Why Being Busy Can Mean Being Broke

This is from Justin Mott’s blog:

I’m not some elder statesman and I’m a very youthful 32 years old with only about 5 years as a true professional. I do however get quite a few emails from photographers just getting started in the freelance business trying to figure out what their fist step should be. I’m going to start a column dedicated to them. It will be a mix of my thoughts, emails I receive, and just ridiculous rants that I need to get off my chest. Not sure what to call it but for now I’ll go with “Now What?” because I feel a lot of these photographers graduate and they aren’t really sure what’s next. I also welcome guest columnist so if you have any advice for the newborn freelancer please feel free to write to me.

Why Being Busy Can Mean Being Broke

When I first started off in SE Asia things were slow and when they finally picked up I went broke. So you save up (or charge) for the right set up of gear; macbook pro, one or 2 DSLR’s, L Series lenses, a sweet bag line up, insurance, website fees, etc. You are easily 10K deep before your first big assignment not to mention school loans.

Now you are ready to roll, but wait you need a solid portfolio add another few months finding the right story to explore so add some exploring debt.

Now you got your gear and your portfolio and your debt and perhaps the assignments start trickling in. Surely relief is right around the corner, your payday is here. Not quite and don’t call me Shirley (RIP Leslie Neilson).

By the way this upcoming bitchfest is mainly focused on photographers doing editorial work.

My first assignment out of the country was in Malaysia. Shortly after that came a shoot in Indonesia and not long after that I was off to Australia. Sounds great and it was but this is a cautionary tale so lets focus on the bad. In a matter of a few months I accrued over 5K in expenses for airfare, taxis, hotels, etc.

Being a freelancer doesn’t come with a company credit card for expenses. Okay no problem and yes I realize it’s annoying that I’m have a hypothetical conversation with myself but just bare with me.

I got to the point where I was maxed out and I was nervous about taking on any new assignments. I actually couldn’t afford to work, doesn’t make sense but it’s true.

Here is the cautionary part of the tale. I guess I was naïve or just thought perhaps I’d be treated fairly oh but I thought wrong. I figured a month tops to get my money, at least my expenses. Wrong I was again and wrong I still am.

The thing is getting the pictures on deadline is a must for us but getting paid in a timely manner is not a priority for them. I’ve learned over the years that we are not a priority and we can be extremely expendable.

A few things to consider when you enter the freelance world:

-Expect editors to respond to all things photo related at 1/8000th of a second for your assignment and to respond at all things money related at Bulb. That was an extremely geeky way to put that, I’m much cooler than that by the way.

-Don’t expect payment for your rate and expenses to be made until at least 45 days typically a lot longer.

-Expect your editor to blame accounting as if it’s not their job even though it’s the same company and they are your only contact person. Can we blame our assistant for not getting them the photos and get away with it?

-If you’re dealing with an agency or worse a partner agency of your agency you are looking at more like 3-6 months to get reimbursed. I should add my agency Redux Pictures is pretty awesome to me but I’ve worked with others that are horrible and I have loads of friends with horror stories.

-Expect to send really nice and friendly follow up emails once a week and never get a response or a short response saying, “I’ll look into it”

-Don’t ever expect an apology for late payments.

-Expect some sort of issue with at least 75% of your payments. Anything from “oh you need to fill out this WQX 90-42A form that we never told you about to Susan from accounting is on vacation this week so…”

-I once had to threaten legal action to my old agency for being over 6 months delinquent on a payment of over 5K so as a last resort get a lawyer ready.

-Be wary of special projects that will pay you upon completion. These are tough to gauge but I’m now over a full year being owed 2K and I’m just told, “the funding never came in so we don’t know when you’ll get your money”. They are nice guys and all and it’s a great project but I’m out 2K and that was money I counted on.

Lets dive in a little deeper and analyze this. As a freelancer we are constantly working for new publications and many times it will be a one shot deal. Perhaps some random German (nothing personal to Germans just an example folks) magazine is doing their once a year story about Vietnam. Since it’s the first time working for them you will need to complete paperwork to get registered into their system. Without a doubt that paperwork will have a problem with it that will only be brought to your attention when you follow up on why you haven’t gotten paid yet. Since it’s most likely a one shot deal the idea of them caring about a solid relationship with you isn’t a factor, they already got what they needed.   Read more…


About the author

RANDY OLSON’s 27 National Geographic magazine projects have taken him to many countries in Africa, the Siberian Arctic, Abu Dhabi, American Samoa, Austria, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Dubai, Guyana, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Kamchatka, Newfoundland, Pakistan, Palmyra, Republic of Georgia, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, Turkey, and the South Pacific.
National Geographic Society published a book of his work in their Masters of Photography series in January 2011. Olson was the 2003 Magazine Photographer of the Year in the Pictures of the Year International (POYi) competition, and was also awarded POYi’s 1992 Newspaper Photographer of the Year—one of only two photographers to win in both media in the largest photojournalism contest operating continuously since World War II. While working at The Pittsburgh Press, Olson received an Alicia Patterson Fellowship to support a seven-year project documenting a family with AIDS, and a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his story on problems with Section 8 housing. He was also awarded the Nikon Sabbatical and a grant from the National Archives to save the Pictures of the Year collection.
Melissa Farlow and Randy Olson are photojournalists in the documentary tradition. Their work has taken them to 50 countries over the past 20 years. Even though they are published in LIFE, GEO, Smithsonian and other magazines, they have primarily worked on 50 projects for the National Geographic Society. They normally work individually, but have co-produced National Geographic magazine stories on northern California, American national parks, and the Alps. They photographed the southern United States for a book by Collins Publishing and have collaborated on over 70 books by various publishers.