From The Heart

Philanthropy Through Photography – Doing More With Your Camera

Rover Ramble fundraiser

If you were to ask me about a specific time in my life when photography made a significant impact it would’ve been fall of 2011. For my birthday, my husband surprised me by taking me out for lunch at a tiny burger dive, and then stopping in at the local art museum. He’s not exactly an “art-lover” per say, so I was a little confused by the move – until he explained what they were showing.

There was an exhibit with every Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph since they started handing out in the prize in 1942. Each photo was blown up huge on the wall, with a long description from the photographer hanging next to it. I remember he told me not to plan anything for that evening, and instantly I knew why: I was going to read every, single, one of these descriptions.

Photos of war, of celebration, struggle, heartache, starvation, triumph. I couldn’t take my eyes away. These photos were beautiful, powerful, and gut-wrenching. Particularly the “vulture photo” by Kevin Carter (Google it, because there is no way I’m posting it here). The description next to the photograph was written by a good friend of Kevin’s, since he had committed suicide just 3 months after shooting it. That picture will haunt me for the rest of my life.

These Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs, they made you feel something, made your heart ache and tears well up in your eyes. They aren’t meant to be seen in passing, commented on and then never referenced again. They stick with you, forever.

That’s the kind of photographer I wanted to be, then and there. I wanted the camera in my hand to make a difference. A real difference, to someone, somewhere.

That difference doesn’t have to mean shooting from a helicopter in a war-zone, it just means using your camera to make something near you just a little bit better. If you’re interested in using your camera for a little more this year, here are a few ways to get started.

Up for adoption at the Rimrock Humane Society.

Start Local

Baby steps are still steps. A great place to look to make a difference is in your own community.

  • Volunteer at your a local charity to photograph a charity event. They can use these photos for their newsletter or to post on social media, and hopefully gain more people for next year’s event.
  • Hit up your local animal shelter. It’s been proven time and time again professional photos help animals get adopted faster. A picture of a scared dog, in the back of a dark kennel, with red eyes surely doesn’t do him any favors. Bring him out in the sunlight and snap a few photos of him playing fetch. The faster the shelter moves animals out, the more they can bring in.
  • Dole at free family photos at your local homeless shelter. Many families go their entire lives without decent family photos. Help Portrait has a great program for getting started in this area.

Work With an Established Organization

There are some amazing organizations out there doing unbelievable things. Of course there are a few organization pretending to be charities and really just taking in money, but let’s just skip over those hell-holes and focus on the good ones. PhotoPhilanthropy is a great place to point you in the right direction. There you’ll find photographer resources for working with non-profits as well as tips to get your own photo essays and projects off the ground. A few other amazing photography related organizations:

  • Photographers Without Borders is another fantastic program, that allows you to sell your photos with the money going straight educational purposes of the country the photo was taken in.
  • Operation Love Reunited is an organization that gives military families free family photo sessions before a family member is deployed. Get involved by filling out an application here.
  • Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep is an organization that offers free remembrance photography for parents that have lost their newborn babies. These are often the only photos parents have to remember infants who have passed.
  • Flashes of Hope offers free portrait service to children with cancer, giving them ownership of their new identities.
  • 100 Cameras works to give cameras to kids in marginalized communities to help them tell their stories (that’s the extremely condensed version of course, they do much more than that).

These are just a few on a very long list of amazing organizations. If there’s another cause close to your heart, seek out a non-profit for that cause and email them! Very few organizations will turn away free photos, especially good ones that really help their cause.

Brandy
Mermaids for ocean conservation.

Create Your Own Project

Just like Photographers Without Borders, you can also sell your own photos and decide exactly where the money goes. You can also complete your own photo essay, bringing awareness to a topic or cause you are passionate about.

You can work with a gallery or local business to print and hang photos in an exhibition. Use social media and shared networking (both of you combine email lists) to spread the word. See what other companies would like to get involved. You might be able to get the catering for a show donated, or part of the publishing costs covered for small book. Many companies are open to the idea of donating goods or services if project proceeds are going to a deserving cause.

Give a Free Class

Photography allows people to tell stories that would otherwise remain silent. You don’t have to teach your entire craft – just an introductory class at a high school or community center. Have a free class at your studio where you show kids how to use an old hand-me-down camera they bought at a yard sale. This may not seem like much to you, but you’re giving someone the ability to express themselves and create something entirely their own, which can be a drastic turning point to their lives.

Donate the Proceeds

Often the easiest and fastest way to get involved is to sell some of your current photos as prints and donate the proceeds. Even just simple landscape shots can go for something.

Another option is to use your skills and current market to donate a day’s worth of client proceeds. If you’re a wedding photographer, maybe the cost of one wedding per year is donated to a cause near to your heart. As a family photographer, you could have one day a year where the fees from any session scheduled on that day goes straight to charity.

Just Do What You Can

It’s all up to you to decide what you’re doing with your time. If you aren’t in a situation to donate an entire weddings’ worth of fees, than by all means, don’t do that, but if you can afford to take one day a month and shoot a few photos for the local humane society, than do it. Every little bit counts.

The bottom line is we tend to take our cameras for granted more than we realize. After years in this business, we can forget how powerful of a tool it is. Even if you don’t think a few photos will make a difference, chances are, they probably will.

What are some ways you do good with your camera? Let’s hear them below! And don’t forget to SUBSCRIBE for more posts like this, and follow me on FacebookInstagram and Twitter as well :).

2016 – The Year of the Asshole

“Year of the Monkey?” Please, I beg to differ.

2016 has basically been the equivalent of me thinking I could totally do my own smoky eye makeup.

Me: “This is gonna be fierce!”
2016: “HAHAHA OMG here use the waterproof liner…” 

Now I know what you’re thinking: December just got started! Christmas! Hot cocoa! Family, presents, all that warm and fuzzy shit – things could still look up!

Yeah, they could – in the same way that I’m down by 50 points in my fantasy league and my kicker is going on Monday. December could have the best game of all time, but let’s be realistic here, folks: 2016 is bust. I’m calling it.

I’ll admit, it didn’t exactly get off on the right foot. In January we lost our aunt after a battle with cancer. In February I found out I was pregnant, canceled the Bali workshop due to Zika, then lost the baby in March and somehow managed to speak at Shutterfest just a few days later, when all I really wanted to do was stay home, curl up in the shower and cry myself into oblivion.

So not a great start.

Soon we learned we were pregnant again and had an ultrasound the day before we left for the Greece workshop in June. About halfway through the workshop I began spotting and cramping. I called the doctor and she told me, very calmly, that the results from the ultrasound were in…and they weren’t good. They should’ve seen a developing baby and heard a heartbeat, but instead they saw nothing and heard nothing. I was barren and silent. Even though I was still feeling all the symptoms of pregnancy (exhaustion, morning sickness, depression), this was most likely the start of another miscarriage, and we’d probably have to just wait for the worst.

At the same time, I was getting messages on my photography page from someone trying to friend me on Facebook. Soon his messages changed from “please accept my friend request” to “accept my friend request or I’ll track you down and rape you.” Oooooooh okay, my bad, see I was listening to my gut instinct on this one but clearly I was wrong because you sound lovely…

On the 4th day of the workshop I got an email that said the reservation I made for the Catalina workshop, less than 30 days away, for 15 people, was canceled. No reason, just an email, a refund and an apology. I scrambled to find lodging for everyone – which I did – but it put me $6k over my budget.

I guess you could say between the doctor telling me I was having another miscarriage, a stranger threatening to rape me and an unexpected $6,000 lodging fee, all within a few days, things were starting to get to me. I remember sitting in our hotel room, telling my husband I just can’t handle anymore of this year, to which he held my hand and queasily replied, “Babe…it’s June. We still got a lot of year left.

Thankfully, first thing we did when we got home was have another ultrasound – and everything was fine! There was our baby, all curled up, little heart beating away. That’s right folks, we’ve got baby #2 on the way, due February 1st. 🙂

Aaaand that’s about the only thing that went well this year. As July turned to August and August turned to September, things continued to spiral downward. We thought we might catch a break in October when we left for Hawaii for what should’ve been our first real, work-free family vacation ever – but the first day there our 1-year old daughter came down with Roseola. While everyone else was snorkeling and exploring the island, we spent most of our time in the hotel room on the phone with the ER desperately trying to break her 104 temperature.

But we did get to see Hawaii through the Facebook photos of the rest of the family that was there…which is kind of the same thing as enjoying it yourself, right? Sure it is. It’s the same thing. Just go with it.

The crazy thing; the more I talked to people around me the more I realized everyone I knew was having a horrible year. I had friends that were hit with divorces, fertility issues, and mystery medical problems no doctors could solve. I had two friends that were literally hit by a car while they were walking to the store. Both needed multiple surgeries and intense physical therapy.

Here I thought I was having a rough year, but hey at least I wasn’t run over by a fucking car. 

And these were just people I knew personally, I’m not even including the global level of devastation that’s going on right now. By the time November arrived, it all hit me like a ton of bricks, and I just wanted to do something, anything to help, and my poor husband had to lay out in a very practical manner why it would be a horrible idea for me, being 7 months pregnant, to run off to Aleppo to assist in the makeshift hospitals. I had to very tearfully admit he was probably right.

Meanwhile, the hits just kept on coming. Cars broke down, gear broke down, pets got sick, people were assholes. Delta is a piece of shit airline. We lost more family and more friends. If 2016 was a Grizzly bear – I was definitely Leonardo DiCaprio.

But as much as this year has shredded me to pieces…I think I should be saying thank you. Just as it took an asshole of an ex-boyfriend to open my eyes to what a great guy really looks like, this year has opened my eyes to what living a good life really looks like.

I thought I was doing my part in the world, I really did. I thought volunteering and donating was enough, but it wasn’t. For crying out loud I’m a photographer – that’s an amazing skill, especially when it comes to exposing hurt or injustice. Photography has the power to make the world a much better place, and I’ve been using it to take pretty photos. It’s like having a crystal ball capable of changing the future, and using it for decoration in the dining room. It feels like a waste, and I think I needed to be reminded of that, as violent of a reminder as it turned out to be.

I’ve already made changes for next year. I’ve changed my photoshoots, my lectures, everything, and for the first time in a long time, I’m excited. Not the kind of excited you get when your food comes out in a restaurant, but that deep down, night before Christmas, childlike kind of excitement where it’s hard to focus and sit still.

So go ahead December, bring it on. I spent last night with my daughter, curled up on the couch in the softest blanket ever flipping through a National Geographic magazine while my husband baked both a batch of gingerbread and chocolate chip cookies. That is some Hallmark fucking shit right there.

Like I said, I’m stepping up my game.

I see you 2017. I see you and I’m ready. Let’s rumble.

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So About This Whole Balance Thing…

Every time I write an informational blog post, I try to write two separate versions. The first version is a bit more straightforward, where I develop intelligent thoughts and place them on the page in a pleasing fashion, edit out most of the profanity and keep the rambling to a minimum. That’s the one that usually gets shared in other photography forums and blogs, and brings new members to my site. It’s the business post, the one that grows my email list and keeps me relevant in photography related discussions.

The second version is the one I write after reaching a breaking point and is posted with little to no editing.

The other day I wrote my 7 favorite tips for keeping your sanity while running a photography business. That was the first version.

This is the second.

Shall we?

Personally, when I think about that perfect work/life balance, I imagine my day starting something like this: I’ll probably wake up well rested, at the perfect time, without an alarm clock, with a smile on my face and my arms outstretched. Then I’ll do a quick hour of yoga in my sunny – but not too sunny – private exercise nook. I’ll eat a healthy breakfast of yogurt, oats and freshly cut fruit (which I grew in my private backyard orchard, by the way) and then maybe I’ll do a bit of morning journalling. I’ll take a quick shower, brush my teeth for the full dentist recommended two minutes, blow dry my hair, put on a perfect face of makeup and then head out the door looking and feeling fabulous.

And then I remember I don’t live in a fucking Ambien commercial.

That woman does not exist. That lifestyle does not exist. The only way I might even come close to a morning like that would be if my husband were out of town, my daughter stayed the night at her grandparents and I just murdered someone the night before and completely got away with it.

Yet for some reason, that continues to be my standard.

I also have an unrealistic standard for everything else in life. I have full Pinterest boards with just white furniture. White furniture. My husband and I have a 9 month old baby girl, 2 cats and 2 dogs. And out of all of us, I’m the messiest one! I covered the entire kitchen in taco salad the other day because I wanted to try flipping it in the bowl the way they do on Iron Chef instead of just mixing it with a giant spoon like the fucking amateur I am. White furniture wouldn’t last 20 minutes in my house.

But nonetheless, white bed cover, white rug, sheer white curtains flowing in the breeze, a white nightstand with a solitary white vase containing a perfectly formed Pink Rock Orchid? Fuck yeah I’ll follow you on Instagram.

This conventional idea of ‘balance’ is complete bullshit. It’s purely aesthetic, a level that exists solely for Instagram followers. Those people with houses filled with perfectly minimalist white home decor? I’m not sure they actually live in them. Or if they do, they don’t have kids. Or pets. Or hobbies. I mean if you’re single, germaphobic, agoraphobic and have a shit ton of money to blow than yeah, I guess that’s the setup for you, but then where do you go to experiment with the taco salad once in a while?

