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The Necessity of Sacrifice: 5 Steps to Creative Success (Part 3)

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.

Manila, Philippines. Angelica, 8, plays with her siblings in a stairwell next to her family shack near the Osmena highway. When her father lost his job, the family of six was forced to move into a squatter's shack measuring just 2 meters squared. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

Manila, Philippines. Angelica, 8, plays with her siblings in a stairwell next to her family shack near the Osmena highway. When her father lost his job, the family of six was forced to move into a squatter’s shack measuring just 2 meters squared.      ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

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.

Koh Kong, Cambodia. A Buddhist monk begins his 25km trek out of the remote Areng Valley after a multi-day environmental protest. Buddhist monks are entering the political sphere in Cambodia, mostly in opposition of government corruption. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

Koh Kong, Cambodia. A Buddhist monk begins his 25km trek out of the remote Areng Valley after a multi-day environmental protest. Buddhist monks are entering the political sphere in Cambodia, mostly in opposition of government corruption. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

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.

Dhaka, Bangladesh. Muslims pray during the holy month of Ramadan. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

Dhaka, Bangladesh. Muslims pray during the holy month of Ramadan. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

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.

Kolkata, India. A batsmen approaches the wickets during an afternoon practice. These players are members of club teams and many aspire to play at the state or national level. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

Kolkata, India. A batsmen approaches the wickets during an afternoon cricket practice. These players are members of club teams and many aspire to play at the state or national level. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

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.

Click here to read Part 1: Nothing Happens Fast

Click here to read Part 2: Don’t Do it for the Money

 

 

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Don’t Do it for the Money: 5 Steps to Creative Success (Part 2)

Based on a series of presentations at Chattanooga State College, This is part two of a five part series on challenges faced by creative professionals. Click here to read Part 1: Nothing Happens Fast.

A young family in San Andres, Manila. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

A young family in San Andres, Manila. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

A recent survey from Forbes Magazine placed journalist (they used the moniker “newspaper reporter”, but I think it’s safe to count these as being roughly the same thing) at number nine in the top ten list of the most stressful jobs in the world. The official list published is as follows:

1)    Enlisted Military Personnel (Soldier)

2)    Military General

3)    Firefighter

4)    Airline Pilot

5)    Event Coordinator

6)    Public Relations Executive

7)    Senior Corporate Executive

8)    Police Officer

9)    Newspaper Reporter (journalist/photojournalist)

10)  Taxi Driver

This list looks pretty fair to me – all these jobs seem to be relatively stressful and I don’t think any of them are out of place. What jumped out at me were the disparities in income between various jobs. I can see how being the CEO of a major company would be less than relaxing, or how hard-working PR agents could burn themselves out in a high-stakes industry. But for these jobs they are rewarded financially, whereas the same Forbes list estimates the median income of working journalists at $36 000 per year, compared to $146 000 for a commercial pilot. The only jobs on the list that pay less than journalism are taxi driver and soldier. So why do people do them?

I would argue that driving a taxi is a job undertaken out of necessity rather than passion. While there may be some drivers out there who love going to work each morning, and wouldn’t dream of doing anything else, to my understanding it is generally the sort of thing people do to earn money when they can’t find anything better. A friend of mine drove a cab when he moved across the country and needed money quickly to pay the rent on his new apartment, but once he got on his feet he moved on and never looked back. There is nothing wrong with being a professional taxi driver (to the contrary, if you love what you do then you’ve already won in life), but I don’t normally think of it as being a driving passion in someone’s life. I don’t remember any of my classmates in the first grade declaring that when they grew up they wanted be a taxi driver, for example. Driving a cab is something people do because they need to make ends meet – a straightforward exchange of money for services rendered.

Koh Kong Province, Cambodia. Koem Bunloerum, 30, enjoys a moment of reflection in the Areng Valley. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

Koh Kong Province, Cambodia. Koem Bunloerum, 30, enjoys a moment of reflection in the Areng Valley. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom

According to Forbes, soldiers make only about $5000 a year more than taxi drivers, but the jobs seem worlds apart in terms of what motivates the people who do them. Sure, there are probably large numbers of enlisted military personnel who sign up because they are in financial or personal trouble and see no other alternative, but these people are likely to accept a discharge as soon as they possibly can. A career soldier, however, must have an entirely different outlook on his or her job. In order to risk your life for less than the price of a mid-range car, there has to be something that makes it all feel worthwhile. Never having been a soldier I can only speculate, but I imagine it has something to do with feeling like they are a part of something larger and more important than themselves. They see themselves as the guardians of their country (all political opinions aside), and in their eyes what they do is important. Others may disagree with them, but for those who thrive in military careers there is probably nothing else in the world they’d rather be doing.

