Breaking the self fulfilling prophecy of a "bad year"

For Zachary Scott Theater.

Each of us looks at our daily life through the layers of our past and the constant static of random and chaotic information from outside our rational process.  Our memory of past occurrences obscures the real pattern of the present.  How many times this year have I heard photographers say,  "The whole industry is devastated and it's never coming back!"?  But aren't new photographs being made every day?  Negativity and news reports lead one to believe that everyone is unemployed, losing their jobs, their life's savings and their homes.  Economist tell us that we'll never regain the spending power we had in the 1980's and 1990's.

But what is true?  How much of this is random, unrelated static?  How fearful should we be?  Well, all economics, like all real estate, is local.  In Austin, Texas the unemployment rate is around 7% but the unemployment rate at the height of the boom years hovered around 4%.  So 3% is the number directly affected by this downturn in my metro area.  The other 93% of people still have their jobs.  Still get a pay check, still buy groceries and pay rent or mortgages.  I know the numbers are different in other parts of the country but in many places similar statistics prevail.

When I read the paper or watch the news things seem horrible.  Random killings, earthquakes, storms, wars.  But locally?  Nothing.  Ribbon cuttings, petty embezzlements, Christmas tree lightings, appeals for charities.

How does this all relate to the business of being a photographer?  Surely I'm not telling you anything new about the nature of anxiety and the news.

Okay.  Here's what I've been thinking about lately.  It's been a tough year.  The "low hanging fruit" disappeared from the trees.  Belts have been tightened, even if only in anticipation of a whole scale collapse that will probably never come.  Budgets have been slashed.  All the cliches.

So, every photographer (every business) has a choice of how to approach the change in market dynamics.  Some will theorize that this is a year in which nothing will happen.  These photographers choose to sandbag the windows and retreat into their bunkers, intent on husbanding their resources, for the time in the future in which they anticipate that the clouds will part and the economic engine will re-fire and they'll stand ready to reap the rewards.  They're keeping their powder dry.  And while they're keeping their powder dry life goes on without them.

The opposite choice is to go out and make the connections and work with what's being presented by your universe.  Accept less glamorous jobs.  Make new friends.  Show new work.  You only get one life and if you hide away in your bunker you're just wasting your time.

The solution to the retreat of low hanging fruit is to get a taller ladder.  Throw a wider net.  Stay connected.  When it all works out you don't have to worry about timing the market.  You'll already be enmeshed in the middle of it.

I've spent the year trying to stay in touch.  Working on my own fun projects.  Spending money on cool stuff when opportunity knocked.  Writing blogs.  Reaching out. Teaching. Writing books.  Shooting smaller projects.  Planning for bigger projects.  Having more lunches with friends. Getting the important stuff right.

When the market comes back I hope I barely notice because I'll be submerged in the process.

Case in point:  I have some friends who have seen a few(financially)  rough years.  One of them had the opportunity to travel in Europe as part of a speaking tour.  While it didn't make economic sense for them at the moment they pulled their kids out of school, took some vacation time,  spent the money and took a fabulous trip for two weeks.  Why?  It made emotional sense.  Kids grow up.  Time won't stand still.  The money is less important than the shared experience.  Did they have some fear about taking the risk?  Yes.  Was it worth it?  You'd have to ask them but from the smiles on their faces I would say......without a doubt.  They acted.  They resisted paralysis.  They risked. They won.

I look back at this bad year.  What do I see?  Devastation and ruin?  No.  We made it through.  We're still paying our bills.  Clients still call on the phone (but mostly they e-mail).  I've written another book.  I've shot some fun images.  I spent the year having fun with my family.  We learned to enjoy new stuff.  It's all a wild adventure.  I feel like we won too.

Was it a bad year or did we just make less money?  Can we separate the nonsense that the photo industry is falling apart from the temporary shortfall in the economy?  If we can then we all win.


Rob Dutcher said...

Economies expand and contract. Industries change. The only thing that is constant is change.
I think that the past year has taught me that at the end of the day, its my attitude that makes a difference. I know a lot of photographers who think its the end of the world. And they aren't getting a whole bunch of work. I also know photographers who have embraced the change that is going on, myself included. We don't have loads of work either but I'm not ready to throw in the towel. In the past year I have met people I wouldn't have ordinarily met and gotten involved in some new projects that would have otherwise eluded me. I'm not making lots of money right now, but I'm learning things I didn't expect to learn and having fun doing it. I'm an upbeat person by nature and I think its that attitude that helps me. It hasn't been a bad year for me, just way different than I had planned. I've had to make some cuts in the budget to get by but my family and I have all we need and really are fortunate. And after all is said and done, I wouldn't consider doing anything else for a living. To quote Joe McNally, " In this business, you have to make uncertainty your friend."
For the most part, I've just been too busy doing stuff to worry about the "devastation and ruin". And I stay away from the negativity. If our industry is in a crisis then so be it. I've been told that the chinese translation for crisis is "dangerous opportunity". I like that point of view.
Thanks, Kirk, for being in the "positive" group. Seems there's only a few of us.