And while I really do try and follow my 7 rules for keeping my sanity, I certainly can’t follow them all the time. Some days I just can’t help but obsessively refresh my email or scroll through Facebook for hours. Some days I’m just not productive. I’m well rested, in a quiet, disturbance-free house, with plenty of work ready to complete at my finger tips and I’ll find myself whittling a pencil eraser into a miniature teacup. Some days work just isn’t going to happen.

My only real, tried and true technique for getting through the madness is to pick a date in the future when I know the madness will temporarily subside, and just focus on making it to that date. The current date in my head is August 1st. I have an enormously intimidating mountain of work to complete by then, all of it non-negotiable in terms of a deadline. I have no idea how I will get it done, but that’s all future Jenna’s problem. Present Jenna just has to worry about making it to August 1st, because on that morning, I know everything will have been completed.

My husband texted me today to ask how it was going at home. My daughter is teething again and is now completely mobile, which means I’ve got my hands full. And today was one of those days when she demanded my complete undivided attention. So we played. All. Day. Long.

She chased me around the house (by chased I mean scooted herself through the kitchen), we stacked blocks, we knocked them down, we pet the cat and then went outside and pet the basil plant. We threw the frisbee for the big dog and watched the cross-eyed dog dig a hole. We yelled at a bug. We ate sweet potatoes with cinnamon, then later tried blueberries and bananas (both were awesome). We sent a lot of weird Snapchats to dad (you can find me at jennamtphoto) and then pet the basil plant again.

I got nothing on my list done today. Nada. But tomorrow she goes to Nanna’s house and I’ll have to get an unreasonably high volume of work done in a small amount of time. Bring it.

That’s how I define balance. Some days I work like a mad woman. Some days I stack blocks with my baby girl. I know I need those good work days, they’re the entire basis for my income. But if more important shit comes up and I have to skip work and then double down on it later, so be it. When I look back, I don’t remember the days Chris came home and I told him how productive I had been. Those all fade. I do remember the days when my baby just had to be held though. The days she just had to be with her mamma, so the only “work” I could realistically get done was one-hand typing a blog post while she fell asleep in my lap.

Blog posts exactly like this one right now.

Today was for home. Tomorrow will be for work.

Fuckin’ balance, bitches.

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In Loving Memory of a Blueberry

blueberry

Fair warning: this is not going to be a happy post.

I’m really not even sure how to start this. Even as I’m writing I’m not even sure I’m going to publish it. I’m just awake in my bed, desperately trying to make any sense of this weekend, and so often the only way I know how to do that is to write about it.

Part of me wonders if this is something I should be writing about at all. Maybe this is too intimate. Maybe this is the line where I need to step back and say, “You know what, some shit is just too personal and painful for others to be let in.” But then again, I’ve followed that rule for years, and in all honesty, the longer I’ve kept something a secret, the more it hurts. So maybe the “keep it private” idea is bullshit. Frankly, I have no idea what the best thing is to do right now. This entire situation is uncharted territory for me.

What I do know is I’m sad. Heartbreakingly, incomprehensibly, devastatingly sad. So I’m just going to type for a while. See where that goes.

See a couple months ago I found out I was pregnant again. We were so excited. Beyond excited, really. Our family was growing again! We told barely a few close family and friends, plus the Bali workshop attendees, because unfortunately as of February 1st of this year Bali is on the “Don’t Even Fucking Think of Traveling There” list for anyone pregnant or looking to become pregnant within the next 60 days. So I created the Catalina workshop as an alternative, Chris and I started planning for baby #2 and life was pretty damn good.

Then last Friday night…I lost the baby.

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Those dotted lines are me crying. Right now, in my bed, at 1:44 in the morning.

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Fuck.

I’ve lost family members. I’ve lost friends. I’ve lost pets. I’ve been through a lot of really sad fucking shit but this is just…

I’ve never experienced a sadness like this. I’ve never experienced an emptiness like this. I’ve never had to cope with something…like this.

Maybe I should’ve known. This entire pregnancy was going swimmingly. I didn’t feel sick. Not even the slightest bit of morning sickness or food aversions. I could eat whatever I wanted. I had energy. My last pregnancy I was incredibly depressed, but not with this one. I didn’t even feel hormonal. I felt amazing. I felt so good that when my mom asked how it was going that very morning I told her that I really didn’t even feel pregnant at all.

Then that night as I was standing in the kitchen making dinner, it was like a faucet turned on. No pain, no warning, just what the fuck oh my fucking god there is so much blood.

My mother-in-law packed Leila in the car-seat and as she rushed us to the hospital I Googled “bleeding at 8 weeks pregnant” and found plenty of cases where everything turned out fine. Plenty of people on plenty of forums have had almost the exact same thing. They were fine. The baby was fine. It would be fine. It would all be fine.

But it wasn’t, and about 4 hours, a urine sample, a blood test and 3 different ultrasounds later my doctor told me with no matter of uncertainty that I was no longer pregnant.

I bawled. I sat in that room and I cried and cried and cried and cried. I told myself maybe this was a dream. Maybe if I tried really hard I could just wake up and Chris would be next to me and there would be a dog at my feet and a cat in my hair and I’d feel my belly and there would still be our little blueberry and we’d get up and make breakfast and everything would be totally fine.

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But I was still in that hospital room.

After a minute I got dressed and left. I went to the front to checkout, where the checkout clerk happily greeted me with a, “So, what brings you in tonight?” When I answered him with, “I had a miscarriage,” He seemed a bit taken aback. Really? I’m crying at midnight in the fucking emergency room. My eyes are bloodshot and swollen shut; you ask what brought me in like I’m stopping by the fucking yacht club? How the fuck did you think this conversation would go? He then told me that I needed my checkout papers. I had to go all the way back down the hall to receive my follow-up paperwork and, as the nurse so excitedly put it, get one more set of vitals! She asked if I could just wait in that room a little longer while she got everything ready. You know, the same room with my bloody hospital gown, an ultrasound machine with photos of my silent baby and like a million tissues. I asked if I could wait in the hall instead, she said no, and I went back to that horrible room, sat down and cried some more.

She came in, took my vitals, told me I had to follow up with a phone call and a possible appointment, where she exclaimed, “Oh look! It looks like you already have one on April 18th!” When I started sobbing again she quickly realized that was supposed to be my first ultrasound appointment and replied, “Oh, right.”

In all honesty, every person I met in the ER was fucking horrible. Happy and joking and completely oblivious to what was going on. During the final ultrasound, my last possible hope that this nightmare was not happening, the same nurse sat behind the ultrasound tech, stared at the screen and commented, “This is so cool!” as he moved around that giant, transvaginal ultrasound wand inside of me and searched for the tiny heartbeat he would never find.

Typically I would’ve said something. I fucking live for confrontation but in the back of my mind I kept thinking if I was nice to them they would give me good news. If I put up with their unbelievably inappropriate jokes and their callous, happy demeanor they would tell me what I wanted to hear. I know it doesn’t make sense, but I was just that desperate.

My doctor on the other hand was amazing. His shift ended at 10:00 and he stayed until midnight to finish this ordeal with me. He was kind and honest and understanding and told me this was extremely common. He said the body is able to know if something isn’t developing right. Maybe the chromosomes weren’t matching up. Maybe it was developing with only half a heart or no lungs. Whatever the case, this baby was not going to have a happy, quality life and when the body recognizes that, it starts over. There’s nothing I could’ve done differently. He said he knows that doesn’t necessarily help what I’m feeling, but to please don’t read too much into this. This kind of thing happens, and it wasn’t my fault.

Still.

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I spent all day Saturday with Leila. Chris had to work, and usually Leila hangs out with one of her grandparents for the day but I just needed her to myself. She had naptime in the bedroom and for the first time since she was born, I slept right alongside her. I just…couldn’t be alone.

I won’t tell you the details of what happened Saturday, but let’s just say Friday was only the beginning. See here’s the thing about miscarriage: it’s a process. It takes a while. I thought the worst was on Friday…I wasn’t even close. Saturday was fucking brutal.

And it continued into Sunday, and it will continue into Monday, and probably Tuesday, and who knows how many more days or weeks.

That’s part of what makes this so hard. Once it starts there is nothing you can do, and even after you know the result, you still have to wait for your body to finish the process. I move and my stomach cramps. I go to the bathroom and there is still blood. I feel a little butterfly in my stomach that used to mean my uterus was expanding…now I know it means it’s shrinking.

It’s pretty tough to move on when you’re still right in the middle of it.

And I know it doesn’t end there. I know at every future OB-GYN appointment, at every pap smear, on every future insurance form, I have to check that fucking box that says I’ve had a miscarriage. I have to see it staring me in the face. I have to be reminded of it.

Earlier tonight I told my husband that while I am really, really good at faking a smile, between me and him (and possibly a few thousand other people, depending on whether or not I publish this), I am not doing well. This is far more difficult that I thought it would be, and I think it’s because I’m forcing my brain to think about it in a different way than my heart. My brain wants to think about it as a biological issue. As a group of cells that wasn’t developing properly; as a failed science experiment. My heart, on the other hand, is thinking of it as a death. It doesn’t matter if it wasn’t a child yet, it was a child to me. And an already very loved one at that.

We talked, and we decided to give him a name. We had no way of knowing if it would’ve been a boy or a girl so, we decided to name him “Jamie”, a name that would fit either way.

So now every time I have to check that box, it’s not that I’ll be reminded that I had a miscarriage, I’ll instead be reminded that our little Jamie existed. Maybe he only had half a heart and no lungs and was missing an arm…but hey, we’ve had a cross-eyed dog and a three-legged cat, and I’m sure as shit not normal, so I like to think he would’ve fit in perfectly with our little family.

I know this will eventually get better. I know I have my little Leila and an amazing husband that loves me very much. I know these things. But I am still sad. And that’s okay. Right now I think I just need to be sad.

Maybe I will publish this. Maybe there is someone else out there going through this same thing and just needs to be sad too. Maybe we can be sad together. And maybe it will help to know that Jamie will be remembered by more than just Chris and I.

And to you, little Jamie, you were already so, so loved, and you always will be loved. And you will count, not just as a box we have to check, but as a member of our family. You were perfect to us.

We’ll always love you, little blueberry.

My Protest Of Matching Socks

 

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You will very rarely, if ever, catch me wearing a pair of matching socks.

I never match my socks. Ever. And not because I think it looks cool, or I lost some random bet or something, but for an entirely different reason.

Years ago (maybe 10? 12?), I read a published study that had broken down the amount of time the average person spends doing certain tasks in their lifetime. How much time they spend watching television, commuting in traffic, sleeping, and you guessed it, matching their socks.

It completely changed me.

The average person, I learned, spent about a month of their lives matching their socks.

In the scale of your entire life, one month might not seem like a shocking amount of time to spend matching socks, but to me, it was terrifying. I instantly pictured myself as an old woman, laying on my deathbed. A reel of my entire life was playing like a drive-thru movie, projecting on the wall in front of me.

I see my loving husband, alone, cooking dinner in our kitchen, the camera pans around the room to find me, but I’m not there. I’m in the laundry room, matching socks. A phone rings and I see it’s a call from my mom, but I ignore it because I can’t talk right now, I’m matching socks. Our family dog drops a Frisbee at my feet, but I can’t throw it, because I’m too busy matching socks. A comet streaks across the sky, my grandmother plays the piano, entire seasons come and go and I miss them all because I’m matching socks. In a small episode of admittedly, completely nonsensical paranoia, I pictured my entire life flashing before my eyes – and me missing all of it – because I was too busy, matching socks.

Right in that second, I vowed to never again, for any reason, spend any given amount of time searching for matching socks.

Then I had my daughter.

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Being a mom was an entirely new role I wasn’t sure I would fit into. Babies are fragile, delicate little things and let’s be honest, no one has ever entrusted me with anything fragile or delicate in my entire life. That bag of flour “baby” they give you in high-school Home Economics class to keep “alive” for the semester? I baked a cake with that bitch and moved on. Babies have just…never really been my thing.

So as my due date loomed closer and closer, I became increasingly more anxious of what my future relationship would be with my newborn daughter. Would I stare lovingly into her eyes? Would I see a younger version of myself? Would she laugh at my jokes?

God I hope she laughs at my jokes…

But all that worrying was for nothing; on September 24th at 4:43 in the morning, my husband and I found ourselves holding the healthiest, hands down most beautiful baby girl we had ever seen. All that sappy Hallmark crap they tell you about holding your child for the first time – totally true. I was a mom, through and through.

After we got our bearings we did what every new parent does nowadays: took our announcement to social media. “Look what we made!” I proudly exclaimed on Instagram and Facebook. “Look at our adorable baby girl! Look how perfect she is! LOOK AT HER GODDAMNIT!”

We spent the entire day in the hospital, learning how to hold her, change her diaper and breastfeed. We learned that the little bit of dry skin around her hands and feet were totally normal, and just because she flipped off the lab technician that drew her blood doesn’t necessarily mean she’s a genius…although it could mean she does take after her mother.

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As the day drew to a close, my husband lay sleeping on the couch, while I held our sleeping daughter against my chest. Very carefully, I reached for my cellphone.

