Saturday, June 6, 2009

Dead Presidents

The decision to begin turning your hobby into a revenue stream can be a difficult one. One many, many photographers struggle with. I would imagine that artists in any medium struggle with this prospect in the same way that a photographer would.

Will my art loose its meaning now that it’s tied to a revenue stream?
What will happen when money becomes my motivation rather than some other sense of inspiration?
Will anyone pay me?
Will it be consistent and sustainable?
What does it mean to be a professional artist?

The list of questions could evolve quite quickly if we put our heads together. I’m not going to answer all these questions in this post because in many ways, each of you need to be able to answer them yourselves, if they can be answered at all.

What I do want to share is the experience of making my first dollar as a pro photographer and how I was never able to spend that money and how ultimately, the lessons learned were far more valuable (cliché I know) than the value of the money itself.

By any measure, I was not expecting to get paid for my work the night it happened. I had been out killing an evening with a close friend with whom I shoot frequently. Our styles are infinitely different and we tend to feed off of that and provide each other a different perspective while challenging each other to push ourselves. I could write a whole post (and maybe I should) about the value of having a partner to challenge you, but I digress…

This particular evening we’d set each other a series of challenges to overcome weaknesses we’d identified in ourselves as photographers. For me, approaching people had been an issue when it came to street portraits. In the process of overcoming my fear of talking to people at random and photographing them, I also made, and lost, my first dollar.

I won’t go into gruesome detail of the situation because I want to focus more on how it impacted me as a person.

Long story short, a group of girls out for a night on the town had agreed to stand for a portrait and they like the result on the screen of my camera so much that they insisted in handing me what little cash they had on their person (who carries cash these days?).

I was floored! My only goal for the night was to overcome a personal challenge of mine and ultimately I was rewarded….with $6. I was elated! It might as well have been $60K! But the point here isn’t the money.

As the girls bounced down the sidewalk excited at the prospect of the evening ahead, my friend asked to see what I’d been given. Handing him the wad of bills, he carefully un-wrinkled them, straightened them so they were all in the same direction, and tore them in half.

A flash of anger hit me in the chest. It was like I’d been punched. It was honestly quite similar to the end of a long relationship. The hit in the gut feeling was profound if only fleeting. This feeling lasted maybe 1/3 of a second until I realized the meaning of what had happened.


Wile many of us are working towards making a living doing what we love, that night it wasn’t about making the money. It was about a number of other things.

First of all, I don’t know if we should really be paid to for overcoming our own personal fears.
Sure it’s nice to be rewarded for your hard work but this night wasn’t about reaping rewards, it was about growing together with my friend, both as people and photographers.

The second piece to this is that I dint earn that money myself. With out my close friend there pushing me, and I him, we wouldn’t have even been in the place to even ask the people for their picture. I was just the one behind the lens at the time. We’d been taking turns and it just happened that I was the one pressing the shutter release. So in another aspect, that money wasn’t mine, it was ours and the ceremonial tearing of the bills was symbolic of our achievement together and sharing the reward together. Having the money be unusable just added to the significance of the situation. He could easily have handed me 3 bills and kept the other 3 for himself. But he didn’t.

Tearing them slammed home the reality that 1) we weren’t here to make money, but we were here to learn and grow. 2) We did this together and we both share in the growth and reward. 3) I’ve got an awesome memory together with my friend and something to keep as a reminder. If he just gave me 3 dollars, I’d have gotten some coffee or something and the lesson would be long forgotten and the evening would have been about making the money, rather than making a step forward as a person and a photographer.

I keep those torn dollars on my desk even now as a reminder of that night and what we learned and why we learned it. It’s critical that we always push ourselves to evolve and be aware enough to learn from our experiences. I suppose in many ways, this doesn’t only apply to photography or at, it could easily apply in many areas.

What experiences in life do you have that you keep with you? What continues to motivate you when you’re not working for money?

Feel free to comment with your experiences as well in the comment section below or you can email me:

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