Welcome to a new bi-monthly advice column, in which you all ask questions about money and life and get a deeply subjective but very heartfelt answer from both me and my dad, who prefers to be known only as “Meghan’s dad” because he is afraid of being sued (?).
Among other roles (he’s excellent for live-emailing The Good Wife), my dad functions as my de facto “financial advisor,” which means lots of one-sided conversations where I understand only the prepositions.
So. We’re sharing our wisdom twice a month in this space. Write us here: firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will genuinely give it our best shot(s).
Oh, and help us choose a column title. My dad’s suggestions include:
“What would someone young and hip do, and what would an old fart do?”
“Meg and her Dad—an occasional column of advice for those with nowhere to turn and no real interest in the advice anyway.”
“What about ‘Like, Ask Meg and, like, Her Dad'”
“Our Pulitzer Prize Winning Column – Advice to the Light of Wallet”
Onwards to our first question.
I’m a photographer who has been holding down the same fairly well-paying administrative day job for over five years. However, I’d like to get to a point where I work only for myself and can make the majority of my income from photography jobs and perhaps a part-time table-waiting/retail gig in the beginning. Currently it’s difficult to find the time and energy to take the kind of/volume of jobs I would need to get myself even close to making what I make now at my admin job. Last year I grossed under $5,000 for photography work. What kind of markers should I set for myself or look for to know when it is time to make this transition? Emotionally, I think I’m there, but logistically it just isn’t the right time. I have quite a lot of student debt that will always be nagging at me and don’t want to take out any more loans to make this small-business thing happen. But I know it’s something I have to do at some point. Advice?
– Do I Stay or Do I Go?
Meghan’s dad says:
Dear Do I Stay:
I’m the old guy. My job is to rain on parades. That is what old gray-haired guys do. So here goes…
Photography—a beautiful art form—is currently challenged. Everyone thinks they are a photographer. A six-year-old can hold a camera (or phone or tablet) and take a string of 100 photos of the same thing in the space of 15 seconds. Chances of one of those being “okay” are reasonably good. My point is—if you are going to take this dive, I don’t think you can do it on the basis that you are going to fill your plate with weddings and bat mitzvahs and the like, and do art on the side. You need an edge and a business plan. How are you going to differentiate yourself from the crowd? What can you offer that Bob’s cousin Mildred with the Pentax K-500 who shot those great pics of the kids’ Easter egg hunt last year can’t offer?
And you need to take a deep breath. Those loans are holding you back. They need to be dusted before you can take this sort of plunge. I’m assuming that you are single, with no dependents, and lead a currently self-sufficient lifestyle. Good for you—you have already made great strides, but those loans are an albatross. Blow that sucker up. Keep doing as much real photography as you can find, work on your “edge” and a business plan, and get rid of the loans. Unfortunately, that means you are stuck with your day job for a while. But once you have them in the rear view mirror, you will be able to take on risks that now scare you—and they should scare you. Get rid of them.
Okay, so I know nothing about running a business. I really don’t. Startup costs? Marketing seems like a thing one would have to think about. Equipment. Are business cards still a thing?
Let’s assume you know more than me. And if not, let’s assume you know someone who knows more than me. Either way, you’ll have to find that knowledge well, and you’ll have to drink it dry. I’d contact a few photographers you respect and see if they’d be willing to let you buy them coffee and talk you through the actual costs associated with running a business. With budgets and taxes and hiring and building a client base. And with the emotional drain that all of that brings about. Because truthfully, lovely photog, that’s what I’d be worried about.
I do not subscribe to the philosophy that artists must suffer for their art, and by the sound of your letter, I don’t think you do, either. I think suffering—mounting loans, dwindling savings, ramen for dinner, seven roommates in a railroad apartment—breeds suffering, by which I mean the work suffers. I know this isn’t true for everyone, but if you’ve been putting up with a lackluster admin job for five-plus years, you probably long for a measure of stability and that stability probably allows you the mental and emotional space to make your art. Will you be able to take beautiful photos when you aren’t sleeping at night?
All of that said, it’s clear this is something you want. It is something that is calling to you. Which is beautiful and meaningful and rare, so I think you need to at least take substantive, important steps in that direction. Would your job be open to allowing you a more flexible schedule? Maybe a four-day work week so that you have one day off to take on projects? Or is there another, perhaps equally lackluster job that would give you more freedom while still providing a solid financial foundation? This seems to me like a mind over matter situation. You need to believe that you are moving towards your goal of being a full-time photographer. Every tedious work day becomes an opportunity to meet someone who has a friend who has a cousin who is getting married and dying to hire you. Every desperate afternoon coffee run is a chance to find an empty wall that is calling out for your prints. These small yet significant gestures are your building blocks. Keep climbing.
Meghan Nesmith writes and sleeps in Brooklyn. Meghan’s dad does not.