I opened Facebook and read the many congratulatory comments from friends and family. My heart swelled with pride. I couldn’t wait for everyone to meet her! I stared at her picture again, then the photo of my husband holding his daughter for the first time. What an unbelievably emotional day. Just as I was about to put my phone down I hit the “news” section of my mobile Facebook app, and it took me to my feed. And out of complete habit, I did what every other person would naturally do…I started scrolling.

Before I knew it, I was browsing my Facebook feed like it was any other day: meme, pumpkin spice latte, clickbait article, diet product sales pitch, funny puppy video, sunset photo, political article, meme, baby, meme, baby meme…

For seven minutes.

After I put my phone down I looked at my little girl, and my heart sank. She was awake. What had she been doing for those seven minutes? Had she opened her eyes for a second to look at her mother? Did her mouth do one of those tiny, adorable reflex smiles? Did she open her hand to look for mine? And what was I occupied with that was so important to miss any of those moments? Browsing memes and latte photos? Oh dear god…

Almost instantaneously, a decade’s worth of worst fears was realized. While real life was happening right in front of me, I was missing it. I was elsewhere.

I was matching socks.

Look, I’m not going to condemn social media or delete all my accounts the second after I upload this post. I love social media. I love that in just a few seconds I was able to announce the birth of my daughter to almost all of my family and friends. I also love that standing in line at the post office or DMV is infinitely less boring when you’re browsing photos of cats with Trump hair. Hell I spent 20 minutes laughing at this video yesterday and at the end of my life you can bet your ass I’ll still consider it time well spent.

But social media can have its downsides, and for me, it’s the ability to pull focus from what’s happening right in front of me, right now. My mind is already a swirling pool of chaos, so when you throw in a mess of kittens, memes, political rants, cookie recipes and God knows what else, you end up with Pandora’s box of distraction.

So it’s time for me to address my relationship with social media. If one sock symbolizes actual, legitimate interaction with my online community, its partner sock would be the mindless, constant scrolling that comes with it. And how much time, at the end of my life, am I giving up to this scrolling? Will I really be laying on my deathbed, thinking to myself, “You know, I really wish I would’ve spent more time browsing Facebook.” Probably the same amount of time I would’ve wished I had spent more time matching socks.

And as you guys already know, I no longer have any room in my life for matching socks :).

leila

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Taking Back What’s Mine

UW - bdayToday is my 31st birthday!

But before I get on to that, I have to write this post. I need to write this post. And I’ll warn you now…this one’s got some language.

I used to be a birthday hater. I dreaded it. And not because I hated being the center of attention or because I was getting older or anything like that, but because I had been straight-up conditioned to hate my birthday.

My childhood, without getting too much into it, wasn’t the greatest. Our household was run by my adopted father, who was a literal – diagnosed and everything – psychopath. Birthdays (along with Christmas of course) were his favorite days. He’d give us gifts, only to make us watch him destroy them. He handed out abusive, creative punishments, without any reason except to “test them out for later”. Each week leading up to our birthday he’d grow giddy with anticipation, while the rest of the family lost sleep and wondered what horrible thing he would come up with. Each year, as my special day got closer and closer I’d plead to any powerful existential being willing to listen to please, please let my birthday go unnoticed this year…but it never did.

Every birthday I could ever remember had been controlled by this man, so even when I moved out, I remained terrified of my own birthday. The thought alone still made my hands shake and my stomach queasy. I kept it a secret from everyone I met. I wanted absolutely no part in it.

Then, one day, as a freshman in college, I got a phone-call from my dad. He screamed at me from the other end of the line. I placed the phone on the dresser and sat on my bed. I could hear his voice, but not what he was saying. I didn’t want to know what he was saying.

My roommate pointed to the phone and asked, “Who’s that?”

“My dad,” I answered.

“What’s he yelling about?”

“Nothing, really. He just calls to yell.”

She stared at me, then asked, “Then why don’t you just hang up the phone?”

I stared back for a second while I considered it. I hadn’t lived at home for years. He’s 8 hours away in a different state. He doesn’t pay for a cent of college. Everything I own (car, cell phone, etc.) is all in my name. There is literally nothing he could do.

So I hung up the phone.

“Better?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I replied. Then out of nowhere, I confessed, “My birthday was 2 weeks ago.”

“Really?!” she shouted, “We should celebrate!” and darted off into the kitchen.

Sitting in the kitchen of my dorm room, watching my roommate bake some cupcakes, it occurred to me that for the first time, I was actually going to celebrate my birthday.

And I. Felt. Free.

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I’m not sure why it took so long. I had moved out long before I was 18. I’d had plenty of birthdays without him, but I still had the same frame of mind: that no matter where I was or who I was with, every year on October 16th my life would turn into a living hell.

What a bullshit way of thinking.

As understandable as it is that I should hate my own birthday, there comes a point when I’ve got to make the choice: let someone drain me of happiness 1 day of every year for the rest of my life, or to take back something that is rightfully mine, and goddamnit, it’s my motherfucking birthday.

So I’ve been making up for stolen time. Now, every year, I want a cake, loaded with candles. If I’m at a bar, I want a free shot. If I’m at a restaurant, I want free desert with the entire staff singing a horribly embarrassing version of ‘Happy Birthday’. I also want balloons and streamers and a birthday hat and any other cheesy birthday item that I’m technically too old to have. I want to be a kid again, every year, on my birthday.

And it’s worked – my birthday is now one of my favorite days of the year. There have been surprise parties and get-togethers with friends, quiet movie nights at home and long walks around the neighborhood. Hell my husband even asked me to marry him on my birthday.

Even if every single thing goes wrong, it doesn’t matter. My birthday is mine again. I have one extra day every year that I never had before.

We all have a part of our past that is holding us back in some way. Some sort of insecurity that just keeps hanging on or an outdated fear we’ve never confronted. Something that’s robbing us of a better day, a better relationship, a better career…a better life.

What do you have that is stealing thunder in your life? Is it a toxic person? A job that hasn’t challenged you in years? A reoccurring negative thought process? Whatever it is, there is always an opportunity to do something about it, and it might be something as small and simple as hanging up the phone.

Take a look around. If something is holding you back, I beg of you, sit down, take a few deep breaths, and confront it.

As for me, today is my birthday. I turn 31, it’s going to be awesome, and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it.

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Following That Gut Instinct

Drowning

There’s nothing quite as depressing as the sound of silence in a cubicle.

The incessant buzzing of the air conditioner and the relentless squeaking of a run-down office chair fills the air, broken only by the telltale sound of an employee attempting to surreptitiously remove the Ceran wrap from his late lunch. Fingers scurry across keyboards, mouses click, and chipper voices answer phones with that identical artificially caring voice they’ve used for the last 10 years. I sit in the back, as close to the only window as possible, undaunted by the measly view it provides. The sight of the adjacent building, just two feet away, is the only connection I have to the outside world.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is my nightmare.

I have decided that an office is the ultimate prison; one designed to keep its prisoners willingly confined, brainwashed by the sight of the strategically placed metaphorical carrot just inches beyond their grasp. I feel as if I have signed a contract without reading the fine print, ushered ahead to the next important benefit while passing over the sacrifices needed to reach said benefit. Even the fluorescent lights above flicker to remind me of the task at hand, like the most effective of prison guards; jarring and emotionless.

I stare at the computer screen before me and click my pen against my teeth, the scent of Windex and carpet hanging in the air. This is not my computer. This is not my desk. This is Patty’s desk, and hers is the bar to which all following cubicles will be measured. Her functional knick-knacks confuse me, and I feel even more out of place. A container of goo meant to make fingers sticky (for turning pages) and a bottle of Germ-ex sit directly next to the keyboard. I do not own a bottle of Germ-ex. I welcome the dirt and grime of the natural world. Oh how I long for the touch of grass…

Next to a colorful array of pens (the likely only allowed form of creativity or self-expression), is a palm tree post-it note container, symbolizing the relaxing beach she has probably desperately been saving her vacation days for.  She has months’ worth of vacation days saved up, yet her planner hangs on the cork-board to the right, rows of assignments filling it: typing, filing, interviewing, typing, staffing. Is this what my life will soon become? Am the next generation of Patty’s?

But the most disheartening trinket of all is the digital calendar on her computer that displays a different “inspirational phrase” daily.

Today’s? “Smile. I like your sense of humor.” Great, a computer is telling me it likes my sense of humor. I have already discovered that no one in this particular job likes my sense of humor, so it’s ironic that a computer would have that opinion. Rather, I think it’s mocking me. Mocking my lack of humor and instead exposing my dutiful, uninspiring appropriateness that has replaced it. Within two weeks my wit has given way to internal cynicism. I used to be funny.

My stare is broken by the flicker of the fluorescent prison guard. Back to work. Deep breaths…

DejaVu

That was me, just 4 years ago.

No, I’m serious – that’s an actual snippet from an old blog post dated August of 2011. While there is nothing wrong with working in an office, it wasn’t for me, and I was definitely not doing well.

Sitting in the office of my first counselor job straight after completing my Master’s, I was on the edge of a complete breakdown. I cried all the time. Once, while driving around on a random Tuesday, we passed an enormous house and my husband casually said, “Woah, I wish we lived there!” I replied with, “I wish it was Friday,” and burst into tears. Sometimes it didn’t even take a trigger; I’d just sit in the bedroom, stare at a pair of “professional work shoes” and cry.

I didn’t last long. Within 3 weeks I was fired for following a code of ethics that apparently my employer didn’t share with the rest of the mental health profession. I came home, told my husband the news and he and our friend Bill took me out for a game of golf (I drove the cart through a fence) and a night of never-ending beer and buffalo wings, which, as it turns out, is the perfect cure for that ‘just getting fired’ feeling.

The next day, I told my husband I was changing careers. I told him I needed to do something creative for a living or there was a chance I may just collapse in on myself like a dying star. He agreed.

I had no idea what I wanted to do though, so I made a list. I wrote down every single creative job I could think of…and I mean everything. I listed actor, musician, painter, cartoonist, interior designer, dancer, filmmaker, and about a bajillion other possible jobs. I narrowed it down based on location (I wasn’t moving), required education (I couldn’t afford to go back to school) and required physical development (it was a little late to start a career as a professional ballet dancer). I was left with a list of 3 options: writer, photographer and cake decorator. On a whim, I chose photographer.

I didn’t even own a camera.

Rachel 10

Cue the unrelenting skepticism. People thought I had snapped. They thought I was going through a phase. I had been accepted into medical school and was set to attend in the spring – giving up an opportunity like that was nothing short of insane, they said. My husband was the only person who had my back at all times, while others just pretended none of this was happening. Friends asked when I’d be leaving for med school. Family mentioned when they heard of a new counselor position opening up. I was mocked constantly and openly. According to general consensus, I had just made the worst career decision of all time.

But wait…why am I telling you all of this?

Because today, I paid off my student loans.

Today, I paid off $40,000 in student loans that I acquired pursuing degree programs everyone told me would lead to a financially stable and satisfying career, all with money I made from a career everyone told me was the equivalent of financial suicide.

I spent $40k to guarantee myself a “real job” then paid it off with money made from a “hobby”.

Suck it, haters.

To be completely honest, I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time fantasizing about how I would celebrate when this day came. Perhaps I’d buy a plane ticket to a faraway beach and sit under an umbrella while someone brought me a never-ending supply of margaritas, or better yet maybe I’d take a trip down to the Billings animal shelter and spend the day adopting every single pet in the mothafuckin’ place. Who knows, maybe I’d run through the streets of Billings shouting, “NO STUDENT LOANS, BITCHES!” all while throwing dollar bills in the air behind me…and then later going back to retrieve them of course because let’s be honest, I still need those and I’m not in a music video.

But now that this day is finally here, all I want to do is write about it. All I want is to let you know that if you’re in a similar situation I was in 4 years ago, where you feel completely trapped, depressed and utterly terrified at the idea of starting over, there is a way out.

Ellie+1BW

We have these struggles in every aspect of our lives. Whether it’s a career move or a bad relationship, there are always changes we avoid making even when our gut is telling us, indisputably, that something is wrong. We’re terrified of all that time and effort (or in my case, 6 years and $40,000) being for nothing. It’s not easy, but there comes a point where you either make the decision to keep pouring in resources to a dead cause, or cut your losses and head in a new direction. Remember, time and effort already spent is not an indicator of time and effort to be sacrificed in the future.

Regardless of all the embarrassment and fear that comes with putting yourself out there, sooner or later all of it passes and all you’re left with are the consequences of the decisions you’ve made. Each day is an opportunity to take a small step in a new direction. If you’re unhappy, change something. Good things don’t come to those that wait; good things come to those that know what they want and work their asses off to get it.

Four years ago I was at the bottom of a massively large financial hole, stuck in a career path I had chosen to pursue, and scared stiff of the embarrassment I would face knowing I’d have to explain my decision to do a complete career 180. And just last week, I was finishing up a shoot at Flathead Lake, and someone mentioned having to go to work the next day and I thought to myself, “I am at work. This is my job. I’m getting paid to be here, right now, sitting in the sunshine on the shoreline of one of the most beautiful places in Montana. This is what I do for a living.”

“This is my life now.”

Amelia+1

For any of you out there on your path to photography, I made something just for you. Something I really, really wish had been there when I first started. 

