Surviving lockdown - lessons from the pandemic
We all learn a lot of things at school that have to be reassessed in adulthood, such as, talent always wins, failing is a bad thing, procedures must be followed, and life is fair. As for weathering tough times? That’s something we all have to learn for ourselves. Schooling overlooks it completely. Candide McDonald reports.
Ask a photographer, “What is the toughest time you’ve experienced in your career?”, and the answer will probably be, “the coronavirus.” And according to Perth-based animal photographer Alex Cearns, “The impact of COVID-19 is definitely one of the toughest times I’ve experienced in my career”. The Los Angeles-based portrait, advertising, and celebrity photographer Art Streiber agrees: “This is, by far, the toughest time I’ve experienced in my career,” he says.
Likewise, American advertising and commercial specialist Tim Tadder has also felt the full brunt of the last few months. “The global spread of COVID-19 severely hampered the creative industry. Through this high-level of uncertainty, anxiety, and stress, I wasn’t able to fully utilise my creative mind as I’d done for the past fifteen years,” he states. “I truly live and breathe on the mindset of collaboration and connection in the creative industry. It’s what I’ve built my career on.
I thrive on the energy of the sets, working in close contact with others, and I didn’t have that connection for almost three months.”
The advertising industry has been hit particularly hard, and the holding companies of the seven largest advertising agencies had eliminated 49,695 global positions by 1 June as advertising work withered. “The level of uncertainty during this time bred sleepless nights and anxiety about a multitude of things, especially expenses. I was essentially bleeding money with the hopes that it was all going to turn around soon, which was tremendously scary,” Tadder recalls. Expenses exceeded his resources, and he didn’t know when he would be able to work again.
The harshest moment
The pandemic came on suddenly and affected everyone in the world together. It was also a critical moment that tested everyone’s resolve and resilience at the same time. No photographer was shielded from that. As noted above, talent doesn’t always win; failing is never a bad thing in the long run; ingenuity trumps procedures in any crisis; and life simply is not fair – to quote a cliché, it’s what you make of it. Tough times give people two choices: to feel stuck and become incapacitated by that, or use resolve and ingenuity to work around, or through, them.
Italian photographer and journalist, Alberto Giuliani explains: “To be honest, I’m not scared by economically tough periods. When I started taking pictures in 1993, at age 18, I was living in a garage. My budget was so poor that I had to decide whether to buy something for lunch or the newspaper. In the same period, in Rosario, Argentina, I spent three months living on the streets with a group of street children. It was my first important photographic work. I learned to not be afraid even when I have nothing. And at the same time, I learned how to use my skills to earn good money.”
Streiber adds that during the financial crisis of 2009-2011 he was still working, but just not as much as he had been previously. “But [the pandemic] has been a total shutdown of my livelihood. I had a smattering of editorial jobs over twelve weeks, but that was it. What got me through was my optimistic faith that ‘this too shall pass’…eventually.”
South African photographer and World Press Photo of the Year winner (2010), Jodi Bieber built her career by documenting the tough times of others, and her resilience is still consonant with that of her subjects. “I have always followed my path as a photographer, regardless of trends or shifts or difficult times within the photographic environment. I trust my instinct even with the constant hum of background noise projecting fear and uncertainty in my choices into new directions. Around 2010, for example, I made a decision to leave photojournalism as a core part of my life and pursue my own photographic projects – exhibitions, creating books, giving lectures, teaching photographic workshops, ethical fashion photographic shoots, and creative collaborations within the parameters of my own style of photographing. I have succeeded in doing this.”
It’s never too hard
During COVID, South Africa reached its highest level of lockdown quickly. It was one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. Bieber was about to go to France to participate in two outdoor photographic festivals where her work was to be exhibited. On 14 May, her first solo show at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York and her exhibition at Addis Foto Fest in Ethiopia were postponed. “I saw it as an opportunity,” she says. “I created a photographic series in collaboration with my husband at home called, Francois. Lockdown in times of the Corona Virus. I would post a photograph a day on Instagram. I used this platform for the first time to show a full series.” Bieber then created a different series on Francois when lockdown eased. Afterwards, she began working on getting it exhibited after coronavirus, and potentially becoming a book.
