5.01.2020

What does work look like for me these days? How is MY photo industry?

Spaceship aesthetic meets architecture from the 1950's.
The Long Center. A performance venue in Austin.

I've gotten a number of texts, e-mails and phone calls from VSL readers and others in our business asking me what kind or work I am doing right now. They want to know, I think, if there's a way to keep working on paid, commercial projects as we all hunker down and live through the COVID-19 epidemic.

Here are my gut-wrenchingly honest answers.

Austin, Texas, where I live and work, went into a "Stay at Home" posture back on the 13th of March. This meant that we were not to leave our home base (your neighborhood) except for food and medical emergencies. The mandates were finessed over time in order to let people travel to exercise as well.
All businesses deemed non-essential were closed up tight. The holy ground that is our swimming pools was included in that closure. 

The way I figured it was if all my clients were closed, and my pool was closed, then my business needed to be closed as well. Over the past six weeks I've left the house everyday to either exercise by walking in my neighborhood or to drive 1.6 miles to Zilker Park to either walk or run (or run and walk) the Butler Hike and Bike Trail. If I picked up coffee or pizza from a restaurant doing curbside pick-up I always wore (and still wear) a surgical face mask (small supply left over from a Fall 2019 photo shoot = prop) and use all caution in the hand-off and transfer of coffee and pizza to safe cups or platters. 

I was lucky to have just finished shooting several projects for law firms. There was a fair amount of post production to be done and that could be done without endangering myself or anyone else, in the privacy and sanitary seclusion of my own private office. So, for the first week and a half I spent most of my work time retouching portraits and doing final edits on some video projects that had finally been approved. 

Once the work was done and delivered (electronically) I found myself pretty much where every other freelance artist in America has found themself; unemployed, without a source of work income, with no short term prospect of finding or completing paid work. Nada.

To my clients' credit none of them has asked me to skirt the rules, to violate the intent of the shutdown or to otherwise work in disregard of public safety. That make sense since 1/3 of my clients are large medical practices who have, themselves, furloughed non-essential personal (with pay! Nice! and smart)
and obviously understand the dangers of this epidemic. Some clients in the medical field are not emergency businesses and they've stopped seeing patients in office which affects their income just in the same way that ours is affected.

One third of my clients are law firms and all of them are keenly aware of the liability that they would incur by continuing to work face-to-face with clients and vendors. They are considered essential so the attorneys who need to are still going to work, albeit with many safety rules in place and much reduced staff working on premises. Several firms have asked me to write proposals, scripts or treatments for video but we normally don't bill these until we have projects in hand and a production date set in stone. 

The final third of the business is done with corporate clients which are mostly multi-nationals. All non-essential employees are working from their homes and all non-essential marketing expenses have been expunged from their budgets. I take that to mean that we won't be doing events, major photo shoots or revised branding campaigns for any of them in 2020. Full stop.

By the end of last week I had lackadaisically plowed through every possible client-oriented thing I could possibly think of. I'll keep a marketing presence going but I won't be reaching out and asking for work until several things happen. One would be the discovery of a curative for COVID-19 that vastly reduces mortality for 99% of patients. Of course the medication would have to be widely accessible. The second would be when the city health officials decide that we're all safe back in the swimming pools to do masters workouts and lap swimming. (I think those two conditions might be intertwined). 

Once we start back accepting work we'll take it slow and easy. I won't fly on a plane full of people for a while. If I can drive to a job within a day's time I'll do that. Once we have a vaccine I'll fly again. I won't be going to restaurants to sit down and eat any time soon which makes me sad since I've bought many gift cards to help keep my favorite restaurants from just giving up and filing bankruptcy. I'll stock up on N95 masks when the supplies open up and wear them in face to face portrait session encounters. We'll stipulate in work agreements that we're all social distancing and that will be a part of our work contract. 

But for right now my days consists of getting up and making coffee, putting on shorts and running shoes and heading to the trail. I run a 4.5 mile loop (I tacked on a bit more distance because I found a better place to park; closer to a restroom) and head straight home. I eat 8 ounces of 2% fat Greek Yogurt mixed 1:1 with muesli, walnuts and blackberries and wash it down with a half and half mixture of iced tea and water. I read the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Michael Johnston's "theonlinephotographer" and then I head into the office and check the current financial markets. 

Belinda and I have done projects around the house that we meant to get to for quite a while. I cleaned out a small shed and got rid of stuff we thought we'd use again when we shoved it into the shed 23 years ago-- but never did. We re-painted the back porch. I pressure washed the sidewalks. I started reading a biography of Joni Mitchell. I cheated on the Joni Mitchell for a few days to read a Vince Flynn/Mitch Rapp novel. From blues to bullets...

Some days I take a nap. After my nap I used resistance bands and weights to preserve my upper body fitness. I look forlornly at the slowly decreasing balance in my checking account. I count myself lucky to still have funds in my slowly disappearing checking account. I confer with Belinda about finances and she provides absolute reassurance. 

I spend an hour or so writing more on this blog and I cast around for personal photo or video projects to do while the business is at a standstill. In the evenings we have nice dinners, take an evening walk through the neighborhood (might as well get the miles in before the heat of the next six months arrives...) and we, like most others, watch lots of Netflix and Amazon video content. Current Netflix favorite is a kind and lovely sitcom about a Korean Family in Toronto who own a convenience store. It's called, "Kim Convenience" and it's sweet and relatable. In a way. And funny.

We're at a point where the idea of the on-going business is mostly about ego and enjoyment and less about the constant need for cash and so we are sharing some of our good luck and a life time of being financially careful/cheap bastards with charities that provide the most basic of services to working class people. Mostly things like the Capitol Area Food Bank and kid's lunch programs. Non-profits like the Opera or the Ballet aren't really high on the list right now...sorry guys.

We've lived in the same neighborhood going on 24 years now and it's a delightful place to ride out the worst of the pandemic. We have good friends all around us and lots of beautiful landscape to walk through. We're close to well stocked grocery stores and it seems like all the coffee shops are springing back to life; at least for take out... We could be in a a helluva lot worse straights. The total lack of work is starting to feel like an extended vacation. 

I do like to get out and make photographs. Last week we were able to go to Pedernales State Park and  hike over big boulders and through rough, scrub brush trails. In the upcoming week I'm heading over to Enchanted Rock State Park (just outside of Fredericksburg, Texas) where I have a day reservation for some primitive trail hiking and, of course, the ritual climb to the top of the rock. Expecting to see rattlesnakes but also expecting to stay late enough to lay on the roof of the Subaru and watch the stars twinkling far way from big city light pollution. I'm shocked that my new car still has less than 10,000 on it...

I'm amused that other blogs are focused like a laser these days on home inkjet printing. I thought I'd fall into that godawful money pit as well but I'm finding that it is the process of being out taking photographs that is most rewarding for me. Everything else pales in comparison. Printing anything but images of the late "Studio Dog" seems like a chore to me and one best left to technicians not artists. Ah well. As they say "horses for arrows." Introverts are printers / extroverts are photographers.

So, to recap. No work. Much free time. Pangs of misplaced guilt or honest empathy that drives some donations. A lust to shoot. An aversion to the drudgery of printing. Getting used to a weird daily routine and wishing I could go someplace and photograph people without masks. But I'm sure we'll get back to that....soon. Hope the ennui isn't too oppressive for you. Stay mentally safe.