Watering dead grass.

Don't waste time reading this if you aren't interested in the commercial side of photography. 

We're in a stage two water rationing situation here in Austin, Texas.  That means we can only legally water our lawns once a week and only during proscribed hours.  And that makes a certain amount of sense given the extreme drought conditions we're living with.  My lawn couldn't make it on once a week waterings and, when we had a week of sustained high temperatures over 105 degrees with wind and no humidity large swaths of green gave up the ghost, lost the very last almost invisible remnants of green hue and....expired to light brown.  But today is my ordained watering day and I set up the sprinkler and doused the yard one more time.  A vague, irrational yet optimistic hope that the grass would be resurrected.  A Sunday miracle.

And while I was driving back from getting some coffee I started thinking about the logic and emotion of watering dead grass.  And I realized that's what commercial photographers have done for the last three years.  We've been watering dead grass.  Some of us having been hanging on to the original, profitable paradigm of photography by dint of sheer momentum and will power. Just when we're ready to hang it all up and get a real job (as opposed to owning a photo business) a project comes in and we move the can forward a few more feet.  But it would take a blind and deaf photographer not to realize that someone came in, stomped on our cheese and then scooped it up with a shovel and tossed it away.  And, unwilling to believe that markets can change so profoundly, we've been watering the dead grass.

Why do I say this?  Because I'm tired of giving pep talks to my peers (of all ages) about the idea that our markets will recover.  That a day will come when we'll saddle up and ride off to an exotic location with a juicy assignment and we'll send in our images while resting on our patios adjacent to our suites at a Four Seasons Hotel.   Better to face facts and move forward with a new plan than to play a waiting game with market inertia.  I talk to many, many photographers and what I hear back is this:  We're seeing more jobs coming our way in 2011 than we did in 2010 and 2009 but they are for much lower budgets.  And almost every job that comes my way comes with a demand for "all rights."  Clients have a million, no, make that billions of options, if their perceive that our prices are too high.  And most of those options live on the web and come with an ever declining price tag as the stock agencies rush to the bottom of the pricing barrel.  With real unemployment at around 16% more and more people have the leisure time to ooze into the business based on hours, days and weeks of trial and error to get a decent shot.  And with many on unemployment they rationalize that they have zero overhead and that any sale for any amount is a win.  And clients have no moral imperative to use us instead of stock or amateur work.  They answer only to their own CFO's and, ultimately, their clients.

So how have photographers continued to make a living?  Let's be frank.  There are still pockets of need for assignment photos.  CEO's still need to be photographed as do new products that come to market.  Pundits always point to niches like this to imply that, if only we worked harder at marketing we could all be filling these niches, but what's really gone is the vast foundational structure of entry level jobs and cash flow sustaining jobs that were part of a heathy industry.  Now, to make real money, you must be in one of two or three photo healthy cities, have a track record and a phenomenal portfolio and be mining a very narrow set of niches.  Or you diversify into related fields.  You teach workshops, write books, run digital printing labs, find a community college teaching job, learn to make coffee....

I personally know a number of photographers who worked for prestigious magazines like National Geographic and did six figure ad photography campaigns for national clients who know struggle to line up enough $300 headshots to pay for groceries.  These aren't people who needed to "up their game."  Their "game" is already higher than their closest competitors and still way over the heads of the rest of the market.  It's the clients who pulled the plugs.  It's the markets that surged in a different direction.  "Good enough and cheap enough" is the current credo.  Yes.  There are exceptions.

And for the last three years the consultants have been encouraging us to advertise.  To hire them for insightful consultations.  To send out the postcards.  To heave endless e-mail campaigns (assaults) over the transom.  And mostly to go out and do what we did when money was NOT a scarce commodity and clients were professional and appreciated good work at a fair price.  In short, they've been begging us to water the dead grass because they live on the run off.

