This is going to be a long post.. quite a long post, in fact I’m not even going to break it up with all that many pretty pictures either. I’m also going to wander through a few different topics, mostly related even if only marginally. Maybe go make yourself a cup of coffee, grab a gluten-free, sugar-free, vegan, organic muffin and make yourself comfortable. Got a coffee / beverage of choice? Good.. we can start.
A few months ago a young social media star made headlines as she blew up and quit social media in the most spectacular fashion, she wrote how everything she was doing on social media was fake and she was sick of the dishonesty. Well this post is kind of along those lines. I’m not about to quit social media, I’m not even going to say that I’m fake. I’m not. My overall conclusion on the issue with this young girl was that she didn’t know who she was. Potentially something that many of us have been through at around the same age, luckily for most of us we didn’t have the added pressure of massive audiences on social media as we go through it.
Social media has been a two-edged sword for many. I was listening to a pod cast not long ago with the speaker mentioned that he couldn’t possibly live by the compliments / likes / shares / follower numbers by strangers on social media.. because if he did, he would then die a death of a thousand paper cuts by the trolls, disengaged and critics. I could not agree more. I’ve never really given all that much heed (if any) of what the anonymous keyboard warriors have thought or said about me. In fact, those who know me would know that I rarely even give much heed to the opinions of people who *do* know me. It is just something that has never really entered my consideration. There is a very short list of people whose opinions truly matter to me, they are people that I know very well and who I look up to in some aspect of life. That’s not to say I go around being a jerk to everyone else.
I started on social media fairly early, I was on Myspace back when it was still the coolest site around, I migrated to Facebook very early as I was working as a programmer / web developer at a tourism based business. I was on Twitter, Instagram and Google+ very early too, in fact I was on Google+ on pretty much day 1. In the process I’ve managed to build a fairly large following of my photography. I think if you look to the right of this post you should see a total of just under 150,000 followers. I’ve had over 1.4 BILLION views of my photography on Google+ and nearly 3 Million “likes” of my photos on Instagram. Not too bad considering I’ve never been put on any suggested user lists, never make it into those “The top 10 instagrammers you have to follow immediately” articles that everyone seems to be in a fuss over… just quietly, slowly and organically building an audience. There were accusations at one point that I had bought followers on Instagram.. something that I could never even consider doing. I see engagement as the most valuable number to my clients, not the overall audience number. Purchased followers are fake, they don’t “like”, they don’t leave comments and they certainly don’t help your clients at all. What’s most strange is that the main person who was making the accusations then was revealed as having bought followers themselves. Apparently “someone else” must have bought the followers, which I guess is possible, but they weren’t kind enough to extend that possible consideration to me.
Funnily enough they weren’t ever on my short list.
Honesty part 1:
My social media is a highlights reel. So is nearly every other photographer’s feed. I post nearly every day on most of my social media channels. Many of the times when I’m posting a photo, I’m sitting in my office at home, working on a proposal, pitching ideas to potential clients, processing photos and doing the day to day work that is involved in running a business like mine. I’ve taken every single photo I’ve posted (unless otherwise credited) and had every experience that I’ve posted about, but please realise that this is marketing, it is not necessarily what I’m doing right at the time I post it. Or sometimes I’ve had that experience for 10 minutes out of an otherwise very busy day. I’ve never (to my knowledge) lied to or misled anyone on social media. Sure many of my photos are more on the artistic side of things rather than the documentary, that’s fine, that’s my style and largely what I’m hired for. I’m not necessarily always trying to convey exactly what I saw, many times I’m more trying to convey what I felt and experienced and a standard snapshot might not convey that adequately.
