Combatting the Oppressive Sense of Isolation Many Freelance Photographers Feel

In talking to friends and peers who are photographers and have been photographers for many, many years, the undercurrent that permeates conversations these days is the overwhelming sense of isolation many of us feel. While this has always been a loner's sport the recent economic upheavals have played havoc with our sense of being connected to the world outside our studios. In recent years the stream of jobs and contact with assistants and suppliers provided an almost daily intersection with people.

The first erosion of this feeling of belonging came as an unintended accessory to our embrace of PhotoShop and post processing. In our haste to control our digital files (and to leverage the fictive cost savings of electronic image massage) we inadvertently killed off the labs.

Our logic driven (but totally misguided) demand for the lowest price on everything we bought for our businesses effectively killed off most of the good camera stores. With the labs and the retailers gone we lost two points of intersection that were part of the fabric of the freelance life.

Now the recession has taken away a large percentage of our human contact with clients. I don't know about you but we're booking fewer jobs and the ones that come in seem to be produced and negotiated and delivered all on the web. Once again diminishing human contact.

It's a recipe for depression and anxiety if I ever saw one. And unlike our Latin and European counterparts who have rich history of men socializing over coffee during the day or drinks in the late afternoons our Calvinistic society demands efficiency and frowns on time spent that can't be quantified and its productivity measured.

In order to preserve our sense of well being I think photographers must adopt new strategies to reincorporate ourselves into the every day fabric of communal life. We need to leave our dark caves and reconnect.

I have a ten point program and I'm following it as well as I can:

1. Coffee outside the house. Find a coffee shop or diner with a fun crowd and go there for your coffee in the morning. (yes, I understand the accountant driven "Latte Factor" of economics, but have you priced psychiatric care lately? Believe me, two bucks for a cup of coffee is a bargain.)

2. Have at least one lunch a week with a friend, peer or comrade. Complain, celebrate, talk nerd talk. Connect.

3. Have at least one lunch a week with a client or potential client. Having to shave and take off the sweat pants and put on a reasonable outfit will at least make you feel like you still get the drill.

4. Join a group of runners, swimmers, bowlers or whatever. The health advantages of regular exercise are enormous and the mental health advantages of doing your "whatever" with a group are even greater. Interesting thought, put together a "walking group" and do it as many mornings a week as you can muster.

5. Have a project to work on. My fall back is to plan and put up shows of my work. It puts me in the public and is a workable, sustainable goal.

6. Find a cause you feel very strongly about and donate your photographic talent. You'll get practice, exposure and move the game forward for your cause.

7. Help someone else get their project done. You get karma and you might learn something new.

8. If you've been thinking about getting into video but clients just don't get that you're the next Fellini or Spielberg you might want to find some actors and do your own project. You never know where it might go.

9. If you need more clients do what the lions and cheetahs do and find out where the clients hang out. You'll have more fun hunting if you look in the habitats appropriate to the species. You're sure not going to find busy art buyers on those flickr forae!!!!


10. Stop making lists like this and get out into the world. Life is still swirling around and if we stop tying our self image so tightly with our business success we might make better art, meet nicer people, and be a lot less isolated.

Just some thoughts on a bright, Tuesday morning.


Lee said...

Agree 101%. Hanging out with friends (photographers and non-photogs) or even just taking a walk alone are ways I connect with humanity.

David Ingram said...

Great points Kirk! The importance of human interaction can't be overemphasized.

John Krumm said...

Yep. These computers are cool, but they seem to suck the life out of you if you don't keep them turned off for long enough.

kirk tuck said...

I think the guys who do the best in the business side are spending as little time on machines as possible and as much time at lunch, coffee, etc. with potential clients.

I know that when i fight the inertia and do these things business picks up.

Ann Torrence said...

Start a Photowalking group and be nice to the newbies. Never need be isolated again. PhotowalkingUtah has about 750 members in just two years.


Rob Dutcher said...

Thanks, Kirk, this was a well timed theme for me.

kirk tuck said...

Thanks Rob. I notice a pattern every year. As the business jobs slow down near the holidays everyone but us has an office party to go to and a office to festively decorate, etc. We've got a computer and a phone......

Ron said...

Spot on, Kirk. It's amazing to me that the more "connected" we think we are technically (e-mail, FB, Twitter, bleh, bleh, bleh) the less connected we really are in a real human way.

Next time you're in Sacramento, let's meet for lunch.

kirk tuck said...

Ron, I've got a standing invitation on my contact page. Come to Austin and I'll spring for the Mexican food.

