The Hustle of a Freelance Photographer

“Basic City, Virginia, 2:44:54PM, Summer 2009 Cardinal,” by Stacey Evans

How Charlottesville, Va.-based freelance photographer Stacey Evans does money.

Logan Sachon: Tell me about you, Stacey Evans.

Stacey Evans: I’m a freelance photographer, and I have been for 12 years. Photography is an interesting creative practice because there is the commercial side to it with advertising, the fine art side, the journalistic side. So many avenues. But it’s very competitive, and like many things, there are a lot more people who want to do it than there are jobs.

I have three avenues of work in my business. Photography services, teaching, and then there is the fine art part.

LS: Photography services?

SE: That’s working for small businesses, doing portraits, doing editorial work, and then I also do some work for the University of Virginia. I teach in a few places. I teach at Piedmont Virginia Community College, the UVA Art museum, and then I workshops with the county school system.

LS: How did you start teaching?

SE: I went to school for photography at Savannah College of Art and Design and one of my professors said, you should find a niche—architectural, food—but I wanted to learn everything! I wanted to learn how to do a lot of different things, and I wanted to learn how to teach, too. I don’t think I realized how big a job that was, but it’s worked out well. The education part is nice, teaching is an income I can rely on. Though sometimes that isn’t a sure thing either. I’m an adjunct faculty, and sometimes the classes don’t run.

I never had a planned direction, I went with the flow. When I graduated from college in 1995, I worked for a newspaper in the photolab. I got that job because a professor knew I was graduating and suggested me for it. I’m good at meeting deadlines. When I moved to Charlottesville I went thorugh the yellow pages under “photography” and circled businesses and sent letters then followed up with a phone call. I got some assisting jobs through that, and some gigs of my own.

I don’t wait for things to come to me, but I do enjoy the serendipitous moments of life— “maybe I should do that or follow that”—rather than a rigid structure, so things are more happenstance.

“Deep End, California, Summer 2010, Coastal Starlight,” by Stacey Evans

LS: So you were assisting, and then decided, I can do this, and started off on your own?

SE: I had a little stint in an internet startup, and I was laid off with 300 people between Christmas and New Years in 1999. And at that point I thought I’d try to work for myself.

I got a severance package that allowed me to have some money set aside–everyone always recommends when you start out on your own that you have three months of savings for times you don’t get jobs, so I put that money aside to access if I needed, and I also had unemployment for a little while. Then I got a parttime job with a photographer friend, and I was able to get off unemployment, which was good. So I had some part time work, and I started my own freelance work, some assisting, some of my own photography, I had a monthly retainer with a weekly for a couple years. So I was piecing it together, and still am.

LS: Is it stressful to have that many balls in the air?

SE: It’s kind of stressful. When it’s good, it’s really good and when it’s bad, it’s really bad. But we all have that roller coaster—even if you have a fulltime job there are times when you’re not happy.

There are so many people that are in the industry now, I think about, what do I have to offer as an individual?

LS: Do you ever work for free?

SE: I won’t work for free. I will occassionally work at a reduced rate for startup non-profits, but I have always said, I won’t work for free. If you work for one company for free, it’s unfair to other clients. It’s hard because I like helping people and I am good at making photographs. I do barter, right now my kitchen island is being revamped. And, I do give back to the community here and there. Those people appreciate and respect me. They give back to me when they are able.

I won’t provide my services for free. But locations for the artwork, I’m considering doing that. It’s hard to know what to do. If I get my work on a site and someone in the industry knows it’s for free, then how can I ask someone else to pay me for the work? That’s an area that I don’t know as well. The digital world evolves so quickly. I’ve never even done a Facebook page for my business.

LS: Ehhhh Facebook. I would not lose sleep about not having a Facebook page. You have a nice website. What is your work schedule like?