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The Photo I Wish I Had

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Today was my wedding day.

It wasn’t a very big wedding. We’d actually been planning to get married in August, but after we found out I was pregnant (yay!), a very simple fact was staring us right in the face – I needed insurance. Now. Plus I’d be about 8 months pregnant in August, and call me crazy but I kind of want to be able to dance my ass off at our wedding, and 8 months pregnant does not qualify me for the kind of dancing I’ve been preparing for.

So instead, I put on a little white dress I had in the closet, Chris wore a button-down shirt and we headed over to his dad’s house for a “family BBQ”, where one of our family members, who was already ordained, married us in the backyard. The ceremony lasted maybe 6 minutes. I cried the entire time I read my vows, and then even harder when Chris read his.

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Another family member snapped some photos of the ceremony, and there was plenty of BBQ to go around. All in all, pretty much the perfect little backyard wedding.

Except for one small thing…

We were both sick.

Chris woke up with the flu, and by 10:00 that morning he was having a rough time keeping anything down. I jokingly told him he might want to try taking the ring off to see if he felt better, but he was pretty devastated at the idea that he was ruining our only wedding day. “I’m so sorry,” he kept saying. “I’ve been waiting for this day since I asked you to marry me. Just give me second, it’ll pass, I promise it’s nothing,” and then he’d make a mad dash to the bathroom. Poor guy. I’m sure on some level he was worried that I thought he might be having doubts about this whole “rest of your life with one person thing”, but of course I wasn’t. We’d been together 7 years already. We both knew we were in it for the long haul.

Our ceremony was at 2:30, and by 5:30 we were both headed home, desperately trying not to get sick in the car (him from the flu, and me from the morning sickness, which always hit me in the early evening). We got to the house and we both crawled into bed, where we stayed for the rest of the night…not exactly the romantic escapade most people envision their wedding day to be.

A few days later, our relative gave me the card full of photos from our big day. Lots of smiling, happy photos. I love them, but in all honesty, there is a different photo I wish I had.

Rewind back to our wedding night, and there we were curled up in bed together, munching on Saltine crackers and reading baby books. I flipped through one and showed him a photo of what our 6 week old baby currently looked like. “That looks like a velociraptor,” he said very matter-of-factly, and I agreed. Then he snuggled up closer, laid his head on my shoulder and said, “Read me more about our tiny dinosaur baby.”

That, right there, is the photo I wish I had. Both of us cuddled up in bed, sicker than shit, reading about the small alien growing in my belly. I so wish I had a photo of that moment.

It’s really made me think of all the other photos I wish I had in my lifetime. As photographers, we don’t usually take photos of bad or mediocre times in our lives. We take photos of happy, new experiences because we think that’s what we want to remember. Our life checkpoints. The time we went to the Grand Canyon, the time we turned 21, the time we ran a half-marathon. Don’t get me wrong, these all make for an awesome scrapbook, but if we focus only on the happy snapshots, we miss out on everything in-between. Times like when you’re just sitting on the porch hanging out with friends or when you’re curled up on the couch with the dog. Even “bad” times, like when you got completely lost on a road trip and everyone was yelling directions at each other, or when you visited a sick family member in the hospital. In these moments, the experience may not seem all that interesting, or even like one you want to remember, but trust me, it is.

Our wedding story wasn’t some huge, blown out fantasy that every couple dreams about, but it was still ours. And even though it doesn’t sound romantic, it really was. If I could go back, I might be tempted to change the fact that we were both sick, but then I’d lose the memory of us both cuddled in the bed, reading baby books and gingerly eating Saltine crackers…and I wouldn’t give that up for the world.

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I do know, that I’ll be making an effort to take better photos this year. And by “better” I mean redefine what I would normally consider to be a promising photo opportunity. Because if you knew this would be the last time you talked baseball with your Grandpa over a couple of beers…wouldn’t you want a photo of it?

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When It All Gets To Be Just Too Damn Hard

Sunbathing

I have had a shitty, shitty week. 

Not like the kind of week, where you have a flat tire, an overdraft fee and get gum stuck in your hair, but the kind that makes you question everything about who you even are in the first place. The kind that leaves you feeling lost, confused and hopeless.

It all came to a point yesterday at 7:00 am sharp. Our cat, Study Buddy, had been sick for some time and in and out of the vet about once a week for the last month. He was in pain, but no one could figure out what was wrong. I woke up at 7:00 and went to check on him on the floor at the foot of the bed, and he couldn’t even move. I called the vet, they fit us in at 9:00 (first appointment of the day), and I curled up on the floor next to him with a blanket and pet him for the next 2 hours. I cried the entire time…I knew I was saying goodbye. 

Sure enough, 9:00 came, and the vet ran through our options – none of which were treatable. I held him in my arms and Chris and I both pet him and talked to him until he fell asleep, and then was gone. I kept holding him and petting him while they went over cremation options (burying was out of the question – we’re planning on moving in a few years and I didn’t want him to get left behind). I headed home from the vet’s office and Chris went to work. 

I cried all day. Like uncontrollable, body-shaking sobbing. All day. I ate nothing, I drank nothing. I tried to work, but it was futile. Then around 2:30 I decided to chop off all my hair. I cut 12 inches off. It didn’t help. The loss of my hair, did not in fact, bring back my pet. I cried some more. 

*And before a single one of you says, “Come on, it’s just a cat, pull yourself together.” No, no it’s not, and fuck you. It’s a member of the family, and I’ll grieve in whatever way keeps me out of jail. 

Problem is though, yesterday was just the cherry on top of the shit-filled sundae that has been my week…and it was only Wednesday. Rejection letters, broken gear, taxes, a broke down car, canceled workshop seats, wedding refunds, medical bills, a debt collector trying to collect a debt that isn’t mine and more fucking snow – it just kept adding up. And on top of everything…I’m pregnant (which I haven’t formally announced yet, so that’s just a little secret for you blog subscribers) which means lots of exhaustion and time spent in the bathroom, hugging the toilet. By the time yesterday rolled around all I wanted to do was stand on top of a very high building and throw watermelons over the edge…but instead I was in a vet’s office, saying goodbye to my best friend. I was done. With everything. 

Study Buddy

When Chris got home I had crawled so deeply into a hole there was little chance of reaching me. I wanted everything to stop. I wanted to be able to go to work at a meaningless job, do meaningless tasks, come home and leave everything at the office. I wanted to be able to go for a run again without puking. I wanted to stop stressing over how much our lives are going to change at the end of September when we come home from the hospital with a new baby. About how much more money we’re going to need to make to care for an infant. About how much more art I was going to need to produce, and sell, in order to make that money. I wanted to be responsible for nothing. Fuck paying for the car to get fixed, they can keep it. I just wanted to be done. Done, done, done. 

Now I know I signed up for this. I know this is the life I chose and I know I’ve actually got it pretty damn good. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful. I make art for a living. Not a lot of people can say that. I come home every day to the most supportive, loving man I have ever known, and after about a year and a half of trying, we’re finally going to be able to start a family…and that’s a pretty amazing notch in the good news column too. But if one more person asks me to work for free, or refers to my pregnancy as a “magical time” and then proceeds to give me unsolicited advice about how to raise my future child, I will murder them in broad daylight. 

I’ve been going back and forth about sharing this. Mostly because I follow a lot of very famous photographers, and none of them ever write about imploding in on themselves like a dying star. Their feeds are bright and shiny and happy, happy, happy. “Look where I’ve been featured! Look at what I’m selling! Check out how awesome I am! Buy my book, attend my workshop, click this link and spend money on whatever it leads to!”  Surely if they are all following the same formula, and they are all very successful, wouldn’t it make sense for me to follow that formula too? To hide these ridiculous insecurities? To pretend, even on the days I want to throw in the towel and apply for a job at Target, that everything is sparkling with awesomeness? 

Maybe. But I’d rather not. It’s unrealistic to think that everything is always perfect and awesome because a lot of the time, it isn’t. And even though there are ways to help with a little self doubt, there are also times when none of that works. When the only thing that is going to help bring you back to reality is crawling under your desk, having yourself a good cry and then approaching even the smallest of goals. I remember a little while ago I was sick, in Walmart, standing in the cracker aisle in front of the Saltines, absolutely bawling…because I couldn’t find the Saltines. A lady came, asked why I was crying, I mumbled incoherently and she pointed in front of me. And just like that, I was fine. All it took to calm me down, literally, was a box of Saltines. 

I’m not writing this to vent. Or even for a little sympathy. Trust me, I vented a lot yesterday, and sympathy just reminds me of stuff I want to forget right now. I’m writing this because I want you to know that everyone has times like these, and to let you know that if you’re in the same situation, it will eventually get better. While yesterday was a horrible, horrible day in an already awful week, today is a little better. I’m still sad, I’m still overwhelmed, and I am wondering where all my hair went, but for the most part, I’m okay. And hey, I’ve never had short hair before, and it is kind of fun. I guess I was due for a change anyway. 

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An Open Letter to the Artist Support System

Keeper of Spring

Support is a funny thing.

As an artist, 96% of our career is spent dealing with rejection. Rejection from friends, family, other artists and even the art world itself. Making a living from art can be a very long and lonely, misunderstood journey, especially in the beginning, and having a decent support system can help make that early journey a little more bearable.

But just as we’re often learning the ropes of how to be an artist, we also know that you’re learning the ropes of how to best support us. We need you, and here are the best ways you can help us out.

Please Respect What We Do

All of that time you spent devoting yourself to learning your craft, whether it be accounting, nursing or even actual rocket science, we’ve devoted to learning ours too, so don’t diminish our ability by saying your kid could do what we do, or you yourself could probably do the same thing if you just had a little extra time. No, you couldn’t. I certainly couldn’t carry out nursing duties for a full day anymore than you could shoot an entire wedding or make a composite of 60 photographs into one believable art piece. Every profession has a learning curve that people spend years to overcome, and ours is no different.

This IS Our “Real” Job

Any job that puts real food on the table and real money in our pocket is a real job. Some of us have part-time jobs, some of us have full-time jobs and some of us have reached the point where we can survive off our art alone. Some of us don’t want to strictly survive off our art. We’re all different, and no matter how we bring income into our home, including from our artistic endeavors, it all still counts as a real job.

As a photographer, I have several real jobs. I sell prints through galleries and license images for use on book covers, but I also teach and even shoot the occasional wedding. Each of these jobs are just as real as any other – none of them better or worse.

It’s Okay if You Don’t Understand

We know we’re odd. Frankly, if we weren’t at least a little quirky we’d probably make some pretty boring art. So even if you don’t understand our process, like locking ourselves in a room and listening to the same song on repeat for 16 hours, or hiking back to some remote cabin to get us out of a slump, that’s okay. You don’t need to understand it, and we really don’t expect you to. All you need to understand is that this is our process, and this is what we need to be most creative and most productive. Please don’t criticize us for the weird things we do to find inspiration – we promise we’ve already attempted the more socially acceptable ways, and they just didn’t work.

Why...?
Don’t ask. Whatever I’m doing, it’s not normal. I know.

Don’t Ask Us To Work For Free

Please, please don’t ask us to work for free. We have to put the same amount of work into each piece we create, regardless of the price. The fact is, asking us to work for free puts us in a really awkward situation. It’s tough to say no to close friends or family. Don’t do that to us. If you want a piece of mine hanging in your home, buy it just as everyone else does. If you want several of my pieces hanging in your office, ask to lease them, just as everyone else does. It may seem like great exposure, but really, it’s a couple thousand dollars to print a whole collection and have it hung. On the off chance that one is sold (not a whole lot of art buyers walking through the halls of a tanning salon), it still doesn’t make my money back. Please, please don’t ask us to work for free.

Promote Our Work

And if you can’t buy our work (totally understandable) than at least try and promote it. Sharing my work through social media is the easiest way to help me out. Seeing that someone pushed the little share button next to a photo of mine is an incredible boost of encouragement.

Get to Know Our Craft

Sometimes, the reason it’s so difficult to support us is because you don’t realize what we really do. My mom thought it was impossible to make any money as a wedding photographer until I had her tag along one day on a 12-hour wedding shoot. The next day, I had her come over to the house while I showed her the process of culling down the images and editing them to perfection, then briefly showed her how I order prints, albums and everything else. I still had a good week’s worth of editing to do, I explained. She looked at me with complete exhaustion in her eyes, and asked how much the couple paid me for this amount of work. About $5,000, I replied.

Of course there’s more to it than that, but just those 2 days were enough to open her eyes a little bit. I’m doing a lot of work for a comparable amount of money, just like any other job.

When I slowly moved out of weddings and concentrated more on the art and teaching side of photography, she didn’t doubt me for a second. Now that she knew the logistics of what I was doing, she trusted me enough to make a smart decision for myself.

If you’re having trouble letting us pursue our dreams for fear that you’re watching us “throw our lives away”, get to know our profession first. You might be surprised how similar a career in art is to other, more traditional career paths.

Underwater Bride
Underwater Bride

 Accept That Our Work Will Evolve

I started out my photography business shooting weddings, but then I started making singular art pieces and after that I began teaching. Now I absolutely love teaching and I can’t imagine giving that up. I’m very, very selective about the weddings I now shoot (I maybe only do 2 or 3 a year), and I spend most of my time creating and selling art and teaching others.

