To be an artist means to be a producer, not a consumer

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An abundance of junk email reminded me this morning that turning a passion into profit sometimes means going back to a very basic concept.

I’m a fan of the clean inbox. For years, sitting behind a desk on job after job, sifting the bottomless pit of unnecessary email seemed determined to consume my day. I would always look forward to those brief moments when I could look at my inbox and see absolutely nothing. Just a clean white page to the right of the folder structure. A visual representation of the fact that I was completely trapped in that moment.

The fact that I enjoy so much an empty inbox could just be another result of my OCD. “I was a boy in college who always got his homework done within an hour of the assignment, and as far as I can remember, I have never had a last night in my life. I like getting things done early so I don’t have to worry about them later. I like a clean inbox because it shows that there are no upcoming tasks hanging over my head and that I can sit back and relax and watch Turner Classic Movies without feeling like I’ve forgotten anything.

Now that I’m a professional photographer whose jobs typically come in via email from potential clients, I can of course safely say that I don’t want to stare at an empty inbox for too long. I’m looking forward to seeing a flash of text out of the corner of my eye and turning my head to see that a new message has arrived. Unfortunately, not every email I receive comes from a customer or colleague. In fact, when in a customer I see every stray email I get from sellers asking me to buy, contests asking me to pay money for a slim chance at a price I’ve never heard of or from publicists who send out press releases for non-photography products because they seem to have found my name on a mailing list, I would be a very wealthy man. I could even go so far as to say that the vast majority of the pings in my inbox are emails destined to go straight to my trash, completely unread. This quick disposal of course satisfies my longing for a clean inbox. But it’s also a constant reminder of one of the greatest dichotomies I’ve found in my photography career. Simply put, we become professional photographers, presumably to make money and make a living. But many aspects of the industry itself seem much more focused on our spending than actually making money.

There is of course the big one. The latest and greatest equipment that most people spend more time studying and debating than they actually use on assignments. There are constant test shootings that may or may not cost money depending on the motive and ambition. Once you’ve created your masterpiece, then you have to pay for the presentation costs associated with building websites, sending out promotions, and printing portfolios (although the latter is a little less in the age of Zoom meetings). Since marketing is a pretty obvious and necessary part of growing a business, whole home industries are built to get you noticed. Some are clearly transactional. You pay X amount to your representative. It may or may not be worth the money depending on your representative. You pay Y money to take part in such and such “prestigious” competitions in order to have the chance that your work will be seen by “the right people”. For example, let’s say you know exactly which contest you’re competing for, instead of just clicking “Submit” every contest that lands in your inbox. This can be a fruitful way to see your work. But even as someone who has won several such awards over the years, I can’t help but think of the sheer number of photo competitions that are out there and wonder if the majority of the competitions themselves aren’t just pathways for that Businesses are competing to move wealth from my pocket to theirs without really giving me much in return, except for a fleeting hope. Then there are the one million and one different conventions and photo exhibitions that you can buy a ticket to. The how-to courses to enroll in. The preset and LUT packages promise to make all of your images amazing with a click of the mouse, apparently replacing your own creativity with a unified aesthetic of cool.

Do not get me wrong. Each of the above items has its place. And spending on any or all of these things is not necessarily a waste of money. I’m only referring to these things because I’ve spent money on them at one point in the past few decades building my photography career with varied returns. And with so many ways to spend your money, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that your job as a professional photographer and entrepreneur is not to spend money, but to make it.

I remember chatting with one of my best friends a few years ago before I was a full-time professional photographer. He was an aspiring graphic designer. I was an aspiring photographer. We both worked in dead ends and spent far more money on our “hobbies” than we had earned in income. That day he had just designed a book project for a client / friend that was only paid for the exhibition. He had clearly put a lot more time into the project than he was being compensated, and he jokingly said that he and I were in the same boat as we were both “paying for the work”. It was a passing remark that wasn’t meant to be dwelled, but it did, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized he was right. At that moment, I was so focused on buying the latest gear, shopping into every shooting situation I could afford, and using the rest on every opportunity that made me feel part of the photography community. that I had forgotten that the goal was to actually make money. The part looks good. But at some point you have to get up or shut up. At some point you have to stop being a consumer and start being a producer.

The old adage “You need money to make money” is unfortunately very true. When running a business, you need to make strategic investments. But what you can’t do is replace the hard work of building a business with expenses. You can’t buy a career as a professional photographer. You have to earn it. Spend less time looking for products to buy and more time looking for customers who might buy your product. You need to sit down and calculate the numbers and understand concepts like the cost of goods sold. While these jobs, which allow you to be creative but not pay enough to cover the cost, can sometimes be beneficial, if you do too many such jobs you will be incredibly busy and still somehow lose money. We all enjoy spending money on equipment. It’s like crack for photographers. An immediate burst of joy that lasts at least as long as the credit card bill arrives. But one thing that feels so much better than spending money is making money producing work for clients that will allow your bank account to grow rather than shrink.

Is everything I said above obvious? Yes. But in an industry apparently geared towards getting photographers to spend money instead of actually making it, is it easy to strike the wrong balance and end up on the wrong side of the ledger? Yes it is. Learning to mentally shift from someone whose job it is to make purchases to someone whose job it is to make a profit is an easy lesson, but one that will pay off for years to come.


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