Tag Archives: starting out

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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Nothing Happens Fast: 5 Steps To Creative Success

A crow hops between ledges in a residential area of Rampur Hat.

A crow hops between ledges in a residential area of Rampur Hat, India.

Based on a series of presentations at Chattanooga State College, This is part one of a five part series on challenges faced by creative professionals. Click here to read Part 2: Don’t Do it for the Money.

I recently was invited by the wonderful people at Chattanooga State College in Tennessee to give four presentations to their student body on a variety of subjects from globalization to poverty – but all within the context of my personal experiences as a photojournalist.

The students at Chattanooga State turned out to be one of the most receptive audiences I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to. Eager to learn and with a minimum of pretension, a few of the sessions went nearly an hour overtime because of the great conversation-generating questions they put to me.

While I enjoyed all of the talks hugely, I wanted to share the some of the finer points of one in particular that was hosted by the college’s media department. The presentation was loosely titled “Making Your Way in a Globalized World,” and focused on some of the lessons I’ve learned about the realities of establishing yourself as a creative professional in the modern fast-paced and interconnected media industry.

Part of the reason I liked giving this talk so much, apart from the great crowd, was the fact that it forced me to think critically about what I’ve learned over the years of trying to establish myself as a photojournalist. In preparing for this session I spent a long time trying to organize my experiences and thoughts into a coherent presentation, and I think the process was of as much benefit to me as it was for the students. In the end I boiled everything down into five talking points which, while there are countless other minutiae that could be delved into in great detail, I think embody some of the most important lessons I’ve learned along the way.

I initially wanted to outline these points in one article, but it turns out I have too much to say on these subjects and a single post would be unmanageably long. So instead I’ll break them up into individual entries and post them separately.

Part 1: Nothing Worthwhile Happens Fast

A monk outside his pagoda in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Part of a larger story on the recent trend of Buddhist monks entering the political sphere in Cambodia.

A monk outside his pagoda in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Part of a larger story on the recent trend of Buddhist monks entering the political sphere in Cambodia.

The Internet has made us into some of the most impatient generations the world has ever known. I want almost everything I do to happen as quickly as possible, and most people I know are the same way. Even as technology is allowing me to do some incredible things – such as self-hosting a publishing platform like this web site, which brings my work to an international audience – I get irrationally irritated at any sort of holdup. When it takes slightly longer than normal to upload new images to my portfolio page, or when my favourite news site takes a little more time to load, I will often curse my computer or Wi-Fi provider. The faster technology allows me to work, the less I am able to be patient.

This loss of patience is one of the biggest obstacles to professional success for a lot of aspiring creatives, photographers included. We demand that everything happen instantly, that our every desire is gratified just as soon as they pop into our minds. This attitude leads us to forget something important: anything that is worth doing will take a lot of time. Previous generations – I’m thinking of my grandparents, for example – spent decades crafting meaningful careers for themselves. Now, however, many people will quit after putting just a year of modest effort into something.

My friend and photographic mentor Zoriah Miller explained to me that if I was making a semi-decent living from photojournalism within 10 years of starting out, then I was doing well. I have kept this in the back of my head and it has helped me to put my career into perspective, and, mostly importantly, kept me from quitting.

And this is really the crux of my point. The easiest way to fail at achieving your creative vision, in whatever form that may take, is to quit. I’m not suggesting that you miraculously acquire a saintly patience; in fact a healthy dose of impatience is probably necessary in keeping you hungry – but it needs to be harnessed. It is easy to be motivated straight out of the gate, but building a career, especially in competitive industries such as the media, is about the long game.