I thought about this last week. My friend Will and I were heading over to have coffee at the neighborhood Starbucks when I saw this guy loading a bunch of camera gear in his truck. His cameras had Olympus straps on them and I don't know any other pros shooting with Oly in Austin so I walked over and introduced myself.

Damn is it wasn't Pulitzer Prize winner, Skeeter Haggler. We dragged him inside when he told us he was just hanging out and waiting for the light to hit a building a certain way (wasn't going to happen for hours...) and we sat around and caught up for the better part of an hour. Made an impression on me. That so much of lives is lonely waiting.....

Now go have coffee with someone interesting.

Dawn said...

I absolutely agree. We've become so attached to our computers and online lives that so many people tend to barely venture out at all. This applies to everyone, not just freelance photographers! The whole world needs to disconnect from the web and reconnect with each other!

Dawn Casey

Dave Jenkins said...

Good list, Kirk. In the late '90s, eight or ten of us used to meet for lunch more or less weekly at a restaurant across the way from our town's (Chattanooga) only pro lab. That gradually ended as more and more of us began doing more and more things digitally. Now the restaurant is closed (probably not our fault!) and the lab only runs E-6 once or twice a week.

Here's another cool perspective on the same thing: www.pajamasmedia.com/blog/free-yourselves-turn-off-your-laptops/

Chris Gillard said...

Hi Kirk, so true this observation and a great list of 10 things to do to counteract it.

I'm a freelance computer programmer & an amateur photographer ... so I recognise this a lot!!

Zilvinas said...

Thanks, Kirk!

Kazam Media said...

I set up an Agency for freelancers that gives them work too, as well as providing a global outlet for their work (which would have been very difficult for them to do on their own).
We also give them free support, both technical and emotional along with access to a small amount of gear that they cant afford to purchase.
We also try to get together as much as possible to chat and have fun, which can be missing from being a freelancer with tighter deadlines and more and more pressure.

I've also set up another website for second shooters that gives them access to an additional income stream and a little more added exposure.

Agency is here: http://www.kazammedia.com
Second Shooters is here: http://2ndshooters.blogspot.com

Good article,

Keith Loh said...

Kirk, you could teach. Why not? You already do online, why not teach in person? All of the photo instructors I have are also pros or semi-pros and don't just do it for the money. It's good marketing too since their students when asked will always refer to who taught them.

Keith Kesler said...

As always, you are succinct and on target. As one who benefits from your coffee breaks here in Austin, I value our time chatting and snearing at the machine!

kirk tuck said...

Anybody like the photo? This is the metro stop under the Arch at the end of the Champs-Élysées. Those escalator steps were the last wooden slat steps in Paris. They are gone now.

Pete Appleby said...

Hi, Kirk. Yes, it's kind of strange that no one has commented on the photo, but so many of us are right there about the isolation. The picture does convey a downtrodden feeling to me. When I am feeling this way, it's somehow easier not to reflect too much on images like these.

I wish the computers had a time limit built in, like you had to turn it off for at least an hour or so every once in a while, in order for it to continue working. Sometimes I feel like I am getting callouses on my rear end...

Laura Oles said...


You really hit the nail on the head with this one. Technology has us laboring under the illusion we are more connected than ever, yet it seems our true connections are getting lost. Some of the most valuable efforts are spent in activities that can't be quantified on a spreadsheet or explained on an effectiveness ranking.

Dave said...

Kirk very poignant post. My wife and I ran a portrait studio for 15 years. We had to close due to my 4 back surgeries. Now my wife has a great career, and I am home on disability. I'm hoping to get back into the game somehow. I miss working with my wife, I miss the clients, the lab, the local pro shops, and the delivery men. Today both of the local labs are gone as are 1 of the pro shops, and 2 other camera shops. All victims of the digital revolution and internet shopping for lowest price. My connection to the photo world is through pro photographer forums, and yours and other great blogs. But that is not enough to fight the depression. I will enact your 10 step plan and get back to you after a few weeks. Thanks, I needed that. Dave

Rockhopper said...

I am often depressed, my doctor suggested going to the gym, I have never looked back. I worked in Germany for several years and miss the cafe culture.

As for dining out that is a good idea, good company always finds itself.

You forgot to mention blogging as an obvious outlet. Share your woes and achievements, invite people to take part.

I was visiting the states and just dropped a line to a photographer on his blog that i may be passing by, I was offered the opportunity to come round and join in at his studio.

Yes you do feel isolated, however there are ways of connecting with people, sometimes you have stick your head above the parapet.

Become a mentor to another photographer, through flickr, strobist, or here.

Work once a week for a charity, a great way to help others and the sense of achievement and meeting others can give you a new focus on life.