It may seem like we’re bouncing all over the place, but that’s okay. Just as anyone tries to find their niche, we’re trying to find ours too.

Stop With The Jokes

Let me be very, very clear on this one – your jokes, as lighthearted as you think they are, are not funny.

To you, it may seem like a clever bit of humor every now and then, something we just need to “lighten up” about, but understand that you are not the only ones making fun of us. Those little jokes don’t seem like much, but when you’re getting them from all angles, all the time, they can really add up. From an artist’s point of view, it’s a never-ending, constant bombardment of utter humility. For our entire lives we’ve been a little different, and people have always been very keen on making sure we’re well aware of it.

When we chose a career on the artistic side of the tracks, we knew what we were getting into. We accepted the fact that we’re going to have to put up with a lot of negativity and a lot of ridicule – but not from you. If you’re going to be on our side you’ve got to be on our side all the way. No backhanded comments, no sly double-meanings; and no slipping back and forth between encouraging and demoralizing. If someone makes a joke on our behalf, we expect you to stand up for us. That’s what a supportive person would do.

Allow For Open Lines of Communication

It’s going to be tough for us to make a living, especially in the beginning. And if we’re constantly trying something that isn’t working, while we bang our heads on the counter and our life savings slowly drains away, we’re going to need someone to talk to. Don’t berate us with “I told you so” and suggest we hang this shit up and get a “real” job already – help us with the logistics. Is there a reason why we aren’t making sales? Maybe we need to adjust our marketing campaign. Maybe our work just flat out sucks right now and we need to supplement our income in other ways while we work on improving. If we’re not making money, suggesting we get a second job isn’t mean – it’s realistic. Help us brainstorm ways to make this work.

Gallery Sale
“Rainy Day” headed out the door to a buyer in North Dakota.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Your words and your actions speak very different. You can’t give us the thumbs up but then point and laugh as soon as we can’t see you.

Think of it this way: if you were a football coach, you’d want me to come to your games. It shows I support what you do. It doesn’t matter if your team is any good or even if the game is an important one; just the fact that I come is appreciated. But everything gets canceled out if I’m ass about it. If I sit in the stands and complain that football is the most boring, pointless sport ever, and keep asking when we can leave, that’s not supportive. If I crack jokes with friends about how sad and pathetic your fans are for actually enjoying this, that’s not supportive either. As a coach, you’re part of a community, and respecting that entire community is part of supporting you.

It’s the same in the art world. You can’t come to my show and then sit in the corner, complain about how bored you are and make fun of the other artists. You can’t come to my live music performance and then mock the “idiots” in the crowd that “actually like this kind of music”. This is my community, and I’m a part of it. If you’re going to support me, you’ve got to support my community as well.

Speaking of My Community…

While we’re on the subject of community: all those people that come to my shows like the men with the weird beards and the funny scarves or the girls with crazy makeup, odd haircuts and homemade clothes? Yeah, a few things about that:

1.) These people are either my friends or my clients, both of which are incredibly valuable to me. Without them, I’d have a pretty difficult time making it in this industry. So if you want me to succeed, you better hope more and more of these strange little misfit creatures keep showing up, and on the off chance you get to interact with one, be nice.

2.) Keep in mind – I’m one of these misfit creatures too! I’m just as slightly off-kilter as everyone else, and when you make fun of them you’re also making fun of me.

3.) Take a look around – you’re in very, very unfamiliar territory. We might seem like awkward, fragile little things in general everyday life, but at one of our shows – we’re kind of the shit…and you’re vastly outnumbered. As Seth Rogan’s character wondered aloud in the movie Funny People: 

“I wonder if Tom (from MySpace) and Craig from Craigslist ever got in a fight, who would win? Tom has more friends…Craig has weirder friends though…Craig has friends that are willing to do a lot more for cash, I’ll say that.”

Trust me, you do not want to piss off a collective group of people that don’t follow the same logic that you do.

Groupies
Artist Group Shot

Know That We Want You With Us

In the end, you’re more important than you realize. Sometimes we’ve got to just shrug it off, say we don’t need any kind of approval from anyone and who gives a shit what anyone thinks (believe me, I’ve been there too), but no one wants to do this alone. We want to be able to come to you when we make our first print sale or when we book our first huge event. We want to be able to talk to you when we’re feeling frustrated and hopeless. We want you on our side. In all honesty, we’re doubting ourselves 90% of time we’re creating anything, so having someone standing beside us is a really, really big deal. Even the slightest bit of encouragement from you can really go a long way towards helping us along, and that’s what you can provide for us.

Plus, a healthy support system also helps us create better art. New and interesting interpretations of our work help challenge us and help us to develop further, and as someone that we know has our best interests in mind, we can fully open ourselves up to your input. That’s a pretty safe space we’re letting you in there.

So keep supporting your artists, and we’ll keep putting great art back into the world :).

And if you’re looking for a little support yourself, know that I’ve been there too! Feel free to send me a message on my Facebook page, Instagram or Twitter, and don’t forget to SUBSCRIBE HERE for more posts like these!

Inspiration in Photography & Why My Crazy Isn’t Going Anywhere

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I love December. I love Christmas, I love all the sparkly lights and gingerbread everything, not to mention the fact that snow makes for fantastic photos. But besides all of that, I also love that it comes right before clean-slate January.

I’ll be honest; I make a lot of mistakes during the year. I’m either completely missing that little voice in the back of my head that warns me not to do something, or it’s completely drowned out by the other voice screaming at me that it’ll make for an epic story later. Either way, it’s not exactly a fool proof way of going through life, so by the time December rolls around, the mistakes have added up, and I’m very, very ready to see just how many of them were worth it. 

That’s where these people come in. See I’m not necessarily interested in assessing measurable forms of progress at this time – that’s for later. This is about evaluating whether or not I’m anywhere closer to the kind of artist and person I want to be. Call me crazy, but after 7 years of college and 3 degrees that I don’t use but definitely pay student loans on, I’m no longer interested in just drifting along and hoping “things will work out.” No – if something isn’t working, it’s up to me to do something about it. 

So at the end of the year I turn to my biggest inspirations in photography and business, and ask myself these questions: 

– What qualities do they possess that I find so rousing, and am I any closer to possessing those qualities myself?
– What do I need to do to further become what I find so inspirational in others?
– Where have I strayed from the artist I want to be and how can I do better in 2015?

And to answer these questions, I give you my top 5 inspirations in photography and business, and exactly what I’m hoping to take away from each of them. 

Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick
Image Credit: Awesome People UK

My background is in psychology, which might give some insight as to why I love Kubrick’s work so much. To him, everything is important.  In The Shining, there are several long camera shots of Tommy riding his trike throughout the hotel, alternating between carpet and hardwood. The sound he makes on the carpet is barely audible, while the sound of the hardwood is enormous and uncomfortably loud. That rhythm: peaceful, near silence broken by harsh, jarring uneasiness is an actual torture tactic used to break people. How brilliant then, to include it in the early scenes of a horror movie.

In addition to his painful attention to detail, his work ethic was unparalleled. He used to shoot the same scene hundreds of times, until the actors were completely exhausted and even delirious. That scene where Jack Nicholson breaks down the door with the ax and yells, “Heeeeeere’s Johnny!” was a complete improvisation. If you watch the behind-the-scenes footage, just before the last take he was waving the ax around the room like a madman, laughing and dancing and making everyone pretty damn nervous. After 100 takes, that was the mental stage he was in, and it worked.

Kubrick actually holds the Guinness record for most takes in a dialogue scene in a movie (also for The Shining), and he was working on film! That kind of work ethic is pretty tough to find anymore. Where others may have shrugged after 40 takes and thought to themselves, “We’ll just make one of these work”, he didn’t. If something wasn’t working he stuck with it until it did. He was obsessive, detailed, persistent and never settled for anything less than his original vision – a perfect artist philosophy if there ever was one. 

Alton Brown

Alton brown
Image Credit: Don Chambers

Alton Brown is a chef and author on Food Network. He originally had a show called Good Eats but you probably know him more as the host of Iron Chef America. 

Admittedly, I love Food Network, for some right reasons and some wrong reasons. I love to cook, and I really do attempt the recipes I see on Giada’s show, though I’m saving Ina’s recipes for a time when I’ve got some extra cash to burn and am comfortable enough in my cooking skills not to royally screw up any ingredients I’m paying top dollar for. On the other hand though, Food Network is also my guilty pleasure. I don’t watch reality shows and I don’t watch dramatic soap operas, but when I’m in a horribly bad mood I watch the crap out of Food Network while texting my mom memes of the various “stars”. 

paula deen guy 1

But Alton Brown is an entirely different person altogether. On his show Good Eats, puppets explain the discovery of saffron while he builds homemade cooking contraptions that require the use of goggles “just in case” something goes wrong. It’s like taking a cooking class from Bill Nye the Science Guy. With puppets. And a shitload of valuable information.

What makes him so inspiring though, is he doesn’t just show how to put a recipe together, he shows why that recipe exists in the first place. I don’t know how many times I’ll be watching someone cook something and think to myself, “Screw that, I’ll just stick it in the microwave and then I won’t have to wait 3 hours.” During Alton’s show he explains the chemistry of why you definitely do not want to put this in the microwave – and that’s what makes a great educator. It’s not about giving you a quick fix, it’s about giving you a solid foundation to build upon so you can move forward on your own. The more you understand how something works, the more confident you are in experimenting with it.

So many “educators” are actually very stingy with the information they hold, and I hate that. They want you learn, but not too much – that would be threatening somehow. Alton Brown doesn’t care about any of that; he genuinely wants people to get as much information out of his show as they possibly can. That is a true educator: someone that is entirely unselfish about sharing their knowledge in the most effective way possible.

I hope I can live up to that standard; of being so utterly passionate about my field that I can’t wait to share the information I collect over the years. And I hope I get to meet Alton Brown someday. He makes homemade cooking equipment and I make homemade photography equipment. Maybe we could work together to build a camera that also cooks you up a grilled cheese sandwich. Don’t  you want something like that? Of course you do. Make the meeting happen and it could be a reality. 

Anthony Bourdain & Hunter S. Thompson

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I know these are two very distinctly different people, but I respect them both for the same reasons, so I’m including them both in the same section. Plus, even though Hunter has long since passed, I’m pretty sure if he were still alive he and Anthony would probably be friends.

A few weeks ago I received an email that told me I have the same, “snarky, cynical writing style as useless ex-cokehead Anthony Bourdain, and the same rambling incoherence as Hunter S. Thompson.” I was thrilled. When my fiance got home I read him the good news and he congratulated me. Relating me to either Anthony Bourdain or Hunter S. Thompson is a joke of a comparison; they’re both actual, published writers and I’m a photographer that occasionally pens a rant-style blog post at 3:00 in the morning, but who cares?! As far as step one goes, it was a very good day in the Martin household.

Anthony Bourdain is another chef, author, and traveler of virtually everywhere. You might know him as the host of CNN’s Parts Unknown or the Travel Channel’s Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. I idolize him because he’s curious, has an in-depth knowledge of food, an open disgust for convention and corruption along with a deep respect for other cultures. Hunter S. Thompson is another brilliant writer, most famous in my generation for writing the book the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was based on. He did a lot of other noteworthy things (some good, some very bad), but if his name sounds only vaguely familiar to you, there’s a good chance that’s where you know it from. 

More importantly to me though, both of these men have been brutally authentic and have made no attempts to hide the parts of their past that others may have found “unsavory”. Instead of censoring themselves or creating some fabricated public persona, they’ve lived their lives essentially the same way they would’ve had they not been famous. 

All of which make them two of the most “real” individuals on the short list of people I have never met but still look up to. 

See, by traditional standards, I’m not a very perfect person. I’ve been fired from a number of jobs for what we’ll call a “lack of verbal filtration”, I believe any personal conflict can be solved with fire and besides the last 6 years (when my fiance realized he was dating a klepto and gave me an ultimatum), I didn’t really pay for much of anything. Once you’ve become fairly skilled at stealing shit, it’s pretty tough to make a conscious decision not to. But I can proudly say I’m about 6 years sober – besides a small relapse a couple years ago when I did some damage on a bottle of tequila and unsuccessfully tried to steal a cop car…while dancing…

But all those little imperfections and mistakes are also what attracts me to others. It’s how I relate to people. The fact is, if you’ve got a squeaky clean background…I don’t trust you. I’m not very interested in meeting, or learning from, an overly happy, lab-engineered, fake-as-shit personality meant to sell me some fantastical, non-existent concept of reality. How can you trust someone who is always, cheerful? Who describes every, single life experience as breathtakingly awesome? You can’t, because you know at some point or another, that person is lying. There is no way I can rely on one’s sincerity to convey life’s most truly stunning moments if they use the exact same vocabulary for life’s shittiest moments. It just doesn’t add up.

(Of course, no one says it better than Louis C.K. Push play. Trust me.)

That’s what I find so inspiring: they support my theory that censorship is boring, that value can still be found in a genuine voice with a candid message and that sugarcoating is completely overrated. When Anthony speaks highly of a specific restaurant, I know I can trust him, because if it were an absolutely shithole that should be avoided at all costs, I know he would tell me it’s an absolute shithole that should be avoided at all costs.