Peter Appleby said...

Hi, Kirk. The example you gave of your friends who went to Europe is right on. Family, friends, and health are much more important than work.

We just got back from a ten day road trip to visit my wife's family. The trip was awesome and the time spent with family, friends, and the road trip adventures are priceless. We hadn't seen them in over two years. If we spent too much time thinking about it, we wouldn't have done it because of the money. The moral of the story is to make our decisions based on more than the budget.

tokyobling said...

For the last 30 000 years (at least) we have had artists in our society. Pictures and picture making will always be necessary. Technologies change, but look at how portrait painters were feeling about the camera back almost two centuries ago? Things move on, so do we.

David L said...

I'd agree with you 200% if that was possible. I'm only an amateur photographer, but in my business there's also plenty of talk of gloom and doom. We've just been plugging away and doing our best, and while we had some clients cut back a little, we've also found more than enough new ones to make up for it.

Ray K said...

Good post Kirk,my expierence for the year has been pretty much the same. Now at the end of the year a lot of our clients who held off are clamoring for work to be done, guess they finally did the math instead of believing the news.

Cat said...

I appreciate the sentiment in this blog but I think it is a bit harsh towards those who have left the profession. A narrow snapshot of unemployment stats presents a deceptive picture at best. Many photographers are self-employed and therefore are not counted. When work falls below a critical level and savings are gone, they just fade away like an uncharged battery. Good attitude and networking do not pay the bills. Choices? Travel to Europe? Many of us can barely afford to travel across town, and eating out is a fond memory.

The unemployed, under employed, and the soon to be unemployed continue to lose their businesses, homes and health. Large swaths of cities large and small have been boarded up. Young adults are finding very little real work and are setting up to be the first generation to be outlived by their parents--not the winning future our inept leaders have painted.

Things may not look so dire through your viewfinder at the moment. However, I do not see Texas coming to grips with the basic problems of delusional energy, construction and financial industries, not to mention the serious affronts to nature. It is only a matter of time before the massive obligations come due. We are no where near bottom. The only nonsense in this is the denial so many of us have that the economy will bounce back.

There are plenty of reasons to enjoy life and to take photos. But if you believe the market is going to come back, can I interest you in a fine bridge?

kirk tuck said...

Cat, I appreciate your thoughtful rejoinder. Let's be frank. My income is down by a huge percentage this year. We don't eat out much. I've learned to make coffee at home. Things are not rosy for any of us in the photography business. You think I don't understand that the self-employed (me) are eligible for unemployment benefits? There is no safety net for us. But what would you have us do? Give up? Become government workers?

I get that the market is bad but I do have some context. I've lived through three vicious recessions. In the real estate and banking crisis in the mid 1980's 1,000 families a month left the keys to their homes on the doormat and moved away. At the time everyone said, "This is different. It will never come back. The market will never recover." Every time is "different" but no one knows for certain what will unfold.

I have two real choices. I can be optimistic and look for the pockets of profitable or just break even work by doing all the marketing as well as I can or I can give in to despair and quit.

I read the papers and see the news. But the vast majority of people are still getting up, going to work and getting paid. It's a fact.

All economics are delusional. But I'll buy that bridge because I am certain that we will recover. Too many young people will not abrogate their right to a good life to let it be otherwise.

Steve Korn said...

Right on, Kirk.

kirk tuck said...

Cat sent me another equally depressing post but I declined to post it because I thought it stepped over the edge into conspiracy theory and abject paranoia. Disturbing to think she might be right. But too disturbing to dwell on. "Be the change you want to see in the world." -Ghandi

Cat said...

"...conspiracy theory and abject paranoia." Say what? Whatever you think of national and world events, there is no reason to resort to name calling. That's downright insulting. Your blog, though. Best of luck. Interesting quote, BTW, in that India is going to have as much if not more to do with shaping the future than we do.

"The trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be." -Paul Valery

kirk tuck said...

Cat. I was a little over the top with that but really, I think the glass is half full. Sorry I came off too heavy handed. Wanted to publically apologize even though you are somewhat anonymous it was wrong for me to throw in "conspiracy theory and abject paranoia". A "dark vision of the future" would be more appropriate. I hope it's better than you think it will be!

Thanks, Kirk