River taxi drivers take shelter during a rain storm in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

River taxi drivers take shelter during a rain storm in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

For example: If one million people per year (probably an overly conservative estimate) declare that they are becoming professional photographers, by the end of that first year at least half of them will have quit. Discouraged by a lack of quick progress, or the fact that TIME Magazine isn’t beating down their door because they bought a 5D Mark III, they will take the easy option and make excuses as to why they should stop – “the industry is dead,” would be a common example. By the end of the second year still more people will give up, citing a lack of money or that it is time to grow up and get a real job. The same thing will happen again after the third year, and so on. By then end of the fifth year, those who have found a way to keep at it, to bear the lack of financial success and recognition, and have struggled forward anyways – those will be the people to watch. They will have built up the contacts, the knowledge, and the resourcefulness to weather any storm and continue to create. And the next group of people who decide they want to become professionals will look at them with envy and ask, “how did they get to where they are?” – all the while looking for a fast and easy answer on how to duplicate their achievements.

I can say this because for a long time I was the same way. I spent hours each day performing creative Google searches along the lines of “how to become a photojournalist.” If I am honest with myself now, what I was looking for was someone to tell me how to get what I wanted quickly, some sort of step-by-step guide to success. The last thing I wanted to hear was that the secret was a lot of practice over many years, and it took me nearly a year of beating my head against a wall before I accepted this reality. But once it sunk in, I took the most important step of my career – I stopped Googling and started working. By no means am I representing myself as some sort of industry leader, but I am fully supporting myself from the work that I love doing, and for me that is the victory.

A street portrait in Kolkata, India.

A street portrait in Kolkata, India.

The bottom line is that whether you are an aspiring photojournalist, a novelist, or an independent filmmaker, there is no shortcut to success. If you are searching for that magic-bullet solution, it doesn’t exist. But if you put good work into the world for long enough, good things will happen. Keep working.

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

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On Burning Out

I could feel the burnout coming for weeks, but when it finally hit me it was so overpowering that I completely shut down in a matter of days.

A travel burnout is not a new sensation for me. Typically I crash either mentally or physically (or both) every three months or so, but this burnout was, to date, by far the most savage. It’s hard to say why this particular episode was so devastating; maybe because I have been pushing myself harder than ever before to continually produce new material, or maybe because of the strain of living on such a tight budget for so long. Maybe not seeing anyone in my family for nearly two years, or the unfortunate stress created by not seeing my girlfriend for long stretches of time finally caught up to me. Whatever the reasons, when I burnt out it came on hard and fast and without mercy.

It’s difficult to describe the feeling of breaking down completely, but the word that sums it up best for me would have to be weary. Weary of everything, from eating to walking, to taking buses, to haggling over the price of a taxi. Weary of being perpetually homeless and usually fairly dirty. Weary of the endless communication problems, the high frequency of illness, the need to vigilantly watch over my possessions, and the constant lack of creature comforts. Weary of life.

It happened just as I was finishing my story about Tibetan refugees in exile in India (which will begin to appear on the site over the coming days and weeks). A pervasive and persistent feeling of malaise settled over me like a toxic cloud. Sitting in a café in Darjeeling with a friend, we started planning the logistics of a one-month visit to Nepal when I realized that I had no desire to go whatsoever.

There was no reason not to; Nepal was less than 30 km away and the costs were well within my budget. I just did not want to do it. It had nothing to do with Nepal, which I am sure is an amazing place, and one that I plan to visit sooner rather than later. But the thought of starting again in a new country and going through the exhausting process of searching for a story, recruiting local translators and gaining the trust of subjects seemed like it would break me completely.  Even though I had been traveling for nearly seven months, I realized I had not actually taken a vacation in almost two years – and as anyone who travels seriously can tell you, there is a big difference between travel and vacation.

I spent a few more days in Darjeeling, thinking carefully about the next step. My biggest fear was that if I pushed any harder I would begin to hate what I was doing, and for someone still establishing himself in a very competitive industry, that seemed like a seriously bad idea. So I dropped everything, took an overnight train back to Calcutta and booked the cheapest one-way ticket to Bangkok I could find. From there I met some friends in the tiny rock climbing community of Tonsai beach and didn’t emerge for several weeks.

I dropped everything. I didn’t write, I didn’t take photos, I didn’t think about stories or grant applications or contest deadlines or the cost of repairing my 70-200mm lens. I basically thought about hammocks and fruit shakes for nearly a month. And it was glorious.