If taxi drivers and soldiers, the first and second lowest paying jobs on the Forbes list, were surveyed, which of them would likely report a higher job satisfaction? I say soldier almost every time. Most taxi drivers would probably quit their jobs the moment something higher-paying came along, but I would wager that it would be much harder to convince a dedicated marine to leave the service. According to the list, a military general makes more than five times as much as an enlisted man. But to become a general, one first needs to be a soldier for many, many years. If all they cared about was a paycheck, there are certainly easier (and safer) ways to make a living. The best soldiers stay in uniform because they think it is something worth doing, and the same mentality has to apply to anyone who wants to succeed as a creative professional.

During my first full year of being a “professional” photojournalist, I was paid in sandwiches. I was working for a small independent magazine in South Korea, and they had literally zero budget for paying contributors – apart from advertiser-donated gift certificates. One publication earned me one meal. But sandwich or no, I would have made these stories anyways. There are innumerable articles floating around the internet that deplore the practice of working for free as destroying the market for paid professionals, and for the most part I agree with them. Giving high quality work away for free so that others can profit from it is a slippery slope, and should be avoided at all costs. At that point in my career, however, I was barely literate in my craft – and truth be told, looking back on those first clumsy attempts, I don’t think they were deserving of paid compensation. In the end, learning to work with a photo editor on a deadline was worth far more in the long run than a few hundred dollars that I wouldn’t have remembered spending.

Darjeeling, India. Nawang Chonzom, 83, sits inside her house in a centre for Tibetan refugees. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

Darjeeling, India. Nawang Chonzom, 83, sits inside her house in a centre for Tibetan refugees. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

When I eventually decided to leave the magazine and strike out on my own as a full-time freelancer, I spent my life savings (twice) before landing a single paid publication. I shot stories in eight countries, and each one was a little better than the last, but still money eluded me. I would send pitches to only the most prestigious publications in the world, and when I received no reply I took it as a sign that the stories were not good enough. While this was extremely discouraging at times, I still went out everyday for four to five hours and hunted for stories.

Why? Because I loved doing it. Even now, when my entire income is derived from documentary photography and writing, if I found an interesting story that nobody was interested in publishing, I would still shoot it. If I was born into a richer family, or if I had scooped up some rental properties in an up-and-coming neighbourhood – making money a non-issue – I would still do exactly the same thing. In the end it took more than three years to start getting paid for my efforts, and even now it is only possible to survive on what I make because I’ve worked hard to keep my lifestyle as cheap as possible.

Manila, Philippines. Men passing a bottle of rum in San Andres. Excessive drinking is common in Manila’s lower class neighbourhoods, as the price of alcohol is extremely low in the Philippines. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

Manila, Philippines. Men pass a bottle of rum around a circle in San Andres. Excessive drinking can be common in Manila’s lower class neighbourhoods, as the price of alcohol is extremely low in the Philippines. ©Luc Forsyth/Ruom.

These days, particularly in photography, people seem desperate to be recognized as professionals rather than receive the dreaded label of amateur. Some will give their work away for a pittance in exchange for a promise of exposure, often to profit making organizations (as opposed to free independent magazines that genuinely cannot pay). But the word amateur derives from the Latin amare: “to love.” I would suggest that in the hyper-competitive and image-saturated modern world, it will be the people who work because they love doing it that will succeed above the ones looking for a big payout. Just like a soldier who puts on a uniform because of what it represents over what it pays, the best in most creative fields tend to be people for whom money is secondary to the gift of being able to do what is important to them.

In order to really prosper in a creative field like photography, writing, or filmmaking, even the most well respected professional needs to be an amateur at heart. Figuring out what sort of work is important enough for you to dedicate your life to is the hardest part. The rest is just logistics.

This is the second part in a multipart series. Click here to read Part One: Nothing Happens Fast.

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