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March 7 2011

In a few days I will be entering my eighth year as a full time professional photographer. I was called into my boss’s office on March 7, 2011 under the auspices of meeting with her to review a PowerPoint presentation for an upcoming meeting. When I entered her office, one of the HR representatives was there so I knew that something was up. Jean, my boss who happens to be the absolute worst supervisor I’ve ever had to endure during my corporate life began by saying “Mark, we’ve determined that your position is no longer needed. Tracy’s here to explain your severance package.” I then said “OK, well then you have no need to be here so why don’t you leave?” And at that point she lowered her head, grabbed her purse and left.

Tracy, the HR representative then went on to explain the rules of my severance package and told me, “After leaving this office you cannot return to your office or speak to any other employees. I asked Jean to have this separate meeting with you rather than in the conference room with the other people being laid off today. Now you can pursue your little photography business. Any questions?” I told her that I didn’t need to return to my office because months ago I had decided that the company was a horrible place to work so I had taken my personal affects home. I had been looking for a new job.

I’ve always believed in Karma. I heard months later that Jean was laid off, Sally the VP of HR was laid off, and years later Glenn the SVP of Operations was laid off too. All of whom I didn’t respect and felt their skills and demeanor was so poor compared to the other executives I had worked with in my 38 years in corporate America.

My partner sent me a link today of an article she read in the NY Times Magazine, “The Future of Work, Wealthy, Successful and Miserable.” As I read through the article (you may not be able to see it if you are not a NYT subscriber…sorry) I was reminded of the misery that prompted me to embark on this wonderful journey as a full time pro. The day after I was laid off I began to sit at my computer to look on Monster for jobs. It was then I asked myself a hard question: “Mark do you really want to submit your resume, go on interviews with 30 somethings, be asked ‘What is your five year plan?’ and reply ‘Fuck you’ which would not be conducive to being hired? Or do you want to man up and take all of the business development experience you have and start your own ‘little photography business’?”

Quite a few of the people who write to me here want to talk about gear. I can understand that because prior to doing this full time, I too was primarily interested in the latest and greatest gear what people used and why. But now I’m interested in concepts, light and the story. The reasons? My job of course is to produce imagery that helps market a service or concept. Yet ALL of the imagery I create involves people; people who are either performing or fine artists. My first desire is to create and capture their souls through a lens. I want them to see themselves in the way I see them, not how they so critically view themselves in the mirror. I truly feel that how someone feels about themselves in the moment we are together comes through in a photograph. I derive the most pleasure out of showing someone the beauty they radiate when they believe in who they are. I have recently decided to not photograph people who are incredibly critical of themselves. Because no matter how much effort is put forth, they will never be satisfied with how they look, simply because they are not happy with themselves. And that comes through on film. My intent is to always portray someone’s beauty, but I’m not in the business of long term projects with an individual I only have in front of me for ten minutes.

So as I read the NYT Mag article, I was struck how I could relate to the ‘high salaries, miserable at work’ mentality in the article. Prior to giving up my Direct Deposits, paid vacation and PTO time, medical and dental benefits, retirement accounts blah blah blah, I ALWAYS had a backup plan, Always. I had a ‘go bag’ in the event I was laid off, meaning a backup plan. Yet as a full time pro shooter with no safety net like having a spouse who is working with benefits I have none, NONE. No direct deposit, no paid benefits or vacation, no matching retirement accounts, no blah blah blah.

And I could not feel more secure and happy. Why? Because even given all of the things I thought I’d given up what I gained is the ability to create and meet with an incredible number of people is well worth the risk. Am I struggling financially, no I’m not. Reducing my personal expenses was key to much of that with the added benefit of financial freedom – and not through an increase in a salary. I recall photographing a theatre performance “Auctioning the Ainsleys” where one of the lines in the play ‘when the stuff you own begins to own you’ has always stayed with me. It’s so true.

Of course there are days/times when the person I have to photograph is difficult. But I get to CHOOSE if I want to continue and work with that person again. I get to weigh whether or not I can give up that income. Thankfully those instances have been very, very rare. But having the power to choose is enlightening. I have had an incredible number of people who support my efforts and work, something for which I will always be grateful.

A few excerpts from the NYT Mag article:

“What’s interesting, however, is that once you can provide financially for yourself and your family, according to studies, additional salary and benefits don’t reliably contribute to worker satisfaction. Much more important are things like whether a job provides a sense of autonomy — the ability to control your time and the authority to act on your unique expertise. People want to work alongside others whom they respect (and, optimally, enjoy spending time with) and who seem to respect them in return.

And finally, workers want to feel that their labors are meaningful. “You don’t have to be curing cancer,” says Barry Schwartz, a visiting professor of management at the University of California, Berkeley. We want to feel that we’re making the world better, even if it’s as small a matter as helping a shopper find the right product at the grocery store. “You can be a salesperson, or a toll collector, but if you see your goal as solving people’s problems, then each day presents 100 opportunities to improve someone’s life, and your satisfaction increases dramatically,” Schwartz says.

As the airwaves heat up in anticipation of the 2020 election, Americans are likely to hear a lot of competing views about what a “good job” entails. Some will celebrate billionaires as examples of this nation’s greatness, while others will pillory them as evidence of an economy gone astray. Through all of that, it’s worth keeping in mind that the concept of a “good job” is inherently complicated, because ultimately it’s a conversation about what we value, whether individually or collectively. Even for Americans who live frighteningly close to the bone, like the janitors studied by Wrzesniewski and Dutton, a job is usually more than just a means to a paycheck. It’s a source of purpose and meaning, a place in the world.”

I’ve said many times that my camera is simply my excuse to meet people. It’s so true and if I had stayed in corporate America I would have missed all that I have experienced. Glad I ‘man’d up’

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Hi Mark, Been a while since I last visited but I am so happy to read this article as it sums up my feelings so well.
I never did work for “the man” as I graduated form college in the recession of ’79. However, as I cast about looking for stable work (I was painting yachts in Sausalito in ’80) I decided to really go into photography as I had nothing to lose. It worked out and I am happy, no net, no backup but it worked out.