Based on a series of presentations at Chattanooga State College, This is part three of a five part series on challenges faced by creative professionals. Click here to read Part 1: Nothing Happens Fast, and here for Part 2: Don’t Do it for the Money.
Since 2007, when I began living more or less permanently outside of Canada, I have attended exactly one major family event – Thanksgiving, 2013. Though I have been able to get home for sporadic visits, I have been a largely absentee family member, missing birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, and child births. At 17 I made most major decisions in my life based on a desire to get as far away form my hometown as possible, but as time passes the distance from my family has become more difficult to stomach. My extreme wanderlust has slowly given way to a gentle, yet nagging guilt that I should be home more often. The problem is that the photojournalism career that I have slowly built for myself is, at the moment, entirely dependent on my living overseas.
When I first decided to pursue independent photojournalism, I didn’t appreciate that I was making a lifestyle decision as much as, if not more than, a job choice. With the proliferation of cheap, high quality cameras, and the ability to self-educate on the Internet, there have never been as many people aspiring to do my job. Very early on, I was warned by a veteran war photographer that if I wanted to stand out, I would have to be willing to give up certain things that constitute a normal life for most people: stability, consistency, and familial relationships, to name a few. Enamoured with the seemingly glamorous lifestyle of a traveling documentary photographer, I was quick to assert my willingness to go without these common staples of life. And while it has turned out to be the best decision I have ever made, the sacrifices take more of a mental toll on me with each passing year.
That is not to say I regret the path I have chosen – on the contrary, I am in the somewhat surprising position of being able to do what I love. But virtually all of my successes along the way have been almost as much a result of the sacrifices I have been willing to make as my skill as a photographer. It goes without saying that your images need to be of a certain calibre if you expect to get paid for your work, but being good is expected these days – how much a person is willing to sacrifice is, in my opinion, as important as photographic prowess. I’ve met many aspiring photojournalist with incredible portfolios to prove they have the requisite artistic and technical skills, yet they are unable to land enough paid assignments to support themselves. Some are (perhaps understandably) unwilling to leave their lives in New York, London, or Paris, which pits them against some of the most well known and established names in the industry. Others don’t want to give up the guaranteed income of their existing jobs to take the plunge into full time freelancing. Whatever the reasons, and however logical they may be, this refusal to sacrifice often prevents these gifted people from achieving their full potential.
It is not necessary to move to the opposite side of the world in order to find engaging stories, and there are many ways to make a living as a photographer other than freelancing. These steps fit with my goals and financial situation, but are by no means a formula for success. The lack of face-to-face contact with my family and my surrendering of a steady pay cheque are just two examples of sacrifices I’ve made in order to make things work, and each individual has to decide for themselves what they can realistically give up.
Someone with a young baby cannot, in good conscience, pack up and move to India, but maybe a sacrifice for them could be as simple at packing a lunch to take to work everyday instead of eating out. The extra $10 per day saved could finance a month-long trip, or go into a savings account that will help them weather the transition from their old jobs to their new paths. Conversely, a wealthy banker who decides they want to quit the financial world for a life of documenting human rights issues will not have the same monetary concerns as most people, but will have to give up their comfortable condo or luxury car for the challenges of life on the road. In fact, Marcus Bleasdale from the renowned VII Photo Agency did exactly this, and is now one of the most respected photojournalists in the world. Bleasdale told The Telegraph that at one point he was earning £500,000 per year as an investment banker, owning two houses and a Porsche 911. For his most recent projects he spent months at a time traveling through open pit mineral mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and witnessing the horrors of the genocide taking place in the Central African Republic. Trading a life of weekend skiing in the Alps for the life-threatening conflict zones of central Africa is admittedly an extreme example of sacrifice, but he clearly finds the satisfaction of reporting the underreported to be worth the tradeoff.
From the professional athlete who chose to forgo the temptations of a debaucherous college life in order to master their sport, to the Hollywood superstar who worked overtime at Starbucks so they could afford to keep going to auditions, the path to success is often littered with sacrifices. Society loves to dwell on the meteoric risers, such as Justin Bieber, who shot from high school obscurity to entertainment icon seemingly overnight, yet more often than not the struggle towards greatness is defined by a series of uphill battles in a long war of attrition. This, to me, seems like the way the world should work. Those who are willing to give up the most and work the hardest deserve to be considered the best, and the only honest way to speed up the process is to identify the elements in your life that are not advancing your goals.
So quit smoking, ride a bike to work, or stop buying name brand clothes. Get a part time job, or quit a soul-sucking one. Drink water instead of Perrier. There is endless fat that can be trimmed from most people’s lives, including my own, and while everyone needs to decide for themselves what they can and can’t live without, the ones who sacrifice, whether they be photographers, lawyers, or NASCAR drivers, are probably the ones who we will remember.