The Art of Survival

Lighting a small fire - Survival
Surviving. Literally.

I sit writing this piece just after having completed 10 years in business, first as an assistant, who also shot some stuff, and for the last 7 ½ years, “officially” a photographer. At the risk of blowing my own trumpet, simply being in business for 10 years is an achievement in it’s own right. So well done me, aren’t I clever?  Is there some art to this survival?
There were 34 people in my year at college; we all graduated in 1998, and by current estimations 3 of us are now fully-fledged photographers, who earn their living solely from taking pictures. Another 2 or 3 are making some money from their photography, and another 4 or so are involved in the industry in some way, with jobs ranging from studio managers to art therapists. What about the other 24? In truth, apart from one or two, I couldn’t tell you, as we’ve all naturally lost touch over the years, but this industry is small enough, and Google is such an efficient way of finding people, that I can be relatively certain they’re not working in photography any more.
Analysing why some succeeded as photographers and some didn’t is obviously a very complex question, and not entirely relevant to an introductory business guide. All the same, the 3 of us from my year who are still taking pictures share quite a few things, which I feel are very appropriate to someone starting out in business:

  1. We were all prepared for the long haul. This is as much a psychological issue as a business/financial one. All 3 of us understood that we would have to spend a significant amount of time assisting other photographers (roughly 3-4 years each) before we would be able to go out on our own. Even then we understood that success would not happen overnight. We didn’t give up within 18 months because we hadn’t shot the cover of GQ yet.
  2. We didn’t spend much money on ourselves. I know I went without what could be termed a “proper” holiday for 5 years, and the others were pretty much the same. The occasional weekend away, no problem, but anything costing hundreds of pounds and involving lots of time away from the office and the phone was a bit of a no-no to begin with. For “holiday” you can also read; expensive clothes, elaborate social lives, fast cars, drug habits, loose women, and effing big televisions. In essence we were boring. Likewise, what surplus money we had we invested in our businesses. Either directly in terms of camera equipment, software and computers, or indirectly in respect of websites, business cards, training and so on.
  3. We understood from the beginning that we needed to be businesslike and professional in our approach. This stemmed right from our behaviour on jobs as an assistant, through to our “business image” both online and in the flesh, all the way down to simple things like answering the phone properly and avoiding the temptation to lie in bed on days when we were not shooting.
  4. We kept looking ahead, and to the best of my knowledge we’re still doing so. Once we’d achieved a certain thing (say, shooting a magazine cover) there was always a new challenge over the horizon. As soon as we’d mastered one technical approach, we’d try and find another and so on. This also manifests itself in our behaviour towards our clients – we always feel there’s something more that we can improve on, whether it be something mundane like the delivery of finished discs, or stumping up more work through a long process of marketing and sales.

Of these, it boils down to 2 things – Professionalism, and long-term thinking. It is my considered opinion, based on much of what I see in the commercial photographic world, that you can be an average photographer, but succeed in business with a hefty dose of these 2. By comparison, I’ve seen many very creative snappers fall by the wayside early on, as they lacked these characteristics, despite their amazing artistic ability.

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