“I kept my living expenses down to basics and had to trust that all would eventually be well. I do not have children which made things easier. I kept busy, kept creating,” she adds.
COVID was the first time that Alex Cearns had to close her pet photography studio to clients. “I started my business during the global financial crisis in 2009, so trading through tough economic times didn’t scare me, but adding a pandemic to the mix was completely new, for me and for everyone else,” she says. Her business had been shared between photo sessions and coaching. She increased coaching enrolments, managing to double them, with clients enrolling from Australia, the UK, Canada, New Zealand, and the USA. “It was also a nice way to stay connected to people in different parts of the world,” she says. Cearns also tried to complete as many photo sessions as she could before lockdown, and then switched all of her in-person sales sessions to Skype, and conducted them from home. “Interestingly, out of the seventeen sessions
I conducted, all seventeen spent money,” she notes. “I was expecting most would have lost their jobs, or not been able to afford anything, given the COVID situation. This made me realise that in-person sales are not necessary, but ‘guided sales’ are. As long as you are stepping your clients through your sales process and assisting them with their purchase decisions, they will still buy. ‘Guided sales’ is my new mantra.”
Tim Tadder mustered his resourcefulness during COVID-19. “It’s all about adapting. I put all that stress and anxiety into helping others. There’s no other way to overcome than to be positive,” he says. “I had to completely shift my focus from creative to actually marketing myself on a personal level. I started doing Instagram Live every week and shared what I was going through mentally through COVID-19. It was incredibly therapeutic and helpful for me.”
For Australia newborn photographer Kelly Brown, maintaining routines is especially important during tough times because they help to keep you motivated. Noticing how COVID was affecting other photographers, she drew on the mentoring part of her business, using her “spare” time to share as much information and motivation as she could in a private Facebook group. “For eight weeks, I went live daily for over 30,000 photographers worldwide, providing free tutorials on how they could use this time to improve their camera skills, lighting, and editing, as well as working on their marketing, pricing, and branding, so we’d be ready to hit the ground running when this was over. We also had lots of fun with DIY projects, which provided ways to save money and stay inspired,” she explains. “I truly believe that if I hadn’t gone live daily during this crisis, it would have consumed me. It gave me a sense of purpose, and the support I received back brought us all closer together. We kept each other inspired and motivated as a community.”
Being productive during tough times has its own rewards other than merely maintaining motivation and keeping spirits from becoming low. For Cearns, a burst of productivity came from the negativity of COVID. She started to resent being bombarded by COVID-19 information at every turn. “It was all that the online and TV news focussed on, and social media was filled with opinions and speculation about it 24/7. I began seeking daily joys and photographing them, and this led to creating a Facebook group called, ‘Today’s Joy’ so that other people could do the same. I wanted to encourage people to look for their own joy, regardless of where they were, and to share it with others so that we all remember that there were still a lot of wonderful things in life too. That literally improved my mental health overnight. So many people have sent me lovely feedback about the group, expressing how much it helped them get by, and the group is still very active with over 300,000 interactions of some sort to date.”
Without the excuse of being too busy or not having enough time any more, Cearns also did a lot of things she had put into her “someday box”. She wrote several new coaching programs, participated in Skype interviews, hosted online training for photography groups and brands in Australia and the USA, created a global viral photo series which was viewed on Bored Panda by over 42,000 people and picked up by several media outlets, booked client photo sessions for post-COVID appointments, edited the text for her next book (due out in November with Harper Collins Australia), transferred her entire client record management database from an antiquated system to Studio Ninja (“No mean feat with over 9,000 client entries,” she notes), populated Time Exposure Pro Select with her price list and product templates after almost twelve years of using it, redesigned several marketing items, completed an online certification in Canine Communication, and started a second online certification in Pet Psychology.
Tadder launched his Art for Assistants program, an initiative which raised almost US$300,000 for assistants in the industry who did not have any revenue coming in during the pandemic. “I spearheaded the program to help promote it and it spread like wildfire. The program allowed me to find that collaboration and connection I desperately needed. I think we have to create value and meaning for people in this industry with more positive support. My whole mentality during COVID-19 was to combat the negativity and be a positive leader and supporter in my industry,” he says. Art Streiber was one of the photographers who participated. It filled his time with purpose. “It turned out to be a lot more complex than I had imagined it would be, signing and mailing 100 prints, along with the required certificates of authenticity and thank you notes for all 100 prints.”