I got an e-mail from the ASMP last week.  Instead of telling me about some new way to leverage my copyright they were informing me about a new workshop sponsored by the ASMP and presented by Blake Discher.  The basic message of the e-mail is that the workshop is about how to stop whining about your situation and go out and make the most of it. You could save the money and get a Nike t-shirt that says, "Just do it."  But that would be too easy.  The ASMP board seems to have a method for dealing with the recession and the stumble of our photo markets and that's to sponsor past and present board members in an endless series of workshops.  Basically they are joining the chorus nudging people to water the dead grass.  Blake has so far been the ASMP's expert on SEO, web marketing and now whining cessation.  He stays busy travelling from ASMP city to ASMP city with the message that all can be healed if we can just market smart enough and aggressively.  Good advice in healthy market.  But for huge swaths of the country?  Just watering the dead grass.  And what purpose does the workshop serve?  It's a Potemkin Village for the ASMP.   Like a doctor with a terminal patient trying to look as if they're doing something constructive.

If we remain in this holding pattern the most we can expect is a further dilution and fragmentation of the imaging industry.  The real secret is that our country has to get back to work.  We have to start inventing, making, marketing and selling products again.  We have to put people back to work.  We have to give retailers a reason to advertise in print and other media.  We have to stop believing idiots who would have us all working for free. We have to pull together and educate the kids coming up behind us in basic business so they understand the tremendous value a customer can derive from an artful image, well used.  We have to understand the value we add to advertising budgets.  We need to start positioning ourselves as creative partners, not photo day laborers for hire.  We have to help everyone understand the real costs of being in business and of doing business.

Only then will our marketing efforts be anything more than watering the dead grass.

So, what to do while the ground lies fallow and waits for a break in the drought?  And we have no way of knowing whether or not the rain will come again.  Or if our landscape will return to desert.

There are no guarantees in life.  No one promised that our jobs would maintain their form and value through a lifetime.  We'll scramble to find the niches.  We'll broaden our offerings.  (although I still remember the disastrous attempts of hordes of photojournalists to jump into the, at the time burgeoning, wedding market and survive a radical course change) and broaden the demographics of our offers. And we'll start building up other skills.  I'm lucky.  I can write books.  I have a book on LED lights coming out soon from a traditional publisher (Amherst Media) and I'm putting the finishing touches on my first e-book.  I write presentations.  I write scripts.  I've been modestly successful in investing.  But I know I'm not betting my future on a stupendous recovery of the traditional photo industry.

A note directly to working photographers:  Watering the dead grass is a waste of time.  If you're going to spend the time and money watering you'd better make sure you've planted some new grass seeds.  And that means thinking of new markets and new customers.  Anything else creates mud.


Tom Devlin said...

Advice that can be used in many industries.

fotoplek@yahoo.ca said...

Many years ago,the digital revolution began, and,i was into micro-mechanics,better known as watchmaking.In a short time the digital watch was everywhere. The industry of servicing and maintaining real timepieces seemed to have vanished.I found other ways to continue! First I expanded my photography.It had always been part of my life. I had done and did many more big pro assignments. I added to the things I could do. The wave of digital watches changed to quartz watches with hands(analogue). Those that had weathered the storm had good prospects. It was a new learning process, but the rewards were there.The professional photo market is evolving. It is not easy to do a "simple" CEO portrait. It needs skill and talent. Kirk shows that all the time. Yes you added the Hasselblad. A retro look to your way, but needed in a changing time! I doubt you are running a darkroom. You will do the hybrid. Scan into digital files. There is no point in doing what you have done! So many want to do the same act. It is over. I went into digital imaging, not because I wanted to. My work was for the Internet. I purchased a simple digital point and shoot and I was off running. I used Photoshop. Soon I too was hybrid. I love my Leica, Nikon and Pentax. I shoot the occasional film,have it developed and scanned. My main work is still the Internet. I don't need a Leica S2 or similar hi-end rig. Some clients were not pleased but the prices offered were better forgotten than invest in equipment that was not needed.Look what is happening. See where the markets are now. Be competitive but NEVER prostitute your work to gain a non-profit job.
That advice came from my Swiss watch teacher, as I studied the new mechanisms.It is no different to any work.jason gold

Frank Grygier said...

The arid winds of drought are blowing through out the economy. I have been through a few boom bust cycles in my life but this one seems different. I am lucky to have found an oasis. Great words of wisdom as always.