Over the last 3 years business for me has been pretty amazing. I’ve had some of the best opportunities ever, many of them due to social media and some of them due to my audience, which I’m completely fine with. I’ve been a photographer in some capacity or another for as long as I can remember, I’m passionate about capturing amazing images and telling stories with them. It is how I communicate best. The social media aspect of photography has been a relatively new thing for me but has afforded me some pretty awesome projects. Here is a brief run down of what I’ve done over the last few years:
Visited Dubai (5 times), Egypt, Jordan, Singapore (4 times), Malaysia (8 times), Cambodia (4 times), Iceland, Norway, Northern Territory (twice), Queensland (3 times), New South Wales (lost count), Tasmania (3 times), Victoria (also lost count), South Australia and most of Western Australia.. I even visited the Jarvis Bay Territory. I haven’t been to the Australian Capital Territory for a few years though. I’ve worked on projects in all those places, for over 90% of the trips, I’ve not had to pay a cent, most of those trips I have actually been paid for.. and mostly paid very well. On top of that I had been working with a massive client who was sending me all over the Pilbara region of Western Australia every second or 3rd week.
The clients I’ve worked with include: Tourism Australia, Tourism Queensland, Tourism Tasmania, Dubai Tourism, Flight Centre, Google, Qantas, Amercian Express, Australia’s Coral Coast, Pilbara Regional Council, Karijini Eco Retreat, Oppo Mobile, Macpac, Apache, Quadrant, Best Western, Razorfish and Stencil… some pretty amazing clients to say the least. I have also licensed images to National Geographic, Conde Nast, Canon Cameras and many local businesses.. and had articles I’ve written published in various magazines and online publications.
So far this year I have projects lined up in Antarctica with Aurora Expeditions (I head there this Sunday), Queensland, Christmas Island and Tasmania.. I have potential projects in Canada and a few other places and I’m intending on getting back to Iceland. Plus there should be a road trip to the north of Western Australia at some point.
I’ve won awards for both my photography (internationally and locally) and my business. I received the people’s choice award for Innovator of the Year 2015 for my work with virtual reality, 360 degree video and photography. I really don’t say any of this to brag, but from it you would think that I’d be fine, living the high life…
Maybe go grab a top up of that coffee now…
Brutal truth and transparency:
I’m not fine. I’m struggling. Really struggling. I have been in a battle to keep my business afloat for the last 6-7 months after a pretty amazing run for several years prior to that. There are many factors involved in this. Part of it is that I had a few clients in the resource sector here in Western Australia, they had a massive downturn and otherwise guaranteed income suddenly disappeared. I went from having a daily rate on projects that I only needed 5-6 days a *month* in order to cover my very basic living expenses, to absolutely nothing at all. I had a pretty massive project lined up that was going to take care of our income for at least 6 months. It was cancelled less than a week before it was due to start. On top of that one of the largest clients I had, decided to take my IP, the software I’d written, and cut me out of the picture. This is partly my own fault as I didn’t put any protections in place… that said, it is never right, nor ethical to just take someone else’s hard work and profit from it.
Another part was I am still recovering from having my house broken into, all my camera gear stolen and the insurance deciding not to cover it. A long drawn out legal battle and still wasn’t covered.
Yet another part has been a few poor decisions business wise, like trusting a certain WA based magazine publisher would actually keep their word. They didn’t. I’ve not dealt with a more incompetent company either. They shall remain nameless as they actually threatened me at one point and tried to blackmail me (seriously I have it in writing) over a comment I made in passing on twitter. You can’t make this stuff up.
I tend to be overly trusting and I do everything within my power to keep to my word when I say I’m going to do something.. and assume that most people do likewise. I work hard to keep a good reputation, something that my dad has instilled in me, possibly without even him knowing it. To date I’ve never known anyone who works harder or puts in more effort to do a top quality job than my dad, even when it isn’t appreciated or makes no discernible difference. This is called integrity. Doing your best even when it appears to make no difference, when you think no one is watching. At times I’ve worked on projects over 48 hours straight to meet deadlines, all because I said I would meet the deadline, much to the detriment of my own health.
I run a small business. A very small business. It is just me. I had been contracting other photographers to work along side me from time to time, but I was doing all the processing and dealing with the clients. As such, I turned away many projects that were scheduled to occur during the 6 months due to the commitments I’d made to this large multi-national company. When you take on a project that size, you have to turn away other work as this will take up all your time. So when it was cancelled with less than a weeks notice, it really hurt. I was left scrambling for work and an income. I had to cancel agreements I had with other photographers to bring them on board for the project.
