If I haven't mentioned I'm not in the US, there wouldn't be a problem. I'm speaking that out of personal experience and as the majority of the readers are Americans, I'm talking about issues with American photographers that are real. I have never said you guys are to be condemned or something. I'm trying to give an engouragement how I got out of such situations being in a similar position.

Remove the first paragraph from the article and ask yourself if you'd write this comment. You wouldn't.

I hope it's cool now. We're not fighting here. We're trying to help each other out.

I've started and deleted my reply three times. <sigh> Suffice to say, nothing you've written is specific to Americans just as nothing I could write would be specific to Bulgarians. Aside from the obvious cultural differences, individual people are the same. We're all just trying to get by. Some of us have the ability to do what we love and others have to do what they do. There's no encouragement for getting out of it. Things have to be done and someone has to do it.

As an aside, your article had nothing to do with photography. It could just as easily been written about every other career in the world.

And lastly, I have nothing against you and generally enjoy your articles. If I don't speak out against those I disagree with, how would you know I genuinely agree with the others?

Johnny Rico's picture

"I'm talking about issues with American photographers that are real. I have never said you guys are to be condemned or something. I'm trying to give an engouragement how I got out of such situations being in a similar position."

Nah I enjoy the situation, it's called work ethic. I honestly don't think I have hated a job if I've bid it right.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

If I haven't mentioned the first paragraph, you wouldn't make this comment, I'm sure about it. I have spoken the truth. The majority of the readers are Americans. I'm speaking to Americans most of the time, I know the problems. I know the problems of many American photographers. I, myself, have lived in the US and I know problems from a first hand. I know there are more and less crazy regulations in different states, but I'm trying to keep the issues mentioned in article on a common ground.

The article is not stating "Americans are bad." I'm talking about normal American citizens who may have going through hardships as photographers. I've been through similar struggles, and I'm giving an advice from a personal experience. That's what I did (mentioned in the conclusion).

We're not fighting here, Bob. We're just trying to encourage each other out. I'm not talking about the goverment here. People and goverment are quite a different thing. I'm speaking to normal people here. As the majority of the readers are Americans, they will understand the examples I give them, because I'm speaking about real struggles here, and they are the truth.

This doesn't mean there aren't other nations with similar struggles, but, as I said, the majority of the readers are Americans, so it's easy to talk about the common issues in the US. Yes, there are other nations, such as so called "third world countries" that don't have these problems (food is good, most people own a property). They have other things they are struggling with.

In this article I wanted to give a word of encouragement for everyone who struggles with these and help them out with advices I have personally applied in my life and I've been out of that struggle for years now. Don't take it as an offence. I'm here as someone like you. I'm not against you.

I agree that not all of the jobs are "the perfect ones." However this has to be more of an exception than the usual way of life. If you can afford to work only on jobs you like, you have covered your basic needs, and you are probably quite happy about your work.

And yes, some starve because they want the dream project right away. My first article was on having dream projects in your portfolio. I still use projects where I agreed with the client I'd like to do some complementary work, and if they agree, I'm glad to do the boring part together with the more interesting one. I'm usually showing the second one in my portfolio (if that wasn't the perfect project).

Walter Gustafson's picture

I've traveled and lived abroad. I understand what Tihomir is saying and totally agree! His main point is to try eliminating things you don't like to do and replace them with projects you do. Doing so may require you to live below your means and lifestyle. As he also mentioned, finding enjoyment in unenjoyable work takes creativity but can be fulfilling. Thank you Tihomir for the reminder to live simple while pursuing our passions.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Thanks Walter.

The article was just an advice to the majority of the readers who may struggle with such issues.

I have lived with much less, but I still enjoyed my work and there comes the time where you actually start working on nice projects and they bring you profit. That takes a lot of efforts and patience, but it's worth it.

If it's a job you absolutely don't want to do - you turn it down.

It's that simple.

Does every wedding photographer only want to shoot weddings? Probably not. And even if they do, they're not going to turn down a client that's "eh" versus that storybook wedding magazine shoot they really want.

Applying an incredibly narrow point of view with an oversimplification of life then applying it to a large group of photographers is all I got out f it.

You neglected to include humanity in your article. Human things, like traveling, exploring, dinner out, fashion, art, having a family, and all the other things that help make existence enjoyable. You also failed to include the realities of life. Like getting cancer, going to war in the middle of your life plan, accidents, communism, and other limiting factors in decisions. No one works just from basic needs. We all hope and work for more, even if it's something as small as a beer as a rare treat or that Ferrari.