I like that my writing reflects almost perfectly the tone in which I speak: blunt, slightly sarcastic, fairly grammatically incorrect, inappropriate at times and usually dotted with some (if I may say so myself) exceptionally placed profanity. These two give me the green light to embrace that style; to write exactly what I feel needs to be written, minus the flowery language that would make it more digestible to the more delicate-minded masses. They inspire me to be honest and authentic to those that matter, and unapologetic to those that don’t. 

As a sidenote, I really do hope I get to meet Anthony Bourdain in real life someday. Typically, on an occasion such as this, I’d crack some awkward, sexually explicit joke that no one gets, laugh at myself for too long and then look up only to wonder where the hell everyone went. I have a feeling he’d appreciate an awkward, sexually explicit joke though, so in the hypothetical world I’ve created (and frequently visit), Anthony Bourdain will think I’m hilarious and we’ll spend the day bullshitting while getting plowed on Montana brewed beer.  

My Mom

Without going into too much detail, let’s just say my childhood wasn’t really all that great. If we’re going by statistics, the probability of me becoming a heroin-addicted stripper was undoubtedly much, much higher than the probability of me gaining an income through legal means, dating a nice respectable young man and driving a car that doesn’t double as a getaway vehicle on the weekends. But hey, somehow I ended up on the happy and productive side of society, so I’ll take it. 

But, as many of you probably know, those demons don’t just go away, and my personal theory is you can either get very, very good at hiding them (for the short period of time before you spontaneously combust), or you can embrace them and put them to good use. My mom is a perfect example of putting them to good use. She turns that craziness into straight focus. When I was in high school she wanted an ice cream truck, but she couldn’t find one, so she bought the pieces and built it (we run it every year here in Billings, it’s called Mr. Pugley’s Ice Cream). When she wants something she goes out and gets it, and when something is in her way, she either finds a way around it or she quite literally goes out, buys a torch and welds her way straight through it.

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Honestly. I’ve seen it done. Welded the doors clean off.  

She doesn’t see her past as a crutch, she sees it as a badge of honor. From what she’s been through, there is no possible way of breaking her now, and she knows it. She’s afraid of no one, she’s intimidated by no one and she wastes no time dealing with people that don’t have her best interests in mind. When there’s a problem, she fixes it. She’s basically Winston Wolfe from Pulp Fiction if he had been an Italian/Basque woman with a flair for cooking and a much better sense of humor.  

Those two life perspectives of living through a horrible situation and using it to better yourself, as well as openly accepting whatever demons might be there is what I find so inspiring. Over the past few years I’ve learned to take a bad situation, pull a few lessons out of it and apply them. Once you’ve been through some real scary shit, the idea of being afraid to submit a photoshoot to a magazine is a joke. There are much more frightening things in the world. I know because I’ve lived through them. Push the button, send the email, move on with your life.

I’m proud that I am becoming more and more like my mother every day. Last year, my future mother-in-law and I were talking about how your childhood can shape who you are, and she asked if there were any parts of my dad that stuck with me. I said no (probably not entirely true, but I like to think so anyway), and she said, “But you’re not afraid of anything! And you’re…kind of crazy…” I thought for a second, then smiled and said, “Nope. That’s still all Mom.” 🙂

I am, hands down, my mother’s daughter, and if I grow more and more like her every year, I’ll count that as a win in my book. 

Decide For Yourself…

Now that you know my main inspirations, and what I hope to gain from them, I want to hear from you! Who are your inspirations? Who do you look up to and why? What characteristics do your greatest inspirations possess? We all have someone we have in the back of our mind that does something right, so who is yours? Take a second and let me know in the comments who your greatest inspirations are and why you choose to follow them. I want to know! 🙂

And don’t forget to SUBSCRIBE for more posts and follow me on my Facebook, Instagram or Twitter :)!

 

 

 

Dear New Photographer…


Lost In Thought

Dear New Photographer, 

I’m writing this post because I was up late last night on a Facebook forum, reading close to 200 comments about new photographers and what slime they are to the industry. How they’re stripping photography of it’s “art” and destroying any decent business practices. I read every comment, feeling more and more sick to my stomach the further I scrolled down the page.

“Who do these people think they are? Don’t they remember when they were new and making all the same mistakes?”

I know this year has probably had it’s ups and downs for you; the excitement of booking your first paid gig, the confusion of all that “must have” photography gear and the hurt and guilt of being single-handedly blamed for “ruining the industry.” I know the phrase “what to charge for engagement photos” is probably one of the first things to come up in your Google search bar, and secretly you’re still wondering why using the eraser tool in photoshop is such a horrible thing.

I also know that you’re afraid to ask for advice at every turn because for every established photographer that is willing to help, you’ve got 30 more breathing down your neck that are doing everything they can to cut you down. I’ve been there too – I’ve had my work ripped apart online by a “reputable” photographer (who went out of business earlier this year), I’ve bought things I didn’t need because some famous photographer endorsed them and I thought it would make a dramatic improvement in my work (it didn’t), and I’ve used the crap out of the eraser tool (layer mask, folks).

So what I wanted to do here is give you a heads-up. A bit of a rant mixed with some advice I wish I had known in the beginning, this is just about everything I wish someone had told me the first day I got that used and slightly beat up (but still very new to me) camera in my hands.

Beware The Vultures

– “Clients” will use you for free photos. 

Countless people are about to ask you for free photos. New parents will adamantly lend you their newborn baby to “practice” on or will offer up their family to help you grow your “portfolio”. Magazines and businesses will ask for those landscape photos of yours in exchange for “exposure”. Don’t confuse these requests with paid shoots or even as complements, they are neither. These are people wanting free shit, plain and simple.

Now in the beginning, you are going to have to do some things for free – you need the experience and you need to build your portfolio – but know this: anything you shoot for free that isn’t related to what you eventually want to be paid for, or a personal cause, is a waste of your time. I knew from the beginning I didn’t want to shoot newborn photos, but I was interested in shooting weddings. So between two non-paying jobs, I took the one that added to my wedding portfolio and referred the newborn shoots to someone else.

Don’t take this to mean you should specialize immediately – you shouldn’t. You should shoot as many different things as you possibly can to try and find what your really passionate about, but don’t feel obligated to take any free job that comes along.

– Other photographers will use you as an unpaid assistant. 

I highly, highly recommend interning, but the point is to get something out of it. If all you’re doing is running errands, getting coffee and carrying heavy gear, you’re getting taken advantage of.

If you’re in an internship, ask questions. Ask about the camera settings, the lighting, the posing; everything! Why are they using one light when earlier they used another? Why do they keep telling the model to put her chin down? What aperture do they shoot at for large groups? Is there a reason they prefer one lens to the other? Some of these are questions better asked at the end of a session, when the client is gone, but if you have a question, ask. If the photographer you’re interning for blows it off or won’t answer your questions, find someone else to intern for. This person is after the free labor, not in mentoring an upcoming photographer.

P.S: Look out for any mentor that requires you to sign a No Competition Clause or a waiver saying you’ll work for free for any given amount of time. If they bring this up – RUN. Oh my god, run. 

– More experienced photographers will try to sell you things. 

As a newbie, you are actually part of a growing market; a market where you’re willing to pay money for a short track to success, and there are a many other photographers ready to pounce. People are going to try and sell you workshops, gear, actions, presets, tutorials and more. All taking advantage of the fact that you’re willing to pay for something you don’t already have.

Now, I am a huge supporter of photographer education – the main reason I created PhotoFern.com was to help newbies get their businesses up and running. I teach workshops, give online coaching, and give away actions, presets & texture packs all the time, but you should know how to find the good ones. If you’re thinking of attending a workshop, ask to see references or testimonials from other workshop attendees. Ask to see an itinerary of everything you will be learning. Email the instructor to start a dialogue and see if your skill set is at the right place to be learning what they are teaching, and make sure any images you take at the workshop belong to you. You want to walk away feeling like you’ve actually grown in your development, knowing that all images taken by you belong to you, and that the money spent was worth every penny.

Jailbreak

Seek Out Meaningful Criticism

– Know where to go for the feedback you’re looking for. 

I love my mom and I love my fiancé, but when I’m looking for good, constructive feedback on my latest work, neither of them are the best people to go to. For one, they’re incredibly biased, and two, they know nothing about photography.

When I need good, quality feedback, I approach a successful photographer that is knowledgeable in the field my photography is in. I shoot fine art portraiture; a landscape photographer or photojournalist that loathes the use of Photoshop isn’t going to get me anywhere. In addition, neither is a Facebook, self-proclaimed photography “Pro”. Seek out the people that will give you unbiased, professional, relevant feedback. That’s how you grow.

It takes a little bit of effort to get that kind of feedback. Email a photographer you respect or try and schedule an appointment with a local gallery or editor. Sometimes you have pay for these kind of things, but it’s worth it.

– Be impartial about gathering advice, but very selective in applying it. 

No matter the advice you receive, people don’t know you. I was once told that my images were far too commercial to be considered art, and I should instead pursue work in fashion. All fine and well, except I didn’t want to do fashion work – I wanted to sell in galleries. Convinced I needed to shoot more fashion, they gave me plenty of advice about how to further commercialize my images, so I sat there and I took all of it – and then did the opposite. Their advice wasn’t necessarily right for me, but the knowledge was still very valuable. Now gallery sales are a large part of my income.

– Know you probably aren’t going to like what you hear, and shut-up when you hear it. 

The whole point of feedback is to get better, which usually means something you’re currently doing can be improved. It never feels good to hear you’re weak in a particular area, but the sooner it’s pointed out to you the sooner you can do something about it. I’ve stated in other posts how valuable my time at Fotofest was – not because of the positive feedback I received (I did sell 4 pieces), but because of the feedback where I was slaughtered. Brutal honesty hurts, but I learned more in two weeks than I had in two years, and my work has made a dramatic improvement because of it.

– Shrug off the jerks. 

There are plenty of people out there just dying to give feedback to a new photographer, simply on the basis of cutting them down. Some old, jaded, bitter photographer that still can’t get over the fact that this whole digital “fad” hasn’t worn off yet. Yes, film is awesome, but so is digital and wet plates and colloidal tin types and God knows how many other forms of photography there are in the world today. Be very aware of the narrow-minded.

Value Business Skills AND Photography Skills

– Just because there are a lot of photographers does not mean there is no room for you.

As with any other business, the quantity of vendors does not determine the success of a new vendor. A new vendor’s success is determined by the quality of their product or service, their reputation, their marketing plan, their community involvement, their prices and countless other things. Every business is different, just as every photographer is different. Figure out what it is that you can offer that is different than what is out there already and run with it.

– Get ready to work…a lot. 

I can’t honestly remember the last time I had a day off. If I’m not shooting, I’m editing, or answering emails, or sending out submissions, or planning, designing, and budgeting the next shoot. Every ounce of free time is spent doing something photography related – which is pretty awesome…mostly because I’m utterly obsessed with photography. If you aren’t obsessed though, this isn’t going to be the best career for you. You need to know your workdays will be long and your days off will be few, and if that’s the kind of thing you’re looking for, than welcome aboard.

– Use the business model that works for you. 

Hey guess what, when it comes to client work, I’m a shoot-n-burner. I shoot entire sessions, edit out the best photos and give clients the digitals. It’s what works best for me. I don’t build my business around the idea that I need to make money on prints. I make money on the cost of the sessions. Could I be making more if I sold prints? Probably. Would it be worth my extra time? Not to me. I don’t want clients coming back 8 months from now asking for 8 x 10s. I’d rather focus on booking another wedding, teaching another workshop or emailing another gallery. Each of those things has a much better value to me than filling another order of 11 x 14s and 5 x 7s.

Don’t feel bad, for one second, about begin a shoot-n-burner, charging less than everyone else, shooting for free or doing anything else other photographers are going to berate you for. The fact is, you have to shoot some things for free in the beginning and you have charge less in the beginning. It would be unethical not to. You don’t have the skills, the experience or the portfolio to be charging what established photographers do. And in all honesty, if your low price is taking business away from them, they’re doing something wrong, not you.

– Raise your prices when you’re worth it. 

All that shooting for free or at very low rates is no way to make a living though. As soon as you’ve got a decent portfolio together, you’ve got to start raising those prices to something more reflective of the kind of images you can produce. And yes, you’re going to lose some clients, but the truth is anyone paying you $50 for a full photoshoot isn’t a client anyway – it’s someone taking advantage of an exceptionally good deal.

– Never underestimate the value of social media. 

Learn how to use social media or get left in the dust. I can’t remember the last time I picked up a magazine, saw an ad for a company, remembered that company, went home and googled them, ended up at their website, searched for whatever product I saw in the magazine, and bought that product. I can, however, remember the last time I saw something scrolling through my Facebook news feed, clicked the link and bought it. That happened earlier today.

– Other photographers are your best friends. 

Great photographers slowly become more specialized over time. It’s only natural that the more we shoot, the more we begin to refine our skills in certain areas. Which means every photographer in your town won’t be shooting the same thing you are, and the ones that do, won’t all be going after the same target audience. If you’re a wedding photographer, be friends with other wedding photographers. There are countless weddings in various price points; way too many for one person to shoot them all! If you shoot weddings, refer newborns to the newborn photographer, lingerie shoots to the boudoir photographer, seniors to the senior photographer and they’ll all refer weddings to you. It’s a two-way street where everyone wins.

