It’s January 2020, and the holidays are finally over. I have always hated January because it is the “waiting month” for a freelancer. I always spend January waiting for people with “normal” lives to get back to work.
I know, you “normal people” deserve a break, it just does not appeal to me.
I entered 2020 the same way many of you did. I felt like this year was going to be the best year of my life. 2020 just had a good ring to it…..until Kobe Bryant’s helicopter hit a mountain, killing everyone on board.
2020 was going to be my year of prosperous change. I had struggled in 2019 surviving the ever-changing digital photography market. I knew what I wanted, but the road to get there was confusing and full of twists.
In 2019, I had been pushed in a lot of uncomfortable directions. I had failed at shooting video (because I had no interest in it mechanically). I had failed at being in front of the camera (64 takes dubbing a simple how-to video). I become bored with my subjects and began saying no to shoots I felt were below me.
I began to process my creative needs and finances. It became clear to me that I needed to be in New York City if I was ever going to level up. New York City has always been THE spot for my game, and I love working there.
In late February, I made the internal commitment to spend half my time in New York City. My good friends Kevin and Rika have a military-style cot I could use in their computer room to sleep on and that was all I required.
By early March, I was a regular on the L train, the guy at the bagel store knew me by my first name, and I was full of creative energy. My goal was to allow a miracle to happen, the kind of miracle that only happens when you commit to the discomfort of your passions and move forward regardless. I was well on my way.
One sunny March afternoon, I was on the Q train with a beautiful model as it slowly emerged from a tunnel winding its way to Coney Island. As it was mid-week and the train was going the wrong way, we had the car to ourselves. As my model draped herself around poles and seats, I dropped to the floor of the car to create perspectives you would not normally have on an active subway train. Getting a little dirty to get just the right shot is not new to me, and I thought nothing of it.
I happily rolled around on the dirty, germy floor of the Q with my camera in hand, making jokes and enjoying the company of my lovely model. An empty Coney Island was my background, the locals were feeling friendly, and we even ran into my old friend Dick Zigun, the owner of the Coney Island Freak Show.
A few days later, I was back in Los Angeles, feeling really good as my schedule was starting to open up. 2020 was promising to be an incredible year. I had shoots on my calendar that included shooting in the Louvre Museum in Paris, a Dublin gig was looking good, Vancouver, New York, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. were all confirmed locations. I was even considering subletting my apartment and staying on the road for long periods of time. But first, I needed to fly to Chicago to shoot with my good friend Sara Elkins.
I had heard a little about COVID-19 by this time, but I was not especially worried about a pandemic. I knew I needed to be vigilant, but I was not going to wear a mask on a plane, or anywhere else. It was not until I landed in Chicago and entered a completely vacant airport that I knew I was “not in Kansas anymore”.
The vibrant city of Chicago was completely empty. The trains were empty. The streets were empty. If people were out, they were scared, and on their way home.
Most people had canceled for Sarah’s conference as news began to break and panic began to spread. I began to get emails from friends around the world urging me to get home. That afternoon, clients began canceling shoots.
I took to the airwaves creating videos about how clean and safe an RDP photoshoot is, hoping that the cancelations would slow down. But by the time I got back to O’Hare airport, just days later, my last shoot had been canceled. I was officially out of work. I have been working since I was fifteen years old, I’ve always had work, and I’ve always loved to work. I was devastated.
In the course of a couple of days, I fell from the heights of thinking this would be my best year yet for business and personal growth, to the low cold valley of a heartbreakingly dead business, and an empty feeling soul. I broke into tears sitting alone in Concourse B on a Wednesday night at O’Hare Airport, I was scared shitless.
LAX was eerily vacant when we landed. There was not one person in sight in the terminal as I made my way to the exit. When I got home, I began making calls to my landlord, my credit card company, and my bank. I had enough money to last a little while, but not for the months the news predicted we would be on lockdown. I think very few freelancers keep large amounts of cash on hand, even though the Good Faith Freelancers Handbook says you should. Even if I had, none of us could have known how long and drawn out this would really be.
I realized that day that not having a plan was not good enough.
MY DEEPEST TRUTH IS:
I am a fighter. I am a killer of all things that get in my way, especially professionally.
I have escaped arrest three times that I can remember, all in the name of getting the perfect shot. I have been busted for trespassing at least as many times. I have been detained by the Mexican Police twice (they are the worst), and I had the guts to ask Steve Forbes to do silly selfie photos with me before a shoot to break the ice.
I understand risk versus reward.
I did not understand COVID-19 and knew I did not possess the skills to move forward alone. So I did one of the hardest things a person can do:
I ASKED FOR HELP.
Assembling a list of long time friends and clients, I sent out an S.O.S. email. My tribe answered the call with heartwarming speed in the spirit of true brotherly love. They helped me form a plan that allowed me to still maintain confidence in myself and my ability to survive, with the comforting knowledge that I had a safe place to fall if all else failed. My friends helped me to see clearly through my fear to list my options, organize my thoughts and ideas, and prioritize what was most important. They helped me figure out which bills to pay and which bills I could negotiate. When the plan was set, I did the next hardest thing in the world.
I FOLLOWED IT
I do not want to drone on about all the things I have lost to COVID-19. I prefer to tell you about all the things I have gained during this time.
I have learned I am a much stronger and smarter person than I ever believed I was. The unconscious survival skills I acquired as a kid are still with me, but I am no longer embarrassed by these skills. I embrace the thought of eating Top Ramen for a week if I need to.
I have been reminded that I have an absolute army of the most incredible friends standing with me and together we can and will defeat any and all threats. I am no longer scared. I REFUSE to be scared.
I HAVE FAITH
I have never been happier as a recovering person. The time I have spent learning to truly take things one day at a time and not let my mind get ahead of a situation has brought me deep and lasting peace. I have gained perspective on who I am as a person and the things I want as a professional photographer
I have been afforded the blessing to be able to be charitable to others in a time of crisis. I have every intention of continuing that long past the death of COVID-19. I have a deep connection to service and a willingness to give back.
I have learned to gratefully and gracefully receive and let others give to me. This may sound easy, but it was the hardest thing for me during this time.
I have gained a better and less emotional perspective on money.
Many friends have said that COVID-19 saved their businesses. I don’t know if it saved my business or not, but I can honestly say it has given me many gifts and opened up a new playing field for the future. Oddly, my path is much clearer today than it was at the beginning of the year.
I know exactly what needs to be done and I have already started down that path. It is very simple. Get up, open the window shades, have a cup of coffee, greet the sunshine, and get back to doing what I love.
This week, I am headed to New Orleans to seize yet another opportunity, shooting in an abandoned French Quarter.
I cashed in my airline miles, got a hotel, and am providing for my clients at my own expense.
Why you may ask?
Because nobody else is going to save me. I am going to save me. It is time to put up or shut up.
We have to do what we love regardless of money right now. We have to help those who have helped us. WE HAVE TO GET THIS GOING AGAIN. We must invest in ourselves and our clients safely and confidently.
We have to be bigger, stronger, and louder than ever before as creatives.
Do what you LOVE NOW and I promise you will not only survive, you will prosper. Invest in you.
I have to pack. I have a flight to catch and a rockstar to photograph.