17 October 2017

Engage the Fear Machine

The textbook definition of a phobia is "an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something.”

To me, the key word there has always been irrational. For someone living in the Midwest, I’ve found fear of sharks to be a bit silly, but I know several people for whom it’s a real thing. For me, the two biggest ones are spiders and heights. There’s nothing to be said to change my mind in either case. I know people keep spiders as pets, and I assume they’re very happy together. And there are people that make great (fantastic, even!) livings walking high steel or not-so-high roofs putting on shingles and whatnot. But both of those ideas are beyond the realm of conceivable to me.

When I talk about irrational, for me that means that seeing a spider, even a little one, makes my pulse race and my blood pressure spike. There’s no reason for it. I could step on it and end the ‘threat’ in about two seconds. But knowing that logically doesn’t help at all when all those subconscious, animal-based fight-or-flight mechanisms start firing off. The same thing with heights: I get very wobbly standing on something as small as a step-stool. There’s a very low likelihood of injury falling from a height measure in inches, no feet, but the fear still fires up.

But slap a camera in my hand, point me toward a shot, and tell me “do what you need to and make it happen” and things change. Today at lunch, I was killing time and grabbing some random shots of some fall blooms on some flowers when I caught some movement. I took the camera down and noticed there was a small little spider on one of the petals, obviously protecting his home. No matter how small, my typical reaction would have been to step back and move on, letting him rule that roost. But I had my trusty Canon, and all I could think was “Oh! You’re gonna pose for me??” and I started shooting again.

I’ve been known to climb five flights of stairs (exercise isn’t a phobia, but it’s something I avoid when possible!) to get to a rooftop, lean out over the edge, and get a shot of a party in the street below. Rather than worrying about who below will end up wearing whatever I’d eaten in the previous 48-hours, I mostly just worry about not dropping my camera….and making sure my lens cap is off.

I’ve read photojournalists talking about this sort of thing. Seeing the horrors of war through a lens lessens the impact, not because they’re callous and unfeeling, but because it has to. You can’t do that kind of kind of job and not separate yourself from it to a degree. I’m not comparing me taking photos of flowers with spiders on them to the ravages of war, but I think it’s the same concept. The lens, the camera, becomes not just a tool but a filter. It’s not a conscious choice, not for me, anyway (and far be it from me to speak for anyone else!). It’s more that when I lock in on something I want a shot of, I stop worrying about other things. I stop thinking about the spider, or the fall, or the derby jammer that’s falling and the skate coming at my head, or the pyro blast going off a few feet away on stage. I’ve got my camera, I want the shot.

Everything else will just have to wait.

04 October 2017

Times They Are A Changin'

“Where else could you parlay that talent?”
That was a question someone asked me while looking at my concert photos the other day, after I told them I didn’t do it for a living because no one really wants to pay for that kind of work. I was flattered by the compliment, of course, but the answer holds true. I like to consider myself a photographer, and can even call myself a professional since I have gotten paid on occasion.
The market, however, is saturated with people like me, though. I saw someone local post on Facebook a few weeks back asking for recommendations on local photographers that can do indoor and outdoor portrait photos. I don’t really do portraits because, frankly, I’m terrible at them. (I’ve done them a few times and I’m lucky I didn’t get hunted with pitchforks.) In response, I saw at least a dozen names thrown out there, and I only knew one or two of them. In a town of 40,000 people, that’s a LOT of photography!

DSLR cameras are getting cheaper all the time, with the lower-end cameras getting the performance that cost four or five figures just ten years ago. Cellphone camera technology has gotten to the point that fans shooting photos from the first dozen rows at concerts are getting shots that some pros can’t get, especially when access is limited to shooting further back by the artists.

And artists themselves, they’re finding less and less reason to need photographers. Magazines and newspapers are dying, even online. When it comes to music media, even the venerable Rolling Stone magazine has announced that they’ve put themselves on the market recently. Social media is the new communications method, and at any given shot, a performer can expect hundreds or even thousands of images to pop up instantly after – often during! – the shows. Even radio stations just send their own people and grab cellphone shots to share! (This isn’t a knock, by the way. I know that’s an industry trying to figure things out, too, where they have people wearing more hats than ever before, covering on-air and behind-the-scenes responsibilities!)
So where does that leave me? I’m over 40 now, and I’m just starting to dip my foot into something that I would love to do for a living, but it’s a field that’s becoming extinct. My name isn’t Ross Halfin or Todd Owyoung or Annie Liebovitz. I’m not really getting calls asking me to go to shows (I have gotten a handful of those from a publicist for smaller, up-and-coming acts). When I go shoot shows, they’re for myself, and for fun. This might be shooting myself in the foot if the wrong people read it, but I work freelance through the local paper because you have to be credentialed through a reputable source to get in the door. But the deal is I use their name, they run photos and reviews on occasion, but that’s the exchange. It’s not for-hire work. I think it’s a fair trade, because it’s gotten me into shows I wouldn’t get any other way.

But I’m still subject to photo releases from the band, which means they tell me where I can shoot, for how long, and what I can (and can’t) do with the photos afterward. I’ve seen some photographers talking about how they simply refuse to sign those. I guess I could try that, and then I would imagine I would be told to have a nice drive home.  As I said, the bands and artists don’t need me at this stage in the game, so they get to set the rules.

Back to the original question: Where can I parlay what I love doing (and what some people apparently see as me doing well) into a money-making gig? The answer to that is…I have no idea. A band might call me tomorrow and offer to take me out as a tour photographer. That would be cool. The odds of that are about the same as them picking a kid from the crowd to join them as a guitar player or singer. Which, I might add, has happened, but not very often. I might get offered a deal as a venue photographer somewhere, but since most places have a few shows a year, maybe as many as a few dozen for a really busy venue, that’s still not likely to pay the bills. And that would certainly require moving, also.

None of this is meant to be a complaint. I’m really loving what I’m doing right now. Would I like to be making money at it? Hell, yes, I would! I just think I’ve come along at a time when the whole business is shifting away from that whole model. And that kills me. But as long as I keep getting “approved” in my e-mails, I’ll keep going. I’m seeing performers I love, shows I never thought I’d see, and I’m getting to shoot some (hopefully) great photos of them.
And if a few folks are enjoying what they’re seeing, then that’s just a cherry on top for me.