– Get over your goddamn watermark already. 

1.) No one wants to steal your images right now. You’re not that good. There are a lot better photos out there that people could steal.

2.) Putting a giant watermark in the middle of your photo does not keep people from stealing it, it keeps them from enjoying your work.

3.) If they really want to steal it, a watermark isn’t going to stop them. Hell just last week I had to use one of my photos for a flyer, and I didn’t have the original on hand. So I took one from Facebook, cloned out the watermark and pasted it on the flyer. Worked for exactly what I needed it to do and it took all of 6 minutes. The watermark didn’t even slow me down.

4.) “But my watermark let’s people know who took the photo! And removing it shows criminal intent!” Fair enough. In that case put it in tiny letters a corner somewhere, similar a signature on painting. If it’s not taking up the whole photo people will be much less inclined to crop it out anyway.

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Redefine How You Feel About Failure

– “Getting it right” is subjective.  

So much about photography is finding your own personal style, and that’s usually done through making a lot of mistakes. I remember the first time I accidentally left my shutter speed too low (because in the beginning I didn’t know how fast a shutter had to be to stop movement) and a huge number of my photos were blurry – and I LOVED it! Soon I learned how to control that blur and use it in a way that I wanted. What would’ve been a complete failure by conventional terms was actually a huge step forward for me.

– Welcome the mistakes. 

Learning from mistakes now will help you from making them in later, probably more crucial situations, so be a little more liberal with risks in the beginning. A mistake in your first wedding probably isn’t going to kill you; no one knows who you are and you’re shooting it for free for a family friend anyway. That same mistake at a wedding where they’ve put down $6K and you have a business and a reputation to uphold is probably going to be much more damaging.

– Learn all the rules, then break them. 

As much as I hate rules, they’re there for a reason. The first time I heard about the “Rule of Thirds” my mind was blown. I quickly began rearranging all my images to fit, and I was pleasantly surprised. And then I was bored. The “Rule of Thirds” is now one of my favorite rules to break – but it’s broken with intent, not by accident. There’s a difference.

– Challenge yourself.

It’s easy to get stuck in a rut in this industry. A 365 day project or a 52 week challenge is a great way to change things up a bit. In addition, start shooting things you aren’t necessarily familiar with. If you’ve only ever shot families, take on a pet shoot. Take a drive to somewhere new and shoot a few landscapes or try your hand at some street photography. You may not completely switch gears, but you’ll no doubt learn some new skills you can apply to your current photography.

Keep Reminding Yourself Why You’re Doing This

I love my job. I love waking up every day to take photos. I even kind of love slaving away in front of the computer spending 40+ hours editing a single photo because I know at the end of it all it will be worth it. I also know that there is plenty of room in this industry for newer, upcoming photographers and the world would be a lot better place if more people loved going to work every day just as much as I do. So overall, dear New Photographer, don’t ever forget that end goal. Keep plugging along, keep learning, keep growing, keep researching, keep shooting and keep taking things one step at a time.

I can’t say that this roller coaster ever really stops, and I can’t say that you’ll ever stop feeling like a newbie, but in a way, I don’t think we ever should. The second we think we know everything is the second we should probably pack it in. I hope I’m a newbie forever :).

And if you ever need someone to talk to about said roller coaster, feel free to talk to me – I answer best through email, Instagram or on my Facebook page, Jenna Martin Photography :).

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5 Words You Don’t Hear Often Enough

Lost In Thought

As photographers and artists, as much as we like to think otherwise, we’re a bit sensitive to critique. Not that it’s a weakness – it’s natural. Being an artist is an incredibly vulnerable profession – you’re putting your bare soul out into the world, and when it gets a little battered and bruised, it’s hard not to let it get to you. I’ve worked countless other jobs that weren’t in a creative field, and I’ll gladly admit that a boss screaming at me for stapling papers incorrectly is NOTHING compared to someone making a mumbling, “I…guess people like this…?” comment under their breath at a gallery opening. The former is easy to handle. My heart and soul is not in those staples – they want me to rip them out and do them over again? Gladly. But the latter example…I’ll be honest I still remember how much that hurt. I don’t even like typing it.

But with all the bad comments, there is usually some good, and many of us bounce back and forth in a kind of equilibrium. And while, personally, one negative comment will still kill the upbeat mood of 100 good ones (I know it’s stupid, and it’s getting better, but it’s still a struggle), rarely is there anything that can be said that cancels out any negative setbacks I’ve had…except for this. Except of these 5 little words that many of us haven’t heard in years.

I remember vividly, the first time in a long time that someone uttered this to me. I was driving my ice cream truck around town –

Small timeout so you can freak out for a second…yes, my mom and I own a small ice cream truck, Mr Pugsley’s Ice Cream (click that link to like the Facebook page, my mom would love it!). I don’t run it much anymore, but my mom still does. I love it, but to be honest, it’s a brutal job. It gets hot in Montana (usually at least 100 degrees), and you’re in that heat all day, no doors, sitting on a tiny seat cushion with the engine running underneath it. Hot engine air pumps out onto your legs, you’re swimming in sunscreen, going 1 mph down every street you’ve already been down a million times, dealing with screaming kids, inconsiderate teenagers, rude parents, angry dogs and all while that fucking circus music is playing above you. The awesome people and hilarious stories all make it worthwhile, but it can be pretty tough to keep your sanity. Seriously, next time you see the ice cream truck, throw an extra dollar in the tip jar – that job’s a lot harder than you think.

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So back to it. About 5 years ago I was finishing my Master’s in college. I was taking summer courses and paying my way through school by running the ice cream truck every spare second I had. This day was like any other, but the end is what really hit me hard:

5:50: Run 6 miles.

6:50: Do dishes, prep food for dinner, finish writing 8-page Cognitive Dissonance/Situated Cognition paper. Turn in online before 8:00.

8:20: Friend texts. “It’s only a 4-page paper, I just don’t understand how to do the calculations is all. Can you help me out?” I say yes. She emails me her paper and I check over to make sure the calculations are correct. They aren’t. I fix her calculations and email it back.

10:30: Shower, slather on sunscreen and gather things for the ice cream truck.

11:20: First customers. Three teenage girls driving a 2008 Ford Focus. “Do you have anything that’s strawberry?” asked Girl #1 without even looking up from her phone. “Sorry,” I said. “I have huckleberry, would that be okay?” Girl #2 rolled her eyes. “Eww,” she said, “That sounds disgusting.” Girl #3 clearly agrees. “Let’s just go to Dairy Queen,” she whined. “This sucks.”

<Insert “Mean Girls” reference here>

1:26: Temperature hits 100 degrees.

3:30: I run by a friend’s house to check on her cat while she’s out of town. She has no cat food in the house. I run to the nearest gas station, buy some cat food, come back and feed her.

4:30: Made routine stop at a house with 5 kids and Cruella DeVille mom. She only lets them have what is free (though she clearly has enough money for tanning and cigarettes). I give them a few popsicles and tell them not to tell their mom, hoping one day she might cough up some change to cover the weekly dent she makes in my donation jar. Wishful thinking, I know.

4:42: Temperature hits 104 degrees.

5:30: A man stops me in traffic to say his dog is missing, and since I’ll be driving the streets all night that if I see it on my route to give him a call. He gives me his phone number, address and description of his dog. I tell him I’ll keep a lookout.

6:40: I head home to grab a bit to eat. The air conditioner has leaked all over the carpet, so I put a bowl underneath it and clean up what I could. I’ll get the rest later. I head back out.

7:30: I find the missing dog. I call the number but no answer, so I take it to the address. She’s a hyper Border Collie named Bella, and secretly I want to keep her. He’s not home, but his neighbor, and elderly woman, starts screaming at me and accuses me of trying to steal this man’s dog. I explain I’m actually bringing the dog back, but she just shakes her fist at me and walks into her house. I wait another 10 minutes and he pulls up. Crisis averted.

8:20: I realize I forgot to refill my water bottle when I stopped by my house. I’m out of water but I’ve only got an hour or so left, so I’ll just ignore it.

9:30: I make my last round through a familiar neighborhood and am waved over by a little boy and his dad. He takes awhile to ponder the choices, and I don’t want to rush him but in the back of my mind I know I have to get home before it gets dark – this truck has no working headlights. After narrowing down his options he chooses a chocolate ice cream sandwich. He gives me the money and takes his frozen treat.

“What do we say?” asked the father.
“Thank you,” replied the little boy.
“Aww, you’re welcome bud!” I said back.
“And what else do we say?” asked the dad once more.

I waited for a second. I didn’t know what else he was supposed to say. He paid me, he said thanked me…I wasn’t sure what else the dad was talking about. But his son looked up at me, with big, brown eyes bordered by long lashes and said with complete sincerity five words I hadn’t heard in years:

“You’re doing a good job.”

I choked.

“Oh, wow,” I stuttered. “Thank you so much. Thank you so, so much.”

He smiled, his dad dropped $0.50 in the donation jar and I headed on my way. I was completely silent until I walked into the empty house and sat down at the dining room table, set down my water bottle, and cried.

You’re doing a good job.

I couldn’t remember the last time someone had told me that, and I’ll never forget how hard it hit me when someone finally did. Not assumed I already knew, not insinuated it in a round-about way, but had actually said the words.

As artists we’re constantly looking for some kind of affirmation that we’re on the right path. We’re looking for something to prove we’re not throwing our lives away; that all this time spent learning random Photoshop skills on YouTube at 4:00 in the morning isn’t for nothing. We’re always bouncing back and forth between feeling free and feeling lost, feeling creative and feeling crazy, feeling independent and feeling alone. We’re all going through it – it’s a natural part of navigating life as an artist. But at least today, we can reach out to a fellow artist and say the 5 words they have probably forgotten what it’s like to hear:

You’re doing a good job.

I hope you tell this to someone today. It could be your mom, or it could be the person that gets your coffee, it doesn’t matter. Someone deserves to hear this, and they would love to hear it from you.

Daniele & Henry

 

And if you ever need someone to talk to, feel free to talk to me – I answer best through email or on my Facebook page, Jenna Martin Photography :).

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Can We All Just Stop Complaining About “Stolen Work” Already?

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“They stole my idea.”

Oh, honey, sure they did.

Ok, bearing in mind that we all tend to get a little defensive when we think of something brilliant and then aren’t given credit for it, yes, getting your idea stolen sucks. But here’s another little tidbit to keep in mind:

Get over yourself.

Side note: I understand this can be counterintuitive in the world where our art is our living. A person going around and stealing our work could be a very dangerous thing. But I’m not talking about straight up stealing our work. I’m talking about someone that creates something, all on their own, that ends up looking remarkably similar to something you have already created. 

Your Ideas Are Not As Unique As You Think They Are

Yeah, this might sting a little, but we’ve got to address it. Thinking you were the first one to ever think of a concept is just plain egotistical. Just because you’ve never heard of a concept doesn’t mean the thought hasn’t already existed – all it means is that you don’t know anyone in your immediate circle with the same idea. In fact, it really only means that you haven’t casually come across anyone else, online or in person, that has actively expressed the same idea. And when it comes to having the “original” – all that means is that of all the people in the world with the same exact thought, you were the first one with the resources to execute it.

That’s it.

Having the “original”  doesn’t make anyone any better or worse than any other artist out there. It doesn’t give anyone the right to shame all those that come after them for being “unoriginal” or “uninventive”. Contrary to popular opinion, the timestamp is not more important than the art itself. Who executed it first, who marketed it first, who put it out into the world in a widely receivable form before someone else could claim its “genius” – that’s not what makes a true artist.

A true artist creates. A true artist is inspired by something, then puts the effort into creating the concept they have in their mind. They don’t do it so they can stalk the web and condemn anything similar that comes their way. Having the “original” doesn’t devalue any work following it. They came up with an idea, all by themselves. They babied it, they took care of it, they molded it into perfect piece of art they had dreamt up in their head. Why wouldn’t they deserve to have just as much credit as anyone else with the same idea that just happened to post their finished artwork first?

I remember the first time I saw an image similar to mine. One of my fans left this comment on my photo on the left, “American Beauty”, on my Facebook page: “Reminds me a lot of this image” with a link to the image on the right (belonging to Mandy Rosen). As innocent as it seems, I was crushed. I genuinely thought I had created something that hadn’t been done before. I put in so much work, so much blood, sweat and tears, only to find my whole world blown apart. .

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Now come on, these look pretty damn similar. Granted, her dress is made of butterflies and mine is made of rose petals, but look at the bigger picture. The colors (red standing apart from a muted, brown palate), the horizon line, even the arm positioning. If I were Mandy perusing the internet at 3:14 am, with maybe a small bottle of tequila, I might have a bone to pick.

And here’s the weird thing – even though I hadn’t even slightly copied (I’d never seen the image before, nor had I ever heard of Mandy Rosen, who does awesome work, btw), I felt like I had. I felt like even though I’d had a brilliant idea and spent countless hours bringing it to fruition, I was too late in executing it. All that work I had put in was wasted because someone else had already posted something similar.

