Springtime in the central Texas area. The wildflowers are blooming.
But this year few people will see them. Doesn't make them less beautiful. Eh?
I woke up this morning with the nagging realization that this "shelter in place" existence may go on for months, not weeks. My first thought was about all the people who will be economically damaged by the shut down of our economies. I remember recessions earlier in my career and just how frightening it was for me as a freelancer and a provider to my family when people started losing their jobs, companies cut back on their expenditures and freelancers really had to scramble to make ends meet. But these times are different and worse for the self-employed. In past recessions you could keep trying to make a sale, to convince a marketing person that they'd be riding the wave of recovery with your brilliant photos leading their advertising charge. Or, you might have, in desperation, done work you would not normally do; a wedding here, a child portrait there, or maybe events or some real estate work. But the difference was that if you could convince someone to pay for it you had the opportunity to do the work.
With the pandemic raging all non-essential commerce is fully closed down. The kinds of face-to-face engagements required for corporate portraits, work with models, events and meetings is just gone. No matter how great your ability to sell you will not be able to will the work into existence. And that's a total game changer.
My old advice would have been to diversify your services; see if there was another type of visual art that would leverage your skills differently so you could make enough $$$ to keep the business going, the family fed, and the mortgage/rent paid. But unless your talents lie in something like web site design and construction (which you can do remotely) a lot of those pathways are equally moribund.
It's too late for hoary, old advice about "being prepared" or "keeping six months of expense money on hand"; now that advice just seems like judgement. And I remember how hard it was in the early years of freelancing to keep the next month's expense money on hand, much less the money for a quarter or a year. No, if I were in the early days of my time in the business and I could transfer what I know now to my younger self about how to deal with this particular catastrophe I would tell myself to immediately put the idea of photography as a business on hold and find a job in an essential industry now. Even if the pay was just enough to cover my expenses and keep me running in place.
I'd look for a job stocking groceries or working construction or doing lawn care. Anything to bring in short term cash and to stop the bleeding engendered by trying to keep a photography business alive (with the burn rate burning) in a time when NO business happens.
This doesn't mean quit. It means find a way to get the cash needed to survive. You can still maintain your brand for the time in the future when we are all able to get back to work. You can continue to update your website, post on your favorite social media, connect on LinkedIn, but you need to stop waiting for the next project to appear and find a stop gap job with which to pay the bills. With luck, a job that will also provide health coverage (advice, sadly, mostly for U.S. citizens). But your priority is to stop the bleeding.
Is this the advice I would give to my own kid? It's exactly the advice I gave him at dinner last week. He started working as a freelance writer before the national emergency was declared and on March 13th everything he was working on or scheduled for came to a hard stop. He's been applying for all sorts of positions and will take nearly anything that provides a decent paycheck. And he's a lucky one with a great work history, who graduated from a prestigious private college, Magna Cum Laude. If he'll embrace the concept of stocking toilet paper at Trader Joe's until this all blows over then it must be a fairly logical and deliberate choice.
To those of us further along in our careers...
I thought I'd hang up the invoice template when I either ran out of energy to work or when I just didn't feel like I was having fun with commercial photography any more. I never thought that the business would just retire out from under me. But it's the same business whether you are on your way into it or on your way out of it and it seems like, for now, we're all on hiatus.
If you've scrimped and saved throughout your career then congratulations, you can consider this a test run of your future retirement. I'm sure the business will come back in some form in a few months, maybe a year... Time to re-design the website, send out assuring messages to your clients who still hold their positions, paint the studio, clear out the organizational paperwork, apply for an SBA loan. But don't presume, unless you do some really amazing niche in photography, that you'll maintain the income and cash flow you historically have. This time is different.
I'm already getting phone calls from peers who are selling off gear to make payments. It's more important to have cash flow right now than that camera we just had to have last year. Or that 600mm f4.0 lens we thought we couldn't live without. Problem is that we're all pretty much in the same boat so there are far fewer buyers out there to take the gear off our hands and replace it with cold, hard cash.
You don't need financial advice from me but my CFO is adamant that we're not touching investments or retirement accounts to get through this. You should never sell at the bottom. Even better to take on a bit of debt than to throw out investing discipline.
Of course, the advice sounds great until the electricity gets turned off and then priorities change.
I'm predicting that when we all get through this there will be a whole mind change in the small business community and more people will eat at home, drive older, cheaper cars, and vacation locally instead of skiing at Gstaad, or snorkeling in Bora Bora. More money will flow into contingency accounts than into funds for the next big luxury item. More people will abandon premium cable and watch more stuff on Netflix. The really frugal will also ditch Netflix and get the "rabbit ears" antennae out to watch "free TV." Or skip TV all together to work harder on getting that "emergency account" filled up.
So, how am I handling all this? Sheer panic one moment and calm blog writing the next. We've yet to get carry out food and we're sharing the shopping and cooking responsibilities. I've sent out all the invoices from last month that I felt too paralyzed in the moment to attend to (very unusual for me to procrastinate on paper work) and I'm trying to walk enough in my neighborhood to replace the benefits from the lost swimming. I ordered one piece of swim training gear. It's a resistance band thing. Pretty simple but you can use it to mimic your swimming stroke with variable resistance. It's one thing to maintain aerobic fitness (walking up hills like your late to an important meeting) but it's just as important to maintain muscle mass and muscle memory! And, yeah, it's good to throw some flexibility exercise in there as well. "Supple trees bend in strong wind. stiff trees get knocked over."
We could exit the field of play altogether but it would feel like surrender. I'm convinced we'll have fun stuff to do by the fourth quarter and it'll be nice to do something I'm actually good at, for a change. In the meantime I am learning the minute ins and outs of making perfect coffee. There is always room for improvement.
On another note, since I can't have portrait subjects in the studio, or even on location, I'm on a self assignment to do self-portraits until such a time that everything relents. I actually like to see myself with a camera in front of my face. It's lessens the shock of seeing how much I've aged. Most people who know me well know that, in my subconscious mind, I still believe I am about 18 years old...
Sorry to be so serious today but as a former college teacher and chapter ASMP president I'm starting to get some panicky phone calls and e-mails from younger people in the business. Better to write down my opinions of the options than to free form it every time the iPhone summons me.
If you are not in the business then ignore what I've written here and continue having as much fun with photography as you can. It's a wonderful way to spend time. And now that I have no $$$ projects to work on I'm certainly enjoying being an ardent amateur!!! Kirk Tuck, Photo hobbyist.
I'm a bit sad about letting go of the Pentax stuff last year. It wasn't perfect but the camera bodies matched what I think a "real" camera should feel like. It was fun to use. Really fun to use.
I am at the point now where the Lumix S cameras are comfortable and familiar.
I use them frequently for my current hobby work just to keep the muscle memory intact
for the day when we return to service as working photographers.
I loved the way the Fuji X-Pro2 looked. It reminded me so much of the many Leica M
series rangefinders that eventually slipped through my fickle fingers. But from an
imaging POV I'm not sad to move on. It was good stuff but nothing exemplary.
Ben's generation is really taking it on the chin.
But he's young, smart, has indulgent parents and no debt.
I think he'll come out of this okay.
I'm happy to see that he and his (science major) housemates are taking
the pandemic seriously. They have social distancing down to a science
and they are relentless about it. Makes a parent happy.
That's all for this morning. Off to clean my air conditioner and cut my own hair......
One last thing: If you are a working pro and feeling awful about
work life right now just remember than none of this is your fault and
that all over the world all of us are in the same boat.
No one is judging you.