Refreshed and re-invigorated, I’m writing this from an island in Malaysia where I’m sleeping on a friend’s boat as I prepare to head slowly back to Canada where I will embed with a tree-planting camp for nearly four months to document one of the most unique jobs in the world, one that holds a special place in my heart. I’ve wanted to do this story for over five years and it’s exciting that it’s finally happening.

Over the coming weeks I’m going to post more from my project about Tibetans in exile, as well as share some of the images from the past eight months that didn’t quite fit with whatever story I was working on at the time, but are interesting nonetheless.

Stay tuned.



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Up Close and Extremely Personal

A disabled woman sits in a squatter’s community in San Andres, Manila. Shot at 17mm, this image required getting very close.

Photography is only interesting if it is showing you something you can’t see on your own. What I have learned since starting photojournalism full time is that taking pictures, mechanically speaking, is not the difficult part. Entering someone’s private space and staying there is what takes it out of you. The Himalayas; an endangered tribe in Papua New Guinea; a disabled person living in poverty, sitting in an alley watching a Bingo game. We want to glimpse something rare, and it we want it to be intimate. Everyone is a voyeur. That’s why so many of your friend’s travel pictures are boring, they don’t really communicate the feeling of being there. They don’t tell a story. To get those sorts of images you have to get close. Very close.

By close I don’t only mean physical distance, though this is often important. I mean you need to be completely involved and interactive with your subject. For a landscape photographer that would mean getting up at 3am and hiking to the peak of the mountain to capture a sunrise that few have ever seen. For me, working with people, it means trying to gain acceptance from a person I have never met in a strange, and typically uncomfortable, environment.

I’m learning this as I go, and I definitely can’t claim to have mastered this craft by any stretch. But what I now realize is that most of the great pictures I have come to respect and love were the product of a lot of work. Where I once imagined that my photographic (or any other creative) idols just turned up in exotic locations with high-end equipment and waited for interesting situations to unfold around them, I now know this was utterly wrong. Opportunities have to be created, not expected.

I’ve been traveling obsessively with a camera for a large part of the last decade, but in the majority of my early stuff the images lack soul. It is only by actively creating opportunities that this becomes possible. I don’t want to say that I am now constantly producing emotional masterpieces, but my pictures are starting to come closer to replicating my experiences. And it is by far the most mentally exhausting thing I have ever done.

It is lonely. In the Philippines friendly people surround me all day, yet I am a definite outsider. I don’t speak the language, and though Filipinos are to be commended for their English abilities, there is a communication breakdown during most conversations. I have to limit myself to speaking in clear and concise sentences, and usually keep the topics to observable facts, like “it is hot today.” I also don’t really know what people think of me. Though I feel welcome, I am unsure if there is hidden resentment at my relative wealth. Or the incredible fact that the local cantinas will not allow me to pay for any of my meals, which both melts my heart and further solidifies my status as separate from the locals, who pay full price.

It is stressful. The communities that I have chosen to focus on – San Andres, Quiapo and Tondo – are not heavily touristed because of the high crime rates. Around the corner from where I am camping, a 13-year-old girl was raped a few weeks ago on the main street. At noon. The rapists sewed her lips together with chicken wire. On several occasions I have been stalked by solvent addicts or drunks, who tail me at a distance as I walk. The families who have taken to looking out for me are constantly cautioning me against walking down certain streets. Though I have had no problems to date, these warnings take a heavy psychological toll on me. Going out to shoot everyday has become a mental battle with myself as I weigh the dangers against the opportunities. Looking for interesting subjects while also watching my back is a skill that I’m learning on the fly, and it is draining.

These are the realities of this job that I was never able to fully appreciate before. As my mentor Zoriah Miller told me, “success in photojournalism is all about what you’re prepared to sacrifice” – and the price is high.

For my current project, True Manila, I am trying to give an honest account of what life is like for the average working class Filipino. Not focusing unfairly on squalor, but a balanced view of life in this city – the good and the bad, the unfortunate and the dignified. While I don’t expect the final edit to be ready until mid October, I will be posting updates as I go. Subscribe to my feed if you’d to get these sent to your email address.

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