Within any creative industry there’s a familiar feeling where once the expectation to make a living comes into play, suddenly your tastes and genre change due to outside pressures. More specifically for us photographers, even if we are lucky enough to have a niche we like, suddenly we open ourselves up to new genres to keep steady money coming in. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, let’s talk about how quickly that can become undesired.
The term “starving artist” isn’t exactly an unknown thing — from birth, as Westerners, we’re inundated with the idea that pursuing a career in the arts is considered among the most foolish things one can do with their lives. Those pressures can be daunting with the consistent signals we’re sent once we start school. Think about how many schools, when faced with severe budget cuts (which is a regular occurrence in our country), cut the music and art programs first. They’re simply not a priority when thinking about a child’s development which is, depending on your viewpoint, a mistake.
An article featured on the Child Development Institute’s site has some interesting points on this topic. In a ten-year national study by Shirley Brice Heath of Stanford University, it was discovered that young people who are involved in highly effective non-school, arts-based community programs in under-resourced communities (in comparison with a national sample of students) were:
• Four times more likely to win an academic award, such as being on the honor roll.
• Eight times more likely to receive a community service award.
• Three times more likely to win a school attendance award.
• Four times more likely to participate in a math or science fair.
• Likely to score higher on their SAT college admission test scores if they have been involved for more than four years of after-school arts study.
It’s no surprise that even if we decide to pursue a careers in the arts, we try to adhere as closely as possible to what people say is the best path possible – meaning how to make the most money. But that’s where the disconnect happens — going into the arts with the expectation of making a lot of money now dwindles your odds to about the same as playing a sport with the intentions of going pro and having a long, successful career. If you want to simply make a lot of money, then you’re much better off becoming a stock broker, financial analyst, or working in mergers and acquisitions.
For a lot of us it’s true – you don’t go into the arts to make a lot of money, much like teachers, firefighters, and police officers; because if money is the goal, there’s plenty of other careers to go into with much more financial upside. Trust me, I know. When I was getting my MBA, I met more than my fair share of people who wanted to become the next Gordon Gekko — seriously.
Yet, we all can agree life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows and the only constants in life is change. We all have rent, bills, families, or even just ourselves to account for. In other words, making money is necessary, after all. In come the portfolio review meetings, speed portfolio reviews, email marketing blasts, social media platforms, blogging, shooting, client follow-ups, and job interviews (for more on all these requirements, see The Nutritional Facts of a Successful Photography Business). There’s no denying that even when you do something you love, there’s going to be things you hate that you have to do in order to propel forward.
So here’s the bad news: pursuing a career in the arts for the money or working for someone else’s vision and bottom line will leave you burnt out after a period of time. How long until that happens is different for everyone, of course. For some, it’s mere months and for others it’s years or even decades. Yet, the time will come sooner or later for everyone. You can stave off burnout with the regular pursuit of personal projects being incorporated into your workflow.
There are a lot of reasons why we don’t take time to make art for ourselves. The reason to do it, however, is easy: overall happiness. If we’re honest with ourselves then, sure, money makes the world go around and leads to less everyday stress about bills, providing for your family, and doing fun activities with your family. But we all know about the numerous super-rich unhappy people out there.
Conversely, on the opposite end of the spectrum, how many times have you seen a happy, smiling homeless person? You look at them and wonder, what do they have to be happy about with so much despair in their lives? Simple — they’re alive, for starters. The only difference between these two groups of people, besides their tax bracket, is merely perspective.
When you’re making art for others or yourself, you’re still fundamentally doing the same thing; the only thing that changes is your perspective on what you’re doing.
Need An Amazing Example? Enter Michael Paul Smith
You may not recognize his name right away. However, you have definitely stumbled across his work over the years without even realizing it. He was the inspiration behind the short documentary Elgin Park, based on his work of the same name. His story is heart-breaking, sobering, and amazingly inspirational.
To me, the man embodies fearlessness. Growing up in central Pennsylvania in the 60s and 70s, Michael was teased a lot. He was bullied for being gay, which at that time and in that part of the country was a big deal. Due to this being a large part of his life, he struggled with bouts of depression and even suicide; something too many of us creatives are familiar with. Yet, he grew up to become a successful businessman and even made a great living after many years of temp work and bartending.
One day while sitting at a meeting in a board room, Michael turned blue and had a heart attack. Smith realized then and there that life was telling him he needed to be doing something else. Renewed with passion and possibilities, he quit his job and embarked on his search for the next thing: model-making. Learning from zero, he quickly appreciated the solitary, detail-orientated aspects of the work. After working for someone else for years, the company folded and Michael continued to build models for himself, incorporating model cars into it and then taking them all outside to shoot with a real-life background using forced perspective to make it all look like it was really 1930-1940s middle America. One thing you’ll notice is there’re never any people in his photos, which is quite haunting. He says it’s done on purpose so you can truly envision yourself there in the piece – and it works.
After 12 years of doing it for no one but himself, he decided to post some of his photos online. The rest, as they say, is history. Be sure to check out this podcast episode to hear more from Smith himself who, to this day, is still one of the most kind-hearted people I’ve ever met. At Christmas, we both sent each other gifts without knowing it and we both ended up in tears of gratitude and joy. I hope he reads this and smiles knowing how much he’s inspired me in my own work.
Making art for yourself is the key to a long-lasting, fulfilling career in the arts no matter what your medium or career goals. Yet, let’s not kid ourselves – it often takes years, if not decades, to reach this point (some 10 years myself), which requires a sense of self-awareness and introspection that many struggle with. My hope is that you share your story and help others share their own. The first step to getting there is to admit you might not be ready and reverse engineer your success, whatever that means to you as an individual.