I thought I would be a photojournalist forever — traveling the country, maybe the world, documenting little and big moments for all to see. And everything was going according to plan, until the layoffs at my newspaper and others went into high gear a few years ago. I began to wonder if the future I had hoped for was still possible.
The long hours were hard, and the pay was worse than a schoolteacher’s, but the experiences gained by witnessing such a diverse spectrum of life were priceless. Ultimately, though, I just couldn’t handle the quarterly threat of being laid off, and the growing realization that moving up the professional ladder was becoming impossible because those jobs were being eliminated.
When I quit my job in April 2008 at age 31, I was senior to 75 percent of the newsroom. That sounds promising for graduating students, but it was also a sign that retiring from the profession that I loved was about as likely as winning the lottery.
So I left newspapers to work for myself as a wedding photographer, and now many of my former co-workers and friends are envious of my perceived job security in this bad economy. But it wasn’t easy, and while I have no regrets I am still cautious about the future.
Find a Path That Will Work for You Now
I continue to see staffs shrink week by week, and the company I left recently filed for bankruptcy. I continue to hear a lot of college students and recent grads complain on SportsShooter.com and other sites that they can’t get a job or work and are desperate for a solution to the growing problem. They want the future that I wanted, but the present situation has changed so much that they either can’t get started or are afraid to because there is clearly no job security.
The only answer I can offer is to find a path that will work for you now, and remember that nothing is guaranteed and everything can change. Be true to yourself and what you are passionate about and be wary about trusting your future with anyone in the media business.
People often ask me about the choice I made. I tell them that wedding photography is not the answer for every photographer laid off from a newspaper or magazine. It does pay better than a staff job at nearly every newspaper, but the hours are longer and the stress higher than your daily assignment work. There is a lot of work involved that keeps you in front of a computer for more hours than behind your camera. You have to be a good business person, too. And it can get a little lonely sometimes.
In addition, freelancers are starting to see the same cutbacks and shrinking income that staff photographers are seeing, so it’s a little risky to be on your own right now. Frankly, finding a job in a completely different field might be a better choice, while keeping your passion alive by shooting for yourself or as a part-time freelancer. I know some photographers who are putting down their cameras entirely and investing their time in their families or other hobbies.
Blame the economy or the universities for turning out too many students, but the fact remains that there are not enough jobs for everyone — staff or freelance. Photography has always been a competitive field, but now talent no longer seems to be the deciding factor and that is discouraging to everyone. As more and more people work for free, or really cheap, everyone is worried about their jobs while questioning the future of photojournalism as a whole.
Unless you are within a couple years of retirement, you may have a hard time waiting out the changes to come.
Desperation Helps No One
With so many photographers leaving their staff jobs to shoot weddings or go freelance, those markets may become saturated and see similar problems. That is already starting to happen at places like AP and Sports Illustrated, where freelancers who have been working for them for over a decade are beginning to to see the same cutbacks and shrinking incomes that newspaper staffers have been experiencing.
This is not happening as a result of the pool of photographers improving. It is happening because desperate people are willing to accept less pay, and that is hurting everyone.
Newspapers and other media groups are starting to realize they can get a photographer to shoot an assignment for under $200, without mileage or benefits, so they lay off more photographers and hire more freelancers because it saves them money. The quality is usually not as good because the experience level is lower, but more and more companies are willing to accept the trade-off.
I know how tempting it can be when the bills are coming in faster than the checks to take a job for less just to have it, or lower your rates because the economy is struggling, but I encourage you not to take this route. It will only hurt you — and all of us — in the long run.
I do not have the answer on how to save the newspaper business; I wish I did. But if there is one word of advice that I can offer, it would be to remind all of you that if you enter the freelance world you should not sell yourself short and settle for less. If you do, it makes us all worth less.