Have you heard this one? “I don’t pick up a camera unless I’m getting paid.” Maybe you haven’t just heard it, maybe you’ve said it. At a certain time in my career, that’s exactly how I felt.
It’s telling that around that time in my career, my studio was busier than it had ever been, and I was more unhappy than I care to think about. In my early days in photography, the camera in my hand was such a source of joy; but in a few short years, I had become the cynical pro rolling my eyes at eager new photographers.
Why do we do it? Why do we take a perfectly lovely hobby and try and turn it into a vocation? There is a kind of madness associated with the type of person who can’t just enjoy a thing at face value. A madness that drives a person to monetize anything that they show an aptitude for. Maybe I’m just projecting, but this is something I have thought a lot about.
The powerful emotion behind the madness comes from a good place, I think. A certain type of person understands that the most precious thing in life is time. If you can replace all the time you have to spend working to pay the bills with something you enjoy, then you can create a happier life. That’s the theory, anyway.
Here’s the problem, though: when the hobby you love becomes the way you make a living, you run the risk of coming to hate the thing that you used to love. I call it the Hobby Paradox. It’s not just me, plenty of photographers I have known over the years have become cynical working pros or washed out of the industry altogether, never to pick up a camera again.
Here’s the crazy part: it applies to photographers who fail at their businesses AND those who succeed. Growing a business with your craft that swallows your life whole with late nights and weekends is just as dangerous to your joy as failing to succeed with your art. I can tell you this from experience.
Success Can Come with a Steep Cost
In 2019, our studio had its most successful year since my wife, Julie, and I started our business in 2008. We were booked solid months in advance. For the first time in years, money was no problem.
My work was being featured in photography publications, I was writing articles for Canon and Huffington Post, and we were building a large and impressive list of clients like Microsoft, Uber, and Bloomberg. By any measure, our business was a success. It never even occurred to me to consider the toll it was taking on me, at least not until I ended up in the ER twice in one week. This was my first experience with panic attacks.
Now I’m not saying that my business was the sole reason for my mental health struggles, there were a lot of other things going on in my life at the time. What I have come to understand years later is that not only had I built a life with no emotional room to breathe, but I had taken one of my greatest sources of joy and turned it into a monster that I had to constantly feed or be consumed. My very own Little Shop of Horrors.
At the beginning of 2020, with my career exploding and my mental health collapsing, the world ended. When COVID-19 shut the whole world down, my business, the thing that I had filled my life with, suddenly no longer existed. It would be hyperbolic to say that the pandemic saved my life, but it didn’t not save my life. After scrambling to get loans, grants, and anything else we could to stay afloat for half a year, I was forced to do what I hadn’t done in almost a decade. Be still.
A funny thing happens when you have nothing to do. You have to find ways to occupy your time. As it happens, I had all the things I needed to begin a stimulating photographic hobby just laying around. Something happened to me when I picked up my camera for no other reason than to amuse myself – I had fun. That’s right! Real, honest-to-god fun making dumb videos for YouTube and taking pictures of my amazing daughters.
Through the lens of the machine that I had become a servant to, I rediscovered why I love to create. I rediscovered the world around me. I rediscovered my family.
Ground Rules for Professional Photographers
As we rebuilt our lives and our business, we spent a lot of time talking about how we were going to do things differently. There was no way I was going to go back to the way things were. During that rebuilding process, we came up with some ground rules, and I want to share them with you now. If you find yourself overwhelmed, anxious, and struggling, I hope that these ideas can help you like they have saved me.
1. Enough. The Swedish have a word, “Lagom”, which essentially means, “just enough”. After all of the work, all of the time spent building, what was it I was working so hard for? Who was I really serving? Would all the success in the world make me any happier than making pancakes with my girls? And the idea to me isn’t just about learning to be satisfied with what I have, it’s about being satisfied with who I am. I have enough, I am enough. Lagom.
2. Demand Joy. If you decide to leave the safety and comfort of a steady job with benefits to pursue your passions, then why wouldn’t you demand to do it in a way that pleases you? It took me so long to realize that you can create the type of business that you actually want to work in. We have built our brand around photography that I enjoy creating while making being home, being present, a priority. Nothing else is acceptable.
3. Let Go. Creative professionals struggle with control, end to end. If you are going to run a business that sustains you instead of depletes you, it has to be run like a business. Outsource anything you can, hire help when you get overwhelmed, and don’t be afraid to say no to work, even if it costs you a lot of money. Taking on too much could cost you much, much more.
4. Shoot for Joy. Most adults have forgotten how to play. It’s funny because as children it was the only thing we cared about. Playing heals you, it refills you, it releases the pressure. Photography is a wonderful playground. Find a way to shoot for yourself in a way that looks and feels nothing like the work you do on a daily basis. Don’t let work take away the joy of creating. Learn to play again.
5. Get Help. Anxiety and depression trap you in a cycle by making you feel alone, unworthy, abnormal. If you reach out to someone, anyone you trust, and share what you are going through, you will be surprised by what you get back. More than likely you will hear the words, “me too”. You aren’t alone, no matter what it feels like.
It took a world-stopping pandemic and nearly losing our business for me to rediscover the things that make me happy and how I was neglecting them, how I was neglecting myself. It is truly possible to run a photography business while keeping your love of the craft alive, you just need to have some ground rules.
If you see me out there somewhere taking pictures for fun, try not to roll your eyes too hard. I’m having a good time.
Image credits: Stock photo from Depositphotos