How to Stay Motivated in Photography When You’re Struggling as a Pro
A week and a bit ago I was in Falmouth, on stage, in front of maybe a bit less than 100 or so students. It was Tuesday, around 2pm. I felt oddly calm and eager. They looked expectedly unenthusiastic.
I was giving a talk. A talk about photography; about life as a photographer. It was as honest and as real as I could convey without wanting to send the audience running towards a more profitable career choice. Unbeknownst to me though, in the days following that lecture it’d be me that would be taking in the words I spoke more than those in attendance.
I preached a science of motivation. A belief that, if and when you struggle with this industry, as long as you maintain some form of forward momentum, eventually you will arrive. I said this with the conviction of someone with quite literally no money to his name, but that all that same had found himself on the receiving end of a free trip to Falmouth, earning money for public speaking (which I haven’t actually received yet) and who would be revelling in the accomplishment of his first solo exhibition later that day. In photography, as it has been for me thus far, it’s these joyful oddities that define the reason to keep going when it’s difficult. But they can be very few and very far between.
And yet here I am, ever in conundrum with myself. Being asked with tenderness and love to reconsider this venture for a moment, to prioritize steady and accessible work just to earn a bit of money to keep things sustainable. It’s the most difficult decision for me, because I don’t want anyone who supports me to think I’m actively ignoring them or not seeing the sense in the situation.
In primary school, I discovered I loved writing, and by association discovered I loved creating things. When I dropped out of Sunderland University, I discovered an affinity for photography. Years since, with countless hours dedicated to each, I’ve become convinced I’m good at what I make, and that what I make is ‘good’. I at least possess the ability to become profitable in those areas.
I have to tell myself daily that I’m not ‘work-shy’, that my aversion to taking up work in another industry isn’t because I’m lazy or believe the world owes me more than anyone else. It’s just, there are things I can do, which make me happy, that are a use to others and I can get paid for them.
My contemporaries in photography range from lone wolves who travel the world and live a solitary lifestyle, to those earning enough to support a family, to multi-millionaires whose work is scarcely off billboards. It’s not that I have a fledgling desire to become a celebrity or world-famous. I just want to be paid to do what I’m good at.
The life exists for those willing to look for it, though the path towards these ends will be unique for each who seeks it. Seek and you shall find though, just know seeking may take some time. That was my bottom line for those students, but as it would develop, it turns out I was pretty much just projecting my own insecurities and need for reassurance onto them.
Of all the success stories I’ve read, from people in my field to others who achieved beyond what they were expected to, it all reads the same.
“Just don’t give up.”
Hardships define the man, the woman, the adult. But it’s so easy to write this, and it’s so difficult to actually live by it. Believing that I can make money out of photography has strained just about every aspect of my life, from my family to my relationships to my friendships. It regularly affects my mental health; I couldn’t tell you how many days I go to sleep wishing I could just put my life on pause and take some time to assess the world from a birds-eye view and figure out how best to proceed.
For all of the reaffirming highs I get from things like writing a book and having it sold in Manhattan, being paid to have people hear my words on stage, or being asked to capture the most important day of someone’s life, they exist sprinkled in amongst the average days. Those days are the ones where I wake up without direction, without cause or motivation, unsure of what to do or how to make ‘this’ work. Those are the majority.
I recently did a trial day at job I should’ve enjoyed. Well, that’s not really the right phrase, I did enjoy the job for that day but it wasn’t the fit I thought it would be. I was working with animals, and I love animals. It would be consistent income and work I could invest my qualities in. But the pay wasn’t good and the hours worse.
My decision for turning down this position came from within the company. Two employees I spoke with said that though they loved working with animals and the other members of staff, the nature of this job had taken a toll on them. One felt as if their relationship with their family was suffering as a result of the hours needed of her. The other, an aspiring artist, said they were too wiped out by the end of their working day to have the energy to pursue that side of their life. They were both going to go against the grain and going after what they really wanted deep down, in spite of the financial sensibility. It just so happened that both of their justifications for leaving the job were aspects that scared me about taking it on.
I’m not an especially superstitious person, though I believe most of us are to some degree, when the timing is right and the wind blows a certain way. But I will accept that I have an individual willingness for this situation to believe that speaking with these specific two people is enough of a sign as I need to proceed with how I feel deep down. Because it’s not just them either, it’s the fact that the only professional success I ever have is with photography.
I’ve taken on work in other industries, but it’s always short-lived. At one point in my life I was flat-out asked by my boss to chose, “It’s either this job, or photography, you have to pick one.” I made that decision within seconds and the result of it got me a place at Falmouth University with the body of work I shot that night.
As I think about it though, it feels like that question symbolised much more than whether I wanted to continue working in a shop. It’s like a confrontational mantra to myself, “it’s either photographer or something else, it can’t be both.” That’s what’s always posited at me, and what I expect many in a similar position to me will have heard, “Why don’t you get a normal job and do photography on the side?’” Do both things.
But I confess, without wanting to appear weak-willed, that I can’t. I can barely make ends meet when I make photography a full-time pursuit, how could someone reasonably conclude that my ability to find work in this industry would change with less hours to do so and less motivation from working another job in its place? I mean, it absolutely is possible, I’m very aware of it. It’s the driving force behind my insecurity.