SE: I have to be flexible, but I do have things scheduled. My office is in my house. I get up and I have breakfast and I go to work. I have my yellow pad, my list of things to do. I have a second office that doesn’t have a computer in it, and I’ll sit and write in the morning, morning meditations, little paper studies, things that allow my brain to drift and create. That has evolved into a still life project. I don’t have a specific agenda for that work. I like to start in the morning there, and then transition to the educational or monetary space by midday at least.

“Woman Walking, Virginia, 10:14:55AM, Winter 2010, Northeast Regional,” by Stacey Evans

LS: Can you tell me a little bit about buying equipment? How do you navigate that?

SE: I started my business at that turn from film to digital—I’ve only shot very few commercial jobs on film. When I started I gave myself a budget of $1,000 to buy a digital camera. In, 2000, with $1,000, you could get a 2 to 3 megapixel camera. So I would go out and shoot editorial stories for the weekly, and I learned in the moment, on the assignment. And they were small files but they worked fine for newspapaer reproduction. So I decided to budget $1,000 a year for a new camera. In 2005, I invested in a Canon 5D. it helped my business and I just replaced it with a newer model. Then there are the computers and the hard drives, the lenses, you have to keep up. The amount you can spend in photography is endless.

I used to assist this architectural photographer, and he just grabbed a credit card to start his business, but I was always scared of debt. I did take a loan out at one point for a computer, and I’ve had to use credit before when preparing for a gallery exhibition—all the framing and matting and printing costs are on you up front.

LS: Tell me about the art component of what you’re doing. I know you did a Kickstarter last year.

SE: Since 2007 I’ve been travelling the American landscape by train, photographing it from the perspective of a train passenger. I got a Puffin Foundation Grant and that paid for some of my expenses, but I’ve been paying for it mostly myself. I see it as investing my money in my own projects. When I decided I wanted to go on my biggest trip yet, I asked friends to help support me through the Kickstarter. I pitched it as, travel with me vicariously. It was a good experience. I was asking for $5,000 for the expenses of the trip to be covered. And I got over $8,000. The first day I got $1,000, and I was ecstatic. People are investing in my artwork! It keeps you motivated to work on your projects.

I’m transitioning between many different things, and maintaining a schedule, the artwork gets placed on the back burner. If I can’t see it as something that supports me, I put it on the bottom of my list. I put a priority with my clients or else I won’t have clients anymore. But I’m trying to make the space to invest in my own ideas. I don’t get paid vacations. I don’t get benefits. I do take these trips and they are an expense in the business. I think overall it’s a good investment.

LS: Do you have health insurance?

SE: When I first started, I was in my twenties, and I didn’t have health insurance. Charlottesville has a nice free clinic, and I went there for my yearly visit. So that was my health care. When I turned 30, I was caught in the middle of a dog fight and wound up with a dog bite on my face. The emergency room bill was like $500 to $1000. And at that point I felt, it’s time to get insurance. I did know, if something did happen to me, my family would help me, and that made me feel irresponsible.

I had a friend who worked at Anthem, she helped me figure out what I needed, what I wanted in a plan. And I’ve had the same plan since then. The health insurance world seems so big and daunting. It’d be nice if there was an office and you could see someone in person. But I’m still happy with what I’ve got. Between 30 and 40, I’ve spent $30,000 + on healthcare. I go to the doctor once a year. It’s a lot of money in my perspective, but another friend pays $15,000 a year for her family and business, so it’s all relative.

LS: How do you keep up with your books?

SE: I handle my business in quickbooks, and I hand it over to my accountant at the end of the year and she does the rest of the work. It’s worth it to me, so I know it’s done properly. I believe in professional services when you can afford them.

“Kudzu, Virginia, 6:58:09AM, Fall 2009, Crescent,” by Stacey Evans

LS: Do you save for retirement?

SE: I have a Roth IRA that is my retirement plan. I can have that I’m self employed. You can put a max of like $5,000 in it a year. You get taxed now, but you dont get taxed when it’s taken out, and the tax rate changes with how much income you make, so it just makes sense to me now.