To top this all off, we had signed a contract on a block of land that we were going to build a house on, it wasn’t going to be massive, but it was a way out of the “rent trap” and a chance to invest in our own future. The contract had to be cancelled both due to the change in circumstances and the mess the magazine publisher landed me in. That hurt. That really hurt. If I think about it now it still kind of hurts. I don’t like being at the mercy of a landlord as we are now, they are selling the house and we have to move *again*.
My social media really doesn’t reflect this brutal truth. In fact I’ve not mentioned it at all. I’ve never lied about my situation, I’ve just failed to ever mention it. I read a few things recently that convinced me that these topics needed addressing. A Sydney based photographer that I respect, Mykal Hall, recently wrote a post about why he walked away from a following of over 500,000 people. Another article I read was on “The Mental Cost of Owning a Business”. It prompted me to think that I’m probably far from alone in my struggles and that there are others out there that want to hear and might learn from my story.
There is this pervasive myth that when you “go pro” as a photographer, you have to stop shooting what you love and just shoot whatever you are paid to shoot. This is clearly very wrong if you intend to go anywhere decent with your business. I look at the top professional photographers around the world.. they are all doing what they love and they get paid to do it. Sure you have to put in the hard yards to get started and sometimes work other jobs in order to put food on the table as you start.. but if you want a creative business long term that will be fulfilling long term, you have to do what you love. You look at the top pros: Chase Jarvis (Commercial), Chris Burkard (Landscapes, Adventure and Travel), Sue Bryce (Women’s Portraiture), Marcus Bell (Weddings), Yervant (Weddings), Jerry Ghionis (Weddings), Colby Brown (Landscape, Travel & Humanitarian), Jeremy Cowart (Creative portraits & Humanitarian), David duChemin (Humanitarian) and Peter Lik (Fine Art Landscapes). They all do what they love.
I have always photographed what I love, I avoid taking on projects that I’m not enthusiastic about, that I’m not going to enjoy and that I don’t want to do. I’ve managed to create a bit of a name for myself and reputation for doing what I do: Travel and Landscapes. Now the Travel genre is pretty broad, I enjoy working with mostly tourism based clients, I photograph their businesses and regions, I create virtual tours of their hotels and landscapes and help them sell their destination. The landscapes genre is pretty self explanatory. I just love travelling, I love exploring and finding places, experiencing new places and connecting with other cultures and people.
I’ve found that most people who persist with the myth of not getting to shoot what you love either have never run a business themselves or are trying to justify their need to “stay in the boat” rather than see if they can swim. I get it, I really do. The boat is comfortable and unless your boat sinks or someone throws you overboard, there is very little risk of drowning, but you aren’t in control of the boat, it’s not even your boat, someone else has done the hard yards to create it and someone else is piloting the boat. Personally I can’t stay in the boat. I swear I must have been born with a lower risk aversion than the average person, either way my thirst for adventure and a desire to blaze my own path was never really discouraged by my parents. At times it was corrected and given some good direction and really, that was probably the best my parents could hope for.
The last 6 months have been some of the most stressful I’ve experienced in my business. I’ve been going flat out in it since I went full-time in 2009. I don’t get holiday pay or sick pay, so I’ve really not had any time off in that time. This can have the affect of killing your creativity. Don’t get me wrong.. I absolutely love what I do, nearly every single aspect of what I do too. Breaks are needed though. This is where the importance of personal projects comes in. As a creative you have to be constantly creating just for the sake of creating. Creativity just because. Creativity creates more creativity and so on. When you don’t have time to breathe or think, you start to stagnate as a creative, many times this means your creative work suffers, but not always. I’m confident in my photography, but can’t help but wonder how much further I’d be in my photography if I’d had that time to pursue some personal projects. Which also feeds the complex that many of us creatives suffer from and that is feeling like frauds or inadequate.