How convenient to choose just Americans also but I'm going to leave geopolitics out of it.

Otherwise we would all be movie critics and rollercoaster testers and no one would be janitors or garbage men. I'm wondering how often you do anything you don't like and I'm betting it's just as often as "us Americans."

And why just us Americans? You think ALL of us are so vastly different from the other 7.2 BILLION other humans?

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

The article specifically stated _basic needs_. It doesn't talk about cost of doing business, alimony, utility bills, or sort of. The basic needs are these. Most of the time people are doing jobs they hate because they can't pay their food or their mortgage or their rent.

I'm talking mostly about Americans, because:
- The majority of readers are Americans;
- These issues are very close to Americans;
- There are many other nations that have no such issues;
- Yes, there are nations with similar way of life, but I'm speaking mostly to Americans;

If the article was not mentioning that I'm (currently) not in the US, there wouldn't be any problem with that;

BTW, I have lived in the US, working professionally, I know things from frist hand, it's not that I'm making things up out of thin air. Yes, I know different states have different regulations, but I'm talking about the most common issues.

These are real issues. I don't condemn any of you guys. I've been in a similar situation too, but I had my way out years ago. Now I decided to talk about this, because I saw photographers, even famous ones, complaining they did jobs they hated, because they had to cover basic needs.

In US there's a tendency of people being oversensitive. I don't think I'm talking to such people here. I'm talking about real problems that Americans will understand quite well. This doesn't mean you guys have to be judged for that. The majority of the readers are Americans. I'm talking of the same experience and I'm speaking with words of encouragement.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Not only "first hand" from living there, but from hearing working American photographers talking about the same thing. And some of these are famous photographers. There are 2 things here: a) their own words; b) my own observations. Even with #1 and without the first paragraph, the article would be still valid.

Currently you argue about the 1st paragraph. Truth is truth. These issues are very real today, and you're not to blame for them. If they aren't the truth, all these photographers should be lying, and all of the people I know in the US who are complaining about the same, should be lying too. I don't think so.

Exposing an issue and showing steps to deal with it is what you call "disrespectful." It's up to you. I'm glad other Americans understood what I meant.

David Penner's picture

This is ehy I struggle with the idea of doing photography full time. My actual job is all contract work and if I work 6 months I can make more then the average photographer makes in a year busting ass. I dont want that pressure to have to create anything. If I feel like taking a week off and not touching a camera Ill do that. As soon as I am forcing myself to go out it starts becoming a job and as a landscape photographer that is depressing. Especially when things dont work out. The reality of photography is if you dont want to do jobs you dont really want to do you almost need to have another job till you build up a good reputation.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

The best time to become a full-time photographer is when you make a portfolio and a relatively successful business while you are still on a day job. I agree that landscape photography is not the easiest of the areas to work in.

olivier borgognon's picture

The article is very interesting and hits the point. I will agree (living in switzerland, very expensive country to live in), that some people do what they can to sustain the work as a photographer and rant all the time about the work.

I believe that the point on americans could be edited as this is more of a cost reduction wherever we live (any capital city technically, worldwide), and this will, as you state affect many of them on a personal level, because the focus drives to read that it's oriented, but in reality it is not.

The final fact to take into account IMHO is the following :

Do what you love, work on your portfolio of things you want, start immediately on that and don't wait to do tons of work you don't like before shifting, improve your skills, find collaboration work to build the portfolio of your dreams, and reduce your costs.

It's a question of what Tony Robbins would say : Reduce overheads, increase income. Do a DCODB and make sure you can reduce everywhere possible to build your projects.

Work on getting to your dream clients and projects, be rutheless, and Grind. and that... basically independently of any project or location.

Lee Stirling's picture

I am not sure anyone lives in such a utopia that they can always do only the kind of work that they love, unless they're not concerned about their ability to pay their bills and provide for their family. Perhaps this article would have received a more favorable reception, with the sentiment being less abrasive to the intended audience if the overall thrust was in how to turn projects that you're not in love with into something you can be proud of.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

The article actually says that last thing:

"Do extra work on the projects you hate, making pictures you'd love. This way you will get partially paid for what you love. This is possible with clients that are open for ideas you would do as a complimentary work."

Vincent Morretino's picture

I got excited by the first image because I thought she was wearing Salomon skates, but it turns out they may be Rollerblade Swindlers, a sub-par skate.

Not wanting to get on the "I'm easily offended" train, I'll move along now. Nice to see blading photos on here, though.