There’s an excellent piece in the NY Times last week titled “Why Are Harvard Graduates in the Mailroom?” that talks about the number of professions where workers accept lower-paying jobs in exchange for a slim but real chance of a large, future payday. Drug dealers have rich kingpins supported by hard working street-corner guys, ambitious accountants toil away at big firms in hopes of making partner, silicon valley startups use stock options to entice young people into working for free, Warner Brothers mailroom clerks accept $25,000 to $35,000 a year in hopes of making a meteoric leap like Barry Diller or David Geffen did, and aspiring actors watch rich people hand each other golden statues on TV each year with dreams of joining their ranks someday.
Certainly we can all see how photography fits nicely in the lottery model where there are a neat group of successful photographers at the top, a few jobs here and there that hint at a big payoff, but putting together a career in photography is harder and more lottery like than it looks. What’s really interesting and counter intuitive about the piece is how this lottery system is actually a good idea. It encourages hard work and attracts lots of potential candidates, but only lets the most tenacious through. The problem, as the NY Times notes, is that the comfortable plan B jobs are disappearing. Solid plan B jobs allow you to go for it and if it doesn’t work out you still have something interesting to fall back on for a career:
New York City and Los Angeles are buoyed by teachers, store owners, arts administrators and others who came to town to make it big in film or music or publishing, eventually gave up on that dream and ended up doing fine in another field.
I received this email recently from a reader who was dismayed at all the commenters on this blog who only look at photography as a six figure job:
I love your blog, but I am disappointed in your reader’s comments. Specifically on the article “Is editorial photography dead?“. Most of the photographers that comment fiercely oppose anyone trying to become a professional photographer and it is quite a deterrent for someone like myself just starting out. I read all the comments trying to understand where they are coming from, but I can’t, because it seems like your commenters are all photographers who used to make six figures. I was raised in a family who never made a six figure income, in fact none of my family ever went to college—I was the first. For me a good job is an income of not much more than $30,000 a year.
What your commenters don’t realize is that many people are happy making less. I have worked for several city magazines and I’ve found that they struggle to find ANY photographers to work with. It seems like most people only consider themselves successful if they work for major publications. I would love for you to highlight someone who is successful in their hometown, based on finding work at smaller magazines and local work. Many times the magazines I work with can’t even find journalists. I think smaller publications are often overlooked because they don’t pay tens of thousands of dollars for photo shoots, but I recently got a gig with one that paid over $3,000 and for just starting out, it was huge for me.
My point is, I just don’t think people actually look for the work, they expect it to come to them. I think many photographers, like other artists, are too snobby to actually go find a job. Instead, they expect publications to find them.
Did my reader miss the point of looking at photography as a high paying career? The lottery system produces talented, hardworking and tenacious photographers. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The NY Times goes on to say:
It’s not clear what today’s eager 23-year-old will do in 5 or 10 years when she decides that acting (or that accounting partnership) isn’t going to work out after all. The best advice may be to accept that economic success in America will come as much from the labor lottery as from hard work and tenacity. The Oscars make clear that there is only so much room at the top. In a lottery-based economy, you need some luck, too; now, perhaps, more than ever. People should be prepared to enter a few different lotteries, because the new Plan B is just going to be another long shot in a different field.
The plan B in photography was a mid-level career, but now we see photographers who test the waters in video, writing, publishing and teaching. Looking to enter as many lotteries as possible. Seems like a smart plan.