BrianK said...

LIFE.com's 2011 Photo Blog Awards

Don't know about being a professional photographer, but the fish bowl we photograph, pros and amateurs, has morphed.

There's some neat stuff. And the scent of passion.

Thanks ... again ... to Life.

Glenn Harris said...

We don't always want to hear the reality of what is happening out there but living in a state a delusion will get you nowhere, except perhaps elected to Congress.

James said...

Typo: "prescribed" rather than "proscribed". Both correct spellings, which is why the spelling checker didn't catch it I suppose, but sort of opposite meanings.

Anonymous said...

Tuck is crazy and pessimistic but I have the feeling he is right again. I've looked back at his writing about the economy in 2009 and he was very prescient. Check some of his earliest posts. He seems to have a way of checking the air currents.

Crazy but insightful. And a great writer.

Dave Jenkins said...

On target as usual, Kirk.

John Krumm said...

Up here in Juneau our grass only dies under the snow sometime in January, but I know what you mean. Commercial photography depends on a little commerce. I wish Obama had given his jobs speech two years ago and given a variation every month since. Every time I look at the economy, Paul Krugman is right, but that's not so good, because not many in charge, left or right, bother listening.
The whole "work for free" mantra reminds me of the "idea" jobs we were all supposed to have by now in the U.S. (leaving others to do the grungy stuff I guess). Kind of an empty promise.

Jan Klier said...

Well said.

There are times when you wish you could take the collective thing the market and tell it "You fools, don't you see that you're loosing an asset which you'll wish you would have kept!" Alas, there is no CEO for society or business - it's a crowd, driven by crowd dynamics, and dancing to a slightly different rationale.

But our history is littered with change, this one included.

What I find bothersome is that some of the escape routes are not new business, but instead business built on the change itself (workshops, books, consultants, etc.). They're not replacing their loss with a sustainable new business, but instead like the vultures are feeding on the carcasses.

In my mind, if you define yourself as a visual problem solver to your clients, and let the tools and products be driven by that, and consider every day an experiment, a data gathering opportunity, you stand a chance to stay in the game. Exhausting for sure, but still more rewarding than just following orders.

When I sit in the coffee shop you see the cubicle generation, you can typically tell the cubicle crowd from the independents. It's in the body language. That says a lot.

Low Budget Dave said...

Excellent article... well-written and thoughtful.

Everyone who owns a good camera thinks they can pick up a few bucks as a photographer.

Many people own yards, too, but you don't see them picking up a few bucks as part-time farmers.

Next time someone asks you if they should "turn pro", ask them if their back yard is big enough to raise chickens. Chickens are cheaper, easier, and you can always eat the eggs.

Mr. Green said...

Kirk, try running your laundry water out to the lawn. Works for me.

Anonymous said...

"This is madness!!"

"No. This is Photo-Sparta."

Anonymous said...

Been job searching 16 months. Surprisingly the past 2 months of job listings have had better quality jobs than the previous 14 so it might be getting better.

kirk tuck said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul Dymond said...

A great post Kirk, as always. I thought it was just me. Been in the biz for more than a decade, pretty confident in what I do and yet more and more clients who kick up a fuss if they have to pay more than a couple of bucks for a photo.

I work in a pretty small, niche market. Not a hell of a lot of competition for what I do (even though there are seemingly a million portrait and wedding folks in the same market) but still I'm finding more and more clients who don't care about quality - they just want cheap!

They don't want to know about usage. They understand the concept but don't understand why they should pay me extra to use the pictures if no other photographer charges them for it.

Diversification has always been key in the travel photography market but I find that more and more many of the traditional markets are drying up- forcing us to think on our feet and look at new ways to keep the doors open.

Goodness knows licensing stock images for $50 a pop isn't going to put your kids through school. I certainly don't think it's all doom and gloom but realistically our revenue sources have fundamentally changed and if we want to keep our self respect and belief in the value of our work we need to move with the times.


As a 35 year veteran in the wedding and portrait business, I am in total agreement with what you have posted. A great analogy with the "Dead Grass".