If I have extra money, I’ll move it into the Roth, but I havent moved anything in there in the last few years. Last year I had a good year so I have to pay more taxes. Because my income varies so much it’s hard to predict what my tax bill will be.

Last year I worked very hard because at the end of 2011 I had drained out my cushion and it scared me to death. So I said I can’t do that again, I have to work harder. Then I asked myself, how can I work harder? I’m frugal, I don’t spend much. Now I have a cushion of $6,000 in my money market account, and for me that’s big. Next, is to create the extra income to start moving money into retirement again.

I’m not my best friend who studied math, has a big house, has had job since college, two kids and 401(k). As soon as I pay off my taxes, I’ll be down again. I owe aroundd $3Kin taxes this year, over the quarterly payment I made, but at least I have enough that I feel comfortable. I’m fortunate that I have a partner, we share expenses.

My partner owns his house and I live with him. He pays utilities and I cover food and activities. It’s interesting how people get into relationships, some poeple know they aren’t going to be with someone who doesn’t have money—if you don’t have a fulltime job, you’re not secure, they dont want anything to do with you. And then some people just fall in love and you just kind of make it work.

LS: Do you ever think about having to get a full-time job? “Having to”—ha, what a leading question.

SE: There’s probably a moment every year when I think, oh gosh I’ll have to get a real job. Being self employed is a lot of work. You dont just go to an office and have someone tell you what to do. It’s always in the back of my mind—should I go get a job? But the idea of sitting in one place does not make me comfortable. I like to manage my own time. And I’ve been out of the office for so long, sometimes I wonder if people would hire me.

When I first started out I talked to a guy that helped me with a business plan. So I did go through that process—where do I want to be there in 5 years, and that helped guide me. Deciding, this percent is going to come from assisting, this percent will come from art sales, this percent will come from teaching. It was a nice formal way of doing things, and I have been meaning to revisit it. Now I have post it notes on the back of my door, and I have a 3 year plan. So I just go down the post it notes and look at them. These days, the less and less I am about a specific agenda and structure, the better I feel. Which is strange. I do believe in a plan, because if you don’t have a plan, how will you get things done? I’m trying to be less hard on myself, allow myself to do what I want not what I think I should do. I’ve been working for myself for 13 years now. I’m starting to trust myself.

The project I’ve been working on, the landscape work, the trains, I’d like to get that into collections. Maybe there’s a book at the end. I have a collection of photographs priced right now, selling in gallaries at $600 for the small ones, $1200 for the large ones. I’ve sold several prints this past winter. It gives me something to work towards. So that’s why I allow myself that time and space to explore. This morning I was having a conversation with a friend and she asked if I’d be open to sell it for corporate use. I’m open. I do play this line between commercial and fine art. If that work could start to generate reliable income, that would be my dream. John, my partner, and I had a funny exchange about musicians and commercials. Being an Gen X art school grad, we snubbed the idea of “selling out.” I asked John about his thought on musicians “selling out.” His response was, “That’s not selling out, that’s cashing in.”

I will continue to work hard forever. Will I have to worry about finances forever, is a question.

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3 Comments / Post A Comment

lrodrigue (#1,315)

This was great. So many people are full-time freelancers right now and it’s so interesting to read about how they do money! Really inspiring to us small-time freelancers. ADDITIONALLY those pools-in-backyard pics are mesmerizing.

Excellent. I love these posts that get into the nitty-gritty money aspects of unusual careers (well ok not THAT unusual but still).

readyornot (#816)

What an interesting story, thoughtfully told. I had a photography teacher at a community art school who was in a sort of rough place financially; I wish she’d had someone take her through starting her own business first. She had an MFA and was definitely going the high art route. I think she’s doing much better now, though. Go Stacey Evans for having it together.

Those photographs of swimming pools out of the Coastal Starlight remind me of an exhibit at the Palm Springs art museum that was about the place of the pool in southern Californian culture.

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