A Balance of Risk

In the changing landscape of journalism economics, I can promise one thing: In the short term my students who are indefatigable journalists will be freelancers. Jobs are few, far between and disappearing. Though that may turn around at some point, it’s hard to know when.

However, hunger for content should not disappear. There is now an infinite amount of space available to publish meaningful work. Some pays, some does not. But for a committed journalist of any flavor, the stories are out there and the means of publishing have never been more open or easy.

Building a freelance business is not much different than building any other business. It takes an impressive investment in time and money to really get a good start. I know a few photojournalists who have evolved into freelancers over a lengthy amount of time, but the majority did it the way I did: With sweat and credit-card equity.

Boatman Atraman Maika watches the channel of the river from atop a pinasse on the Niger River.

Boatman Atraman Maika watches the channel of the river from atop a pinasse on the Niger River.

What I love

I can imagine no other profession, and many of you may feel the same way. As both a staff photojournalist and a freelancer I have seen the world the way few can. I’ve been to the very last polar spits of North and South America, to Europe, South Asia, and Africa. And I’ve not just visited those places. I’ve lived them through the generous subjects who let me deeply into their lives. My days are as different as there are people and jobs in the world.

I have taken this positive risk in my career: I have lived thoroughly now, figuring I would probably sacrifice later. That’s the reverse of the typical “wise” American formula. I would not trade this life for anything.

What I would change

Having freshly paid off my student loans and with a paltry $2,000 in the bank, I quit my fair-paying job and ran off to Brazil to be a freelancer. My scheme was to live cheaply in Brazil’s struggling economy while I covered a fascinating continent. But right as I arrived they fixed that economy and suddenly Rio was as expensive as New York. I quickly built up credit card debt to communicate with editors, ship film, fund the travel to cover stories on spec, and even pay the high local rents.

I was successful in building a business that still runs. But paying that debt has limited many things for me over the years.

For those of you starting a business I have these “do as I say, not as I do” recommendations:

Borrow as little money as possible. With stagnant freelance journalism rates you would have a more difficult time growing your way out of startup debt. If you do need to borrow, look for alternatives to credit cards to finance your work. Ask about other non-revolving loans from banks if you must. Those loans have a closed end. Borrow from family and friends only after deep reflection on what that debt may do to a valuable relationship. Nothing gets in the way of personal relationships like money.

Analyze every expense. Photographers tend to be gadget heads. We want the latest and coolest stuff, from killer cameras to cool phones and fast, sleek laptops. They are exciting! But you need quite little to do the job — one small camera body, a couple lenses and a flash. A modest laptop will generally do the job too.

Editors very rarely care how the job is accomplished. They only want it to be done to their liking. There are many ways to light a room, shoot in the dark and tone a photo with a very polished look. As a young freelancer you’ll have more time than money, so use that time to figure out cheap working methods.

You don’t need 25 megapixels. Even the ambitious standards of high-end photo agencies can be met with 10. Newspaper and most magazine gigs can be happily met with 6 megapixels from a five-year-old digital camera. Film can easily meet all of those. There are bargains in used gear.

Though software like Adobe’s Creative Suite is the industry standard, there are more good image editing software solutions out there than I can count, and many of them are free.

Buy equipment only when you have repeated need for it and it will with certainty pay for itself with new work. You can always rent it for that odd job, and can probably be reimbursed for the rental by your client.

As you travel, find stories along the way to report and sell. Cartier-Bresson street photography will add to your portfolio but not give an immediate return on the investment. Do that and cover a story you could sell at the same time. Small stories are good. Ambitious big-idea stories are better done near home.

Think of this business the same way you would if you were opening a store, starting a consulting business or building another kind of Internet startup.

Invest (actual money) in your future. You may be 22. You may feel 22. It may be four decades until you think you might retire on your vast laurels as a great photojournalist or documentary photographer. But take it from me, age advances faster than you think it will. Offset some of that risk you are itching to make by covering your old age with IRAs and other retirement plans now. Peel off ten percent of your earnings (that’s so little) to an untouchable account.

Running a business is more than a full-time job. You’ll have big tax bills to pay, health and life insurance to cover, equipment to maintain, marketing plans to build, archives to backup, and research to do — all over and above the maintenance of your creativity and attention on crafting valuable work. One thing often forgotten in that mix of things-I-should-have-done-yesterday is to plan a future.

Our friends and loved ones who follow a more traditional life plan — one in which you sacrifice and save now to fund travel and leisure in old age — would never be able to handle the risk we tend to take. But we need to learn from them too. Be smug about the places you’ll go while you’re young, and how deeply you may interact with the world. But while you do it, keep your debts as low as you can and squirrel away some money starting now so you can smile from your Paris apartment when you’re old.

I and my fellow inmates will applaud you.

An elderly couple dances the tango in a plaza in the San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

I'd like to be this guy when I'm old: An elderly couple dances the tango in a plaza in the San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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  1. #1 by Justin Szlasa on May 19, 2009 - 1:27 pm

    This is a very honest and smart summary of what it takes to do well as a freelancer–which does not exactly match the romantic image of the profession a lot of people have from the outside. Keep your overhead low, keep focused on advancing your paid projects–even the small ones–and be creative and opportunistic about doing more personally/artistically satisfying jobs around the edges. I would add you should also keep your contacts up-to-date and be sure to just check in with people in your address book from time to time–without asking for work but just to ask how they are doing. Do these things and you will be moving in the right direction.

    Like

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