I feel like a fraud at times. Not all the time, but frequently enough to cause concern. Having spoke with many many creatives and spoken to large audiences on the subject of creativity and photography, I know I’m not alone. It seems to be not all that uncommon actually. Many of us feel like we don’t have a clue what we’re doing and that it is only a matter of time before everyone finds out and we’ll be shamed on the internet. Reality is most of us are in possession of many clues. Even more of us have at least half a clue, if not a full one.
Currently I’m at a bit of a loss as to what I can do to land more projects as I’m doing everything I can. I’m nearly entirely “self-taught” in both my photography and in running a business. Really what self-taught means that I’ve not had any major individual teacher or educational experience, I’ve learned from many mentors, teachers and I’ve read every book I can get my hands on. It could be time for some new study material and/or mentors. There is an old saying “What got you here, won’t get you there”, I’m trying to figure out my way “there”.
You would think with my fairly impressive client list that I would be able to get some work locally… nope! Some times I feel like an unpaid ambassador for Western Australia with the amount of social media promotion I’ve done of WA. I’ve done more projects in Tasmania in the last 12 months (very much my favourite clients) than I have in Western Australia in the last 5 years. I had one person have the cheek to ask me why I’d stopped posting photos of Western Australia to my social media.. I responded with a touch of sarcasm (it’s been known to happen from time to time) that I had to travel everywhere else for work so I’d had no time to take any photos locally.
What is equally frustrating is that I’ve watched as ideas and projects I’ve pitched to different tourism boards and cities (not naming names here, not my style) have then been taken and implemented with other photographers. Some projects that I’m seeing get launched now, I pitched to the clients back in 2011 & 2012 and have been repeatedly following up on. Other projects I’ve put together and pitched to the relevant agencies, only to have them present the ideas as their own and implement them without me. Nothing more frustrating than seeing other people profit from the ideas that you put together, even more so when you are in the midst of struggles yourself.
So I travel for my work, which is fine by me but it can hard on my family at times, I have to find the balance between working and seeing my family. I love my wife and kids more than anything and my first job is being a husband, my second job is being a dad to my two girls… my third job is running my business as a photographer.
At the moment I just feel like I need some room to breathe and think, some time to work on a strategy for my business moving forward. This can be very hard, if not impossible to do when you are stuck in the daily battle to make the ends meet and put food on the table. Even more so when you are the sole bread-winner. My wife chooses to be a full-time mum as well as volunteer in a few children’s ministries (which is her passion) and we’re all cool with that. We’re in the fortunate position of not owing any money on anything we own. We have made some serious sacrifices to get where we are. We drive older vehicles that we were able to pay cash for and we don’t have any debt at all. As such, my business is only ever one decent project away from being back on track. I think that this is what has kept me going for all these months. That and the support of my abundantly understanding family.
I’m not sure what I’m doing when I get back from Antarctica, I’m very seriously considering taking a labouring job locally for a few weeks just to give me a “break”, some thinking space and some time to work *on* my business, rather than always in it. Or if I can land a decent project, that will buy me some breathing space too.
I know that some of this post will come across as a whine.. it is not and not at all how I intended it. It is more a post about the realities of running a business. It is a peek behind the curtain. I feel incredibly blessed, lucky and thankful to be able to do what I do and I want to do *more* of it.
Hope this post helps some of you out there who are going through your own struggles. Know that you aren’t alone.
I need to thank a few brands that I get to work with and who support me. Canon are sending me a new 5DS and 2 lenses to use while I’m in Antarctica (I will be reviewing them and sending them back to Canon), Macpac are sorting out a few extra pieces of cold weather gear I need and F-Stop Gear are sending me a new camera bag to use for the trip too. None of these companies are direct sponsors and I’m not currently paid by them, but they are all supporting my Antarctica project with Aurora Expeditions.
I’ll be offline from the 7th of February until the 23rd of February.. but if you’d like to work with me on a project, I’ve got a pretty open schedule after that until the end of April. Feel free to shoot me an email through the contact page.
Also, feel free to leave any comments or questions you might have.. trolls are not tolerated and spam is blocked!