I’m not questioning your motivation. I truly want to understand: what urges your soul toward this work?
Long after I heard my calling, I found the words to define my dream. And no, it’s neither darkroom nor Lightroom, neither prints nor pixels. I am consumed by the connections I make with the people who share their lives with me. A celebration, a portrait, a careful image made of a life well-lived: these inspire and enrich me.
As I examine my shiny, happy motivations for this work I’ve chosen, the duller flipside becomes clear to me. Some jobs can’t, won’t, don’t offer the same joy. And it’s okay. I can say no.
The ball dropped when an organization contacted me to shoot their fundraising luncheon. A nonprofit, they were raising money for a cause I deeply believe in. Their budget was small (aren’t they all?), but they repeatedly emphasized their nonprofit status and how highly recommended I’d come to them. And I caved, giving them Big Coverage for Little Money.
When I arrived, the organizers were nothing short of total jerks. No one so much as smiled in my direction, and I was ordered around like some shifty teenager who might dash out at any moment, a bottle of stolen champagne tucked in my jacket pocket.
Cause or no cause, the event turned out to be one of the least meaningful photographic experiences of my life, an abrasive series of grip-’n’-grins that said nothing, inspired nothing, meant nothing.
And just like that, I was done. I completed my contract, delivered the photographs, cashed my check, and vowed to say NO to work that didn’t align with my personal desires.
Connection. Inspiration. Authenticity.
I can go anywhere, do anything, and leave at the end of the day feeling disconnected, uninspired, and inauthentic. But I won’t – I can’t – do that with photography. Not with my art. Not with this craft that I’ve painstakingly honed every year of my life since I first held a camera at age 8.
I recognize that photography isn’t always fun and games. I understand that hard work and sweat and sometimes a sprained ankle are the reality of the job. But if those struggles aren’t accompanied by an end-of-day payoff, by feelings of connection, inspiration, and authenticity, I may as well resign to a cubicle somewhere, collect a regular paycheck, and enjoy employer-subsidized health benefits.
Photography was my dream. But as I repeatedly took on unfulfilling projects, my dream became my job.
Photography ceased to be my dream
I never want to dread a day of shooting. I never want to be at the end of my rope with a client because I’m working a job that just flat-out sucks. I never want to be tempted to throw in the towel and walk away from a gig because I’m being treated like a picture-making machine.
And, yes, I accept that sometimes that’s just the reality. I can’t always know that this sweet bride’s aunt is a walking, breathing demon from the pit of Hades. I can’t always anticipate the planner who will change the entire timeline at the very last second then reassure me that, “You can do all those portraits in 7 minutes!” I can’t always navigate the stress, the anxiety, the drama.
But, to me, those challenges are just bumps in the road.
The roadblock is me.
When I can’t feel it any longer, when my camera is a hot brick in my hand, when the smile on my face is melting, and kicking someone in the shins would feel as natural as breathing: I’m in the wrong place.
It is a burden, this compulsion to say yes to everything. Yes to every opportunity, yes to every open door, yes to every eager request, yes even when I desperately want to say no.
I once sat through a sales workshop where the speaker implored us to avoid negative words at all cost. “Never say no!” he commanded. And maybe it was his authoritative tone, or maybe it was the cut of his expensive suit, but I nodded and took notes like Jesus Christ himself had descended from the sky to share this wisdom with me.
But now? The truth? Sometimes no is the truth. Sometimes no is the only right response.
No, I won’t do that for free.
No, I can’t be there at that time.
No, I wont be treated like that.
No, this job is not a good fit for me.
When, at last, I allowed myself to say no, it was like my soul glowed right through my skin.
I was sitting at the bar at one of my favorite meeting spots, chatting with a potential client about her upcoming wedding. And she was beautiful, and sweet, and wealthy. And she said the right things. And she asked the right questions.
But I could feel it in my gut, like too much sugar on a hot day. And 15 minutes in, I asked her, “Have you met with This Photographer? Because — and I hope this doesn’t sound crazy — I think you guys would be an incredible fit.”
And she stared at me with the sweetest little smile frozen on her perfect mouth, and she said, “Oh! Okay!”
Then we talked for another 30 minutes about the town she’d grown up in and how she was named after her grandmother. Then we shook hands. And I left.
And it felt glorious.
With every fresh blog post, every website revision, every social media share, I ache to communicate, “This is me.” I crave connection with like-minded human beings who see the world like I do. And we will work together, and we will struggle together, and we will emerge on the other side feeling grateful that we chose each other.
Feeling inspired, connected, authentic.
We only get to do this once. I’m gonna do it right if it breaks me.