It’s the same feeling I got when I wanted to show one of my friends my “Dreaming in Key” photo – so I Googled it, thinking it would come right up. But instead, I found many others, like this one by Anka Zhuravleva, and was again, crushed. You mean someone else thought of this photo idea? I wasn’t as brilliant and creative as I thought I was? I had been so proud of myself…

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It took awhile to get over that shot to the gut, but soon I realized that just because someone else had the same idea with a timestamp earlier than my own, it doesn’t mean that my image is any less significant. Plus, I made leaps and bounds in editing skills putting this thing together. If I had seen her photo before mine, I probably would’ve scrapped my idea and done something different. And I’m glad that didn’t happen. I love the image I created.

Here’s another example. My image, “Rough Drafts” is on the left and Von Wong’s is on the right.

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I actually did get called out on this one, with a random message in my inbox reading, “Hey, you didn’t happen to see our image, did you?” Which, honestly, was pretty annoying. Not because of the message itself (which I still haven’t been able to figure out the tone…), but because the photo I ended up with wasn’t even my original idea. In the image I wanted to create, I was going to be standing on the beach with the typewriter floating in the air in front of me. I didn’t want to be sitting on the ground typing; I figured it would be too easy. After hauling it down to the beach though, it became very apparent; that typewriter was heavy as fuck, and there was no way I was going to be able to hold it in any kind of realistic position in front of me. So I said screw it and sat it on the ground in front of me instead. This wasn’t a copy – it was the result of a botched idea to begin with. An entirely new idea was concocted in just enough time to get something done as the light was running out.

And this is one of my favorite photos I’ve ever made, regardless of how similar it accidentally looks like someone else’s. Which brings me to my next point…

An Idea Is Not A Physical Object

If you stole my camera I’d have a real problem. I wouldn’t be able to take pictures, and I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills. I’d also have to buy a new camera, and in the meantime I would spend a large portion of my day figuring out what the hell I could steal of yours that would ruin your life. Not to be vindictive or anything, just because…well, I’m a little crazy.

Also I like to steal shit.

But ideas are different. Ideas aren’t all-inclusive objects that come in a nice, neat little package. If you steal my idea it’s still just a concept – it’s up to you to nurture it, mold it and bring it to realization. And if you do have the dedication and drive to bring it to fruition, good for you! That kind of work ethic should be respected, not condemned.

Just a couple weeks ago I was browsing Instagram when I came across this image, belonging to Brei Olivier (once again, fantastic work). Mine is on the left, hers is on the right.

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This is freaky – this could literally be the same model in each photo! And if I had run across this earlier in my career, I would’ve freaked the hell out. I was still so arrogant, so full of myself, that I probably would’ve thought she had copied. That there was no way anyone else on the planet could’ve possibly come up with a similar concept all on their own.

But I didn’t freak out, because of the examples above. The fact is, this kind of shit happens, and it’s no one’s fault. After I contacted her I learned that even as similar as these two images are, the thought process was even more similar. She said she was inside and wanted to practice dropping an image in the background. In my case, I was locked inside doing literally the exact same thing. So how the hell does that make mine “better”? Just because mine was “technically” posted first on some social media site doesn’t take a single thing away from her photo. In fact, if anything, it shows how similar we both are. If we ever get to meet in person, I’d have to have a pic of both of us holding up our own version of this photo – proof that we were meant to be friends from the beginning.

What’s more, are so many artists are feeling paralyzed, because they come up with an idea, see it already done and then scrap their own concept even though they thought of it with no influence from anyone else. They were just so afraid of being accused of copying, that they stop producing work. How the hell does that facilitate growth in the art community?

To be honest, I’m glad there are so many ideas already out there. Not only does it force us to be even more creative, but it forces us to develop our own specific style. Plus, it helps us discover other artists that are similar to ourselves. I have met an amazing community of fine art photographers, and I never would’ve met any of them if we didn’t all start out with somewhat similar images. We actually laugh about the fact that so many of us have similar images in the beginning of our careers:

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Yup, two of those are mine (the other two belong to Tara Denny and Two Creative Birds). What’s really funny, is the one on the bottom left is a stock image. That means there are enough images on the internet of people floating through windows that it’s become a stock image. Does that mean people are all copying each other? No, it probably means they are creating the same idea. And good for them! It’s how you learn! Is each image copyright? Of course! Is the concept of levitating through a window copyright? Of course not.

Now I’m not saying copying in general is a good thing – yes, be original, and push yourself to come up with new ideas, but don’t be so arrogant as to think that every idea you have ever had is original – it isn’t. Sometimes, believe it or not, someone else has already had the same idea and brought it to life. And in that case it’s not copying; it’s two people executing the same concept – a concept they each dreamt up without any help from each other.

Here’s another example: a few years ago, I thought of a book that I wanted to write. I wanted to interview various photographers about the best photo they haven’t taken. What was the photo? Why didn’t they take it? Maybe they didn’t have their camera, or maybe the situation was one that warranted no pictures, but I wanted to write an entire book where photographers had to describe, in words, the most amazing photo they missed. I would call it “The Photograph Never Taken.” And it would be awesome.

Then, while buying some photo gear on Amazon, the little, “Other people that bought this also bought…” tag came up, and look at what was right there, staring me in the face:

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A book, with almost the identical title, full of photographers talking about the photo they missed. 

My first thought was that this was my idea. Someone else had “stolen” it. But no, they didn’t. I only told maybe 5 people about this idea before. Surely Will Steacy wasn’t hiding in the bushes the day I decided to tell one of my friends about it. And honestly, I may even still write the book I have in my head, but this book, already being published, doesn’t take away from my own creativity. He had the same idea, with the means and resources to execute it. And I’m glad he did, because my second thought was, “Damn…I really want that book…”

So if you see one of those articles where one artist is bashing another for “copying” their idea, tell them to shove it. We don’t have copyright on our ideas, we have copyright on the result of the execution of that idea, and no one has any right to destroy another artist for having a similar artistic thought process.

How about you guys – have you ever run into this before? Have you ever seen another image that looked uncannily similar to yours? How did you feel? What did you do? I want to know!

And if you ever need someone to talk to, feel free to talk to me – I answer best through email or on my Facebook page, Jenna Martin Photography :).

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How “Do What You Love” Can Be A Realistic Career Option

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To quote a recent article I read titled “Do What You Love” Is Horrible Advice: “It’s easy to confuse a hobby or interest for a profound passion that will result in career and business fulfillment. The reality is, that type of preexisting passion is rarely valuable.”

Um…no.

If you haven’t read that article go ahead and take a trip over there when you get a chance…or not, if you’d rather not be fuming the rest of the day. The author is a great writer, with many other fantastic articles, but this one was just so…wildly inaccurate. I tried to just label it as one of those unfortunate things orbiting the internet, but it was just gnawing at me. How many potential artists are out there now, squashing their dreams because they’re reading fear-mongering articles like this on the internet?

Well hopefully not a lot, but still, the thought of some teenage kid selling his guitar because too many people told him music was a “hobby” and not a career choice just kills me. He’s a teenager. Anything is a career choice.

Of course people are all entitled to their own opinions, right?

Exactly, which is why I’m going to spout mine off right now.

Unconditional Support May Fade Fast…

As we’re growing up, we’re told we can be anything. We’re told we can be astronauts, painters, unicorn tamers and anything else our little minds can dream up. A 5 year-old proudly proclaims she’s going to be a “rockstar” and the adults laugh and smile and say, “My goodness honey, of course you are!”

Then somewhere down the line, we’re told to get real. We’re told to “get our heads out of the clouds” and start putting our efforts towards a feasible career. The idea of following our passion becomes a joke, and we’re told that art, in whatever capacity, is a hobby. People list off countless things they themselves are “passionate” about but could never get paid for, and then recite a mountain of inaccurate, old wives-tale statistics:

“You know you have a greater chance of getting struck by lightning than you do of ‘making it’ as an actor…right?”

Riiiiiight…

Now there are two arguments here: 1.) Passion alone doesn’t get you anywhere, and 2.) Where is the market? If there is no one to pay you for it, even if you are good, how can you make a living?

And for those points I have two responses: 1.) The concepts of talent and passion are widely misunderstood, and 2.) There is always a market.

Now this is the part where many people will say I have entirely overstepped my boundaries and have finally reached the point where the advice I give new, emerging and struggling artists does them more harm than good. That in this era of realism, dreams serve the sole purpose of glittery fairy tales we tell our children until they reach puberty and then we shove a spatula and a job application in their hand while cynically smirking, “Life’s not fair, deal with it.”

Well, fuck that – and here’s why.

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1.) Talent and Passion Are Not What You Think

Talent is no more than a word people use to describe a person’s skill level when they haven’t been around to witness first-hand the process of developing that skill. Musicians, dancers, painters, all of them, did you see their work when they first started out? They sucked. The hit wrong notes, had two left feet and couldn’t paint between the lines to save their damn lives.

They were absolute shit.

In fact, it wasn’t until they had already put hours and hours and hours of time in, before people started saying, “Wow, you’ve got a real talent for that.”

Because here’s the thing, while some people do naturally gravitate to box of colored pencils instead of a calculator, the act of producing art itself is still a skill, and I cant stress this enough – skills can be learned.

In fact, many features we take for naturally occurring personality traits (i.e. willpower, creativity, focus) are actually skills; all of which can be further developed with deliberate practice.

Quick side-note – I promise I’m not just blowing smoke up your ass and I would gladly link to peer-reviewed journals listing the relevant scientific data for all these claims, but it’s 3:30 in the morning and I just don’t want to. I will tell you though, that I have personally studied all of this, as I have a Master’s in Psychology, specializing in neurological processes and behavioral health. If you don’t believe me I encourage you to schedule an appointment with your local psychology professor. 

Okay, so what does passion have to do with anything?

The word “passion” is far overused in today’s common conversation. You hear people say, “I’m incredibly passionate about rock music,” when what they really mean is, “I, like, really, really like this one band I saw in concert last week.”

Passion is not just a love for something, it’s an obsession: an obsession capable of motivating people to practice a specific skill for an unrealistic amount of time. All those things that people list off to you as examples of things they are “passionate” about but could never get paid for – they’re right! But those aren’t passions they’re just stuff they like…as a hobby. And yes, if photography is your dream job but you dedicate the same amount of time to it as you would to any other hobby, you absolutely won’t be able to find anyone willing to pay you for it. However, if you’re really passionate about photography, you’ll spend every waking second trying to improve. You’ll stay up late on YouTube researching various lighting setups and editing techniques, you’ll make your own gear when the real thing costs too damn much (like this underwater camera housing) and you’ll take classes and workshops to further your skills, and all that extra time really adds up.

To put it bluntly, passion can get you everywhere, because it means you have the desire to put in a highly abnormal amount of work to excel at a particular skill; a skill, that when taken to a whole new level, is absolutely marketable.

So while you may suck right now, that’s okay, you already have the most important tool to producing amazing results. What you need now is practice and time.

Now on to my other point…

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2.) There is ALWAYS a Market

The article above (along with countless others spanning the internet) lists one question as the one you should be asking when pursing your dream job: “Will people pay me for it?”

But that’s not the right question. Instead, what you should really be asking yourself is, “How can I prove to people my work is worth paying for?”

I’ll explain. Here’s a line I’m sure we’ve all heard many times: “Well maybe you should still get an accounting degree or something. You know… just in case.”

Ah, yes. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard someone give me “just in case” advice to prepare myself for inevitable failure…well let’s just say I’d own an impressive collection of jet skis by now.

You never hear people tell accountants to get another degree, “just in case.” No one ever tells med school students that maybe they should learn welding, or construction or some other trade skill so when this whole “being a doctor” phase wears off they’ll at least have something to “fall back on”.

The fact is, people only pay for things they either want or need, and when your passion falls into a field that meets an obvious market need, following it is completely acceptable. People need doctors. People need accountants. Supply and demand; it makes perfect sense.

Art, on the other hand…

Art is seen as a “want”, which means that people have a harder time understanding the market for it unless they themselves are a part of that specific target audience. Someone that would never consider buying a piece of art for $1000 will have a very hard time reasoning how anyone else could possibly make a living selling art for $1000.

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But there surely can’t be a market for everything…

Yeah, actually, there pretty much is. You can make money doing virtually anything nowadays, provided you market it correctly. Ever heard of the NYC Naked Cowboy? He plays a guitar and sings songs in his underwear and a cowboy hat. And now he’s sponsored by Fruit of the Loom and has a net worth of over 2.5 million dollars.

Take that, guidance counselors of the world.

The point is, whether the market exists or not isn’t the problem – it’s real and it’s there. Reaching it is the issue. So develop a strategy – figure out what the hell you have to offer and how you’re going to get it out there. Who is your target audience? What value are you offering them? How do you explain to them that what your selling is going to benefit their lives in some measurable way?

I’m not saying that you can quit your day job, buy an art kit, take a modern watercolor class and begin a successful painting career next week – I’m saying that creating a career out of something you’re genuinely passionate about is a very, very real possibility, and contrary to popular opinion you’re not doomed to a life of waiting tables while you try and make something out of those “doodles” you’re always working on.

Put in the effort to hone your skills and create a comprehensive marketing strategy to sell the application of those skills. That, is how you begin a successful career of doing what you love.

And for the future photographers of the world – here’s a little something I made just for you to get you on your way.

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