“If you take the same kind of photo that the Subject can take at home.” The Manager said in her evangelist voice. “Then you are limiting you sales potentials. You need to be creative.”
This comment was met with silence all around.
Over the past 16, going on 17, years I have heard this speech or one like it countless times. There is always something the Photographer or the Passer is doing wrong-and if they would just change a few things, we would all be making a killing selling Assembly Line Portraits. And it’s true, as far as it goes. Well center portraits of smiling people with their eyes open sell better than poorly framed snapshots of people with their eyes closed.
The Company wants us to run $150 averages and to be creative, but they don’t want us to use creative lighting or backgrounds. They have a set of poses they want us to use-and we are encouraged to use new poses, but the Lab will reject anything they don’t like. The emails I get are filled with examples of photos they don’t want you to shoot and the newsletter I get in the mail is filled with lighthouses, Photoshopped images, and outdoor shots-none of which fall into a regular day at the Shoots I work.
The Company likes to tell you about the Favored Ones, the folks running a $300 average for the year, the locals who beat out all the others in the District in sales, and so on and so forth. I guess this all harkens back to some Management 101 book from the 1940s, but comparing me to someone else only make me say, hey, put me at the same Shoot at the same time and I’d make the same numbers.
In the end the only number that matters is my paycheck-and it has fallen to record low levels. Still, I’m getting by, though I’m not sure for how much longer. Nothing happens until the pain of staying the same outweighs the pain of change. So true.
On the plus side. My old Manager has a territory that is a little farther away. Pretty much the only good thing about The Company is the occasional chance to do some traveling and go to places where I can take a few images that I can then try and sell. You can find my prints for sell at a number of spots-Jon-Herrera.com, Fine Art America, and Etsy. I also usually find someplace good to eat while I am on the road, though I do still find myself in a number of pretty mundane places and end up eating at Subway.
Traveling has always been one of my main reasons for being an Assembly Line Portrait photographer. I have been to a good deal of the country and someone else has picked up the tab, not a bad deal all in all. I should try and make friends with a couple of the Managers that live in Washington State and Wyoming and the like. I’m sure The Company has Shoots in Alaska and Hawaii as well, but the odds are good they will never pay for that kind of trip. It’s been some time since I was anywhere cool, but I did get to go to New Orleans a couple of weeks ago. That was nice. The place isn’t quite as scary as I remember it being, though someone was killed on Bourbon Street while we were in the area.
Ok, back to that whole Photography thing.
The Company has been in the Assembly Line Portrait game for about 80 years and it’s clear that they know how to make money for themselves. On an average day when the Shoot brings in $1000 in sales, the Photographer and Passer makes pretty close to nothing. The Company is BIG, so they might have a hundred Shoots going, so they made $100,000 while the people working for them that 1 day made nada. This is why the Big Wheels throw themselves parties on a regular basis and do their best to stay as far away from any actual work as possible.
One of The Managers favorite gags is to visit someone one week, give them a few tips on how to be a great Photographer or Passer and then the next week, put then at a Good Shoot. Then she can tell all of us to pull up our bootstraps and get with the program, see how So-and-So benefited from my priceless advice and made more money after I talked to them?
Yeah, I can see how he benefited from working a better Shoot. So how spreading a little of that love to the rest of us?
I used to be able to look online and see how all the Photographers were doing. You could pick out the Favorites pretty quickly that way, but you could also see that the rest of the crew was doing pretty much the same over the course of weeks and months. I don’t really need to see the stats to know that I am not doing so hot. I’m making right at about half of what I made last year. That’s a trend I really can’t afford. So that whole pain of staying the same is starting to add up.
The long drives and the light Shoot mean I’ve had a chance to catch up on some reading. I’ve have a few interesting discussions with the people I’ve been working with, mostly about how much this job sucks and what we hope to be doing over the next few months.
I’m still taking the same portraits I took when I was making 50k a year doing this. The problem is not the portraits, it’s the Shoots. But we’re not allowed to say that, as it’s a kind of negative thing. The plebs on the ground have no control over the Shoots, all we can do is take the best portraits we can and hope for the best. But the best I can get from Make Up Days, Two Year Shoots, and the other bits of trash The Manager doesn’t want to give to anyone else is not all that great.