Tips for tough times
Here is some advice from photographers who have conquered tough times themselves.
Alberto Giuliani: “In my experience, tough times are marked by psychological and emotional uncertainty.” Giuliani has made major big changes during his career. “I love to change, I feel nomadic, and the uncertainty is part of this approach to life, but sometimes it’s not easy,” he admits. “I can affirm that every difficult period is a great occasion to grow, to become stronger. The only useful help is inside each of us – we have ‘simply’ to face our fears. A suggestion is to look far ahead, try to understand what it will be like after one month, one year, three years. If you can focus on that, you will understand how better to focus your resources.” Another idea is to fix one goal, he adds, so that you don’t get lost, and so that you can pinpoint and find the external resources you need to move ahead.
Alex Cearns: “In hard times, I think it’s important to know that they will pass in some way, shape, or form. Planning now for future difficult times, like a recession, is advisable. Trim the fat off your outgoings, maintain strong and honest communication with your clients in case you need to shift appointments at short notice, and always hit it while it’s hot, that is, make the most of every business opportunity to capitalise on the good times to cover the gaps of the tough times. Strategise your marketing options to hit the ground running as soon as things lift, and to attract clients back to your business. If you offer a product people want, they will continue to want it. You just need to reach them. And see downtime as an opportunity to complete projects you are usually too busy to do, which will serve your business well in the long run.”
Kelly Brown: As we start to emerge from tough times, she says, we are always faced with learning to adapt to a different normal. “Some of us will cope, and some won’t. That’s OK. We have to be kind to ourselves moving forward, take one day at a time, and seek support from those around us. Reaching out to existing clients should be a priority.”
Art Streiber: “Create your own micro-goals for building up the infrastructure of your small business; do a deep dive into your archive and your database. Organise your tear sheets. Organise all of the client contracts you’ve received. Create new systems that will support your business when work returns. I always used to say that downtime is a gift. Unfortunately, COVID’s downtime was the gift that kept on giving, and giving, and giving. In the past, I recognised that my business came and went in waves and that it was important to me to make a list of what I wanted to accomplish when things slowed down, and cross those things off my list so that I could work more efficiently and effectively when the next wave of work rolled in.”
Streiber adds that marketing during COVID was a bit of a minefield so he chose to reimagine it as ‘empathetic outreach’. “I sent e-mails to my regular clients and let them know that I was here if they needed me to answer any questions at all,” he says. Personal projects are important in tough times, he adds, but “creativity on demand” is nearly impossible. “All of us will be creative in our own time, when we’re ready. It’s important not to beat yourself up if you’ve found that you’re not able to pick up a camera and come up with a great idea. You just never know which images will resonate, so, when you are able, you just have to keep on shooting.”
Tim Tadder: “Whenever I’ve encountered adversity, I’ve leaned heavily into it. I keep pushing myself into the struggle to hopefully see the light at the end of the tunnel. Facing the fear head on is the only way to overcome it. Through COVID-19, I had to pivot my focus and work on marketing initiatives. I built a new website, new strategies, new tactics, and a new fine art website.”
You’ve got this
For Bieber, her experience as a professional photographer already gives her the resources to weather tough times. “I am used to working alone and not always being aware when the next paying project will come up or a limited-edition print will sell. I have had to practise self-discipline for so many years that it comes naturally to me.” This includes creating projects which have relevance to one’s internal and external world. “We are all uncertain what the future holds and if the economy that feeds our sector will have the funds available to continue supporting our creative practice. Within all the noise that surrounds us, the limitations, and world circumstances which instil fear and stop us from doing things, my best advice is to continue to follow your intuition and ‘just keep doing it’.”
A tough period is no time to catastrophise, says Tim Tadder. It’s a time to be rational. “Problem solving is a highly undervalued quality in this industry. When things go wrong, you have to be prepared to make them right,” he says. “As a photographer, things are going to go wrong and we have to find ways to right them. Talent requires understanding the ability to find the solutions, and if you can’t do that you’re probably not in the right business.” When work gets challenging, he adds, it can feel very dark. “I have been in those dark places before, but what’s always helped me is making meaningful connections and looking through the lens of other people’s struggles.”
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