Great post


obakesan said...


you know, its funny, I've been thinking almost exactly the same thing about other areas of the industr ... wondering if the camera companies expected what would happen and companies like Kodak and Fujifilm finding less and less in film and printing papers and more in other industries.

its almost irony

I can't help feel that its like some "machine" as if we live in a kind of "matrix" where the organism which is our society and organizational structure is evolving into something which no longer requires any more than the mass market

Funny thing is that while I miss some of the now missing things (like master printers and some of the black and white papers I once used) I find myself more able to learn about my photography with these tools than ever before.

After 8 years in digital I feel I understand film more ... but keep using digital all the same :-)

David said...

"Coffee outside the house" can be combined with some actual work, too. I have a laptop and I do most of my photo editing/client emailing/research/billing in a local coffee place. Most of this work does not require a 30" calibrated monitor.

The cafe has WiFi and lots of freelancers in many creative areas come there to work, hang out, have meetings etc. Every time i spend half a day there I run into at least one or two art directors, designers, stylists, producers or other professionals. It's a great way get work done, be social, have fun and stay close to the people you need to stay close to.

Sure as hell beats sitting in an office from 9 to 5!

Dorian Melton said...

Thanks Kirk, for your insights.

As a freelance digital-based illustrator for the last 12 years; I have been experiencing the increasing sense of disconnection you describe that can come from decreasing opportunities for person-to-person interaction.

For the past couple of years; my main income has come from a client in Australia with whom I communicate almost entirely by e-mail. Product is delivered by ftp, payment is made via direct deposit to my bank account. I met my client face-to-face once 3 years ago, and have spoken with him on the phone perhaps 4 or 5 times since then.

I have described this situation as having much in common with a monk/manuscript copier somewhere on the furthest west coast of Ireland during the Dark Ages of Medieval times.

I can all too easily imagine the endless hours(days/years) spent bent over a small work table in a drafty, cold stone cell lit by a single sputtering candle. Fussing over minute details, letter spacing and worn pen nibs, the high point of the monk's day might be the communal meal where none was allowed to speak.

My non-professional life provides a healthy balance, so I'm not unhappy overall, but human interaction can be very nourishing to the creative spirit.

kirk tuck said...

I did a job at 7 this morning, had breakfast with a photographer friend at 10, lunch with my wife at 1:30 and a a walk around the lake with an old friend at 5. I'm taking this seriously! And it's fun to catch up.

tokyobling said...

Love this post. Any monkey with an index finger can push a camera button but it takes real skills to succeed in this business. I agree to number 9 wholeheartedly!

Keep us posted on how this is working for you. We look forward to more gossip from Austin.

By the way, I don't see them very often, but there used to be photo studios in major downtown centers. I always wondered if it wouldn't be a cool project for you to "rent" a table at the hippest cafe downtown, set up a mini studio and have people come in to get their pictures taken for free (and the data for cheap). More business to everyone involved and a good way to drum up publicity (I'm sure newspaper photographers and journos would cover the story, if nothing less for the chance to meet The Tuck)!

gale (she shoots sheep shots) said...

Excellent post. 5 pm at the lab used to be a decent social life, it's true.

steve Hopkins (shoppix) said...

there's an ad in photo mags that Canon had a couple of yrs ago with mostly shooters from the VII group in a cafeteria, appearing to be in Europe somewhere. Could be another reason I admire that photo is that it's a 'gathering' of like minds, just getting together for awhile and ....comunicating, enjoying each others company for awhile.

J.D. said...

Great post Kirk, Good things to remember.
"....our Calvinistic Society demands efficincy..." I found that funny. Did you place a paper with 95 reasons to go on this 10 step program on the local church door? :-)

Jimbo N said...

Kirk ~ I just spent the past hour reading a light meter discussion on flickr and tried to follow all of the associated tangential links. Somehow I came to your list. Great advice. I have read some of your posts on flickr and now I see all of the stuff on your blog. Thanks for sharing. Jimbo N.

Danny Chatham said...

Short and simple,you touched a nerve for many photographers,pro and amature alike.Just the thought of my local camera shop where I spent many an hour over well over 25years,those beautiful glass cases filled with Leica,Zeiss,
Nikon and Canon goodies,even those wonderful racks containing dozens of brochures on the latest equipment.And then theres the countless
hours spent with those of like precious faith...have to go..theres something in my eye.

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robyn arouty said...

kirk... ever come to houston? coffee. my treat. great article. all the best, robyn (specialize in pets & their peeps portraits...but, the cool kind) ;)

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Ron Nabity said...

You kept this one...YES!