With more money behind me I can spend more on promoting myself, getting my name out there to get the jobs. “Spend money to make money, speculate to accumulate.” I’ve explored that mindset a lot, though, believe me. I’ve become so frustrated with photography that at times I’ve been thoroughly convinced the best thing for me to do is to put it completely down and focus on something else, just for the time being, to get myself onto more stable foundations. But it just doesn’t happen. When other work fails to materialise I always seem to find my camera ever-present alongside me.
But why isn’t the work appearing? Here’s the kicker: it’s not the industry, it’s me.
There’s a very clear reason to understand why I’m not making money through my work. It’s not because living where I am makes the pursuit of income that much more difficult. It’s because I don’t have the head for business to make it work. If I’m able, (and only recently did this actually become true), to comfortably state, ‘I’m a good photographer’, and we can ascertain that there are photography jobs where I live, then the only reason the two aren’t connecting is because I’m missing the crucial ability to marry them.
This is where my main frustration comes from. I truly believe I have something special to offer, but I need to abandon this idea that creating good work will in turn materialise money. A bitter pill to swallow is watching photographers of perceived lesser ability succeed because their business acumen is so much more developed than my own. But it’s less so a frustration towards them, more turned at myself that for all the quality I preach I have, I’m missing the thing that really matters. Their financial success just cements the notion that there is clearly work to be had, but I’m the one stopping myself from getting it.
For me to be the words I spoke so honestly and passionately in Falmouth, I have to live by them. I’ve had this inner-conflict with myself for the past four years, yet recently, with the stakes inarguably higher for me to make money, I’m finding myself in a welcome position of reassurance to the path I have chosen. I have found myself unaccountably lucky to be in a situation where no one relies on me making a specific amount of money per week.
Sure, I can’t afford food most weeks, but then having a mother who is retired means I’m often privy to a bit of dinner when the need arises. For the past four years I have respected that, but perhaps not fully utilized the freedom it offers. I know that it won’t last forever, but more to my purpose, this is why I find myself with renewed confidence and motivation that I won’t give up on photography until it is literally unavoidable. From endless weeks of having no new income, to stresses in relationships and emotional hardships, I will continue to move forwards.
I am privileged to have found something I am good at, that I love doing, that I can make money doing. I don’t look down upon others who are not so fortunate to chase after something like this, but I can’t allow myself to feel guilty either. Every single day that passes and I’m in this situation my personal life is getting more challenging. I can’t ask those closest to me to not be stressed or to not try and offer me elsewhere opportunities. But this is me, I am my work. I am photography. And when it eventually clicks, when the work becomes steady and when I can transition between my dazed stumbling to my calculated sprint, it will have all been worth it.
Years ago I read an article that said “Professional photographer gives his opinion on aspiring photographers looking to join the industry.” His name faded from my memory but his words are etched into my psyche. He simply said, “Don’t.”
Photography is an overinflated and oversaturated industry with too many photographers. “65% of people who buy a DSLR camera will go into photography as a business pursuit,” is a quote I read in a forum I can’t credit for truth but seems scarily plausible to consider. It makes no sense to chase this as a career because it’s too difficult, the jobs are too few and the rewards don’t make it worth the effort, you will not find sympathy for this endeavour if you fail because, you, as well as everyone else, knows it’s not an easy industry to succeed in.
I’m against a wall though. If it weren’t for the successes I’ve had in photography being large and enticing, then maybe I would’ve stopped a long time ago. Most businesses fail within their first year, and whilst I haven’t put down anywhere near as much capital or financial stakes into photography as others have in their businesses, I’m still four years into this. Three may have been at University, but I’ve incrementally made more money each year since I’ve started. My own success is proof to myself that the money is there and that my skills facilitate earning it. Though since returning to my home of Jersey after finishing University, work has been far more difficult to find. This year will likely break the trend of finances increasing.
Like I did to a cinema full of likely hung-over students in Falmouth a few weeks ago, I have projected my insecurities and reassurances into this article. I need to do that. I need to be told, even by myself, that everything will be ok if I keep moving forward. I don’t avoid the truth though, with anxiety flowing within the same fingers typing on this keyboard, I know it’ll get worse before it gets better. But I believe in myself, I believe in the words I speak and I believe that eventually, one day, I’ll arrive.
I don’t have the answers for how to succeed when you are struggling, when you’re walking on the razors edge between packing it in or carrying on; I just fall back on the mindset to believe that one day all of those small footsteps will take me where I want to be. The same, I protest, is the same for you.
Please don’t stop until you’ve exhausted every possible resource you have. This is what it means to “suffer for your art.” It’s not a glamorous, ear-cutting affair; it’s hurting the ones closest to you because you’re so poor you can’t pay for Christmas presents. If you truly want this life, you have to believe that hard work and persistence are the biggest attributes needed. If they’re not, I’ll write a rebuttal to this article when everything didn’t work out and maybe I can give you some advice to help you avoid doing the same.
About the author: John Liot is an award-winning Channel Islands-based photographer who mainly shoots portraits. To see more of John’s work, head over to his website or give him a follow on Facebook and Instagram.