Choosing how to get back to work. The contemporary dilemma for a generation of freelance artists.

I've walked across this bridge hundreds of times and never 
experienced the reflected light off an apartment building shining directly 
across the lake this way. It was exciting. I'm glad I thought  to bring a camera.

In a little over a month and a half we'll be coming up on the first anniversary of the pandemic in the USA.
When the news first started breaking we were expecting the first few months to be bad but we calculated that if we all wore our masks and stayed home for a couple of months we'd keep the curve of the spread low and give our health care professionals time to work out live saving best practices to keep deaths at a minimum then, we presumed, we start getting back to more normal routines. Few expected things would be much, much worse nearly a year down the road.

I think many businesses have determined that they now must get back to work, aggressively, as soon as possible, if they are going to survive. It's very much an existential dilemma.

The choices seem to be to shut everything down and watch your business collapse and die or risk going full blast and potentially contracting Covid-19 and then collapsing and dying --- personally. 

I'm old enough not to have to make these kinds of life and death choices. I can decide to retire from the field if I feel the personal risk is too great. I assume most readers here are either retired or have put away enough to do so. But what about the younger photographers and videographers who must work to survive financially?

It's interesting to see the host of "over 60" retirees talk with authority about "making the right choice and "hibernating" until everyone is vaccinated but it's rightly compassionate to realize that, statistically, quite few people can actually choose "the extended vacation" option offered by not working and not having income.

What would I do if I was once again 35, had a recently acquired mortgage, and had recently added a new child to the family? 

Many smart photographers had money in the bank for emergencies but who could have predicted that they would still be hampered from working almost a year later? I would presume, by this point in time, that I would have already used up most, if not all, of my non-retirement savings and I'd be digging into my SEP now. 

In our society, with few and tattered safety nets for the self-employed, I would have made the decision that working would be necessary, not just preferable. I would not consider losing the house or giving up my family's standard of living without a fight. But I want to get back to work as safely and sustainably as humanly possible. 

On the other hand, if I had an enormous trust fund I would begin my new career as a "fine art" photographer or novelist. Ah. If only we could all have been born into families that were comfortably ensconced in the one percent zone!

So, for most of us it would boil down to choosing option #1. Back to work as safely as possible. 

But, how to do it?

I'd say that your first and best move would be to create a sound working safety methodology and write down how your will operate, in the future, with clients. How you would operate in a new environment of commercial engagements.

Having written and shared policies is the best way to avoid slipping back into cutting corners, getting complacent, allowing clients to erode your procedures out of a misplace sense of economics, or for expediency's sake. Being able to fall back on your company's policies is something every business client will at least understand and it could help prevent them from pressuring you to take unnecessary chances. 

I would suggest operating with a healthy dollop of paranoia; along the lines of thinking that everyone I might come across on the job is a potential vector for infection!

This all calls for a re-doubling of your efforts to always follow universal best practices in dealing with Covid. No hand shaking. Control the number of people allowed on your set. Make sure everyone who is not actively in front of the camera being recorded is properly masked. Enforce proper mask wearing: the masks must go OVER the nose (not under) and extend down to the chin. No bandanas, just masks. A we'll bring extras in case anyone "forgets" to bring one. These rules must extend all the way up to the CEO and the company's roster of "heavy hitters." 

The higher most people rise on the corporate "food chain" the higher the probability that they are greater than average risk-takers. You don't want them sharing the results of their risk tolerance with you and your family. 

Have a plan to keep people well separated and make it a rule not to set up in small rooms or work in them for any amount of time. The "plan", written down and shared with clients gives you the authority to enforce your rules. After all, if the client signs off on your plan it becomes part of your agreement, part of your contract with them. If they traditionally relied on you to be responsible for the outcome of each shoot you have a right to rely on them to make each shoot safe. 

Part of my plan, should I go back and start working on commercial projects again is to have the right PPE. The single biggest personal protection device we use right now is the face mask. 

I have three different kinds of masks. I use a three ply, cloth mask when I am "off duty" and walking around outside with a camera. These are for times when I'm outside, walking alone on sparsely populated city sidewalks and quite capable of avoiding coming anywhere near six feet of other people. Low population density in downtown is achievable right now in Austin because the vast majority of the people who worked in the big office buildings are still working from home. Most of the people I see in the downtown space are masked. That's certainly true of the tech workers who have much to lose; if I do see unmasked people they are invariably tourists from less progressive towns. Mostly, I assume, Fox News watchers...

I have boxes of the ubiquitous light blue "procedure" masks that are three ply and meant to be single use masks. I use these for trips to the grocery store (our Trader Joe's is still mandating masks, with no exceptions, and also requiring density control in the stores. You might have to wait in a socially distanced line to get in but you will have the assurance that you are a hell of a lot safer than you would be in a grocery store that's regressed to an all comers group scrum. I also keep a box of these blue masks in the car and provide them to anyone I might be meeting with or working with outdoors. 

Then I have a supply of readily available, non-medical, N-95 masks that fit tight and purport to filer out 95% of...everything, all the way down to 2.5 microns. I stocked them in anticipation of projects where I'll be a client's facility, working on a portrait set up or some sort of environmental imaging. Even though they are well made and fit well wearing on of these N-95 rated masks doesn't obviate the need to follow all the other rules.

There are some clients I don't think I'd want to handle right now. These would include clients bent on doing traditional, convention style gatherings (shows, trade events, etc.) Nor would I want to photograph in occupied classrooms or other tighter, static places. 

If a client or one of their employees violates my company mask policy I'll ask nicely, once, for them to fix the problem and comply.  At the next infraction I'll be packing up my gear and heading out the door.

I'll relax a bit after I get both doses of a vaccine (can I please have the Johnson & Johnson version?) but will continue to mask up to help insure I don't become and inadvertent carrier. 

If we set firm rules and are willing to enforce them with no exceptions I believe we can return to doing certain kinds of work. The biggest rules are to limit the number of people in any area, make sure everyone is suitably masked, and to limit the amount of time spent in any interior space. 

If I were asked to make portraits for a law firm I would want them to schedule one or two people on days when everyone else in the office is working from home. If the firm is closed over the weekends and we want to do environmental shots in the offices then a Saturday or Sunday makes much better sense. 

The thing I dread is clients pushing to do too many people in too big a rush. We're going to have to train them to think more about safety and a bit less about efficiency. At least until everyone is safely vaccinated. 

I think many, many older photographers (over 40) are already economic victims of the pandemic and have or will have to leave the field. When the economy recovers it might be an unwelcome burden to try and rebuild a clientele from scratch. With a huge number of knowledgable workers pushed out of their industry a quick recovery in a year or so will find a vacuum for skilled photographers. It's the ebb and flow of a market disrupted by events beyond our control. 

But if you are going to serve the market right now you owe it to yourself, your peers, your competitors and your families to understand the risks and to minimize them in every way you can. Work healthy by design. It beats the crap out of dying. 

Just a few thoughts I had while waiting for my local Subaru dealer to service my car. I actually went long hand today. I brought a notebook and a ballpoint pen. Refreshing to go "old school" for a blog.