That One Time Working Retail Photography Taught Me a Life Lesson

I was sitting on the couch in my favorite coffeehouse when I received an email about a job interview from a photography studio. I didn't even remember applying to this place, but I was ecstatic and immediately replied to set up a date and time. I had just moved back home from Arizona, and I was unemployed and quickly going broke, so this job had found me at the perfect time.

I came prepared for the interview: lint-free black pants and my portfolio in hand. She began by asking the obvious question, "do you have photography experience?" To which I quickly replied, "yes." She then informed me that it was a "plus" but that no actual photography experience was required. For a photographer position. This should have been my first red flag, but instead it made me feel like I had an advantage over the other candidates and I left feeling optimistic. A few days later I was notified that I earned the position and I couldn't have been more excited. I was about to live the dream--steady pay as a photographer, full-time, with benefits? What could be better?

Well, just about anything.
It was torture.

There were training videos. Three hours of them. Per day. And not about how to work a Nikon camera (which would've been nice; that was the first time I'd used one). These videos were about posing people, different people, all the same way.
What I've loved about photography is the spontaneity of it, the plan that there is no plan, you and your subjects bounce off of one another to create an experience that's unique to itself and those people, only. And this job was just the opposite.

There was a formula. A twenty-minute session. Two kids? First child, left profile close-up. Second child, right profile close-up. Mom and Dad joining in? Dad on the left, Mom on the right. Mom's arm awkwardly placed on Dad's left shoulder. Little Emily, in front of Dad, knees facing inward, princess-style. Little Jimmy in front of Mom, criss-crossed, hands on lap. Mom's other arm goes on Little Jimm'ys left shoulder.
Rolls and rolls of backdrops and facades. Each family gets two.
Why take a photo in a real garden in real natural light when you can pose in front of a picture of a garden and replace the sun with a tungsten light?
Time to upload and get your sales pitch ready. No color grading, no touch-ups. Maybe a crop here and there.

Now, try to sell this family a very specific, un-customizable and overpriced package entirely composed of these mediocre, cookie-cutter images. "Congratulations! Your family has officially become a stock photo." Each time they discard an image, guilt trip them into keeping it. When that doesn't work, overload them with information on the next-lowest tier package in hopes that they'll just buy it to shut you up. 

"With this next package, these 200 useless photos that all look the same also come with a pointless personalized mug, an 8x11 canvas that will grow dust in your closet, and a FREE tote bag you don't even want, all for the totally appropriate price of $399, even though we have a misleading sign on the window that says '$19.99 special!' and that's probably what you came here for."

I couldn't stand it, but I tried to push through. I kept telling myself, it's just different, it doesn't mean it's not right for you.

I clocked in one morning. The other new-hire and I were given a worksheet that instructed us to map out an entire session for a family of six. It asked us to label poses, backdrops, props and lighting equipment we would use for each photo. My brain couldn't comprehend it. I sat for many minutes staring at this sheet of paper, waiting for it all to make sense. For some reason I felt like I still wanted this job, even though everything about it went against everything I believe in and enjoy as a photographer. But the more I zoned out on this blank paper, the less I wanted to sit there and force myself to conjure up something that just didn't feel natural.
I got up from my chair.
I asked my boss if I could speak to her privately, explained to her that this wasn't for me, thanked her for the opportunity, and clocked out.

Although I was immediately disappointed about being unemployed yet again, I felt so liberated leaving there knowing that I wasn't going to settle. What good is a well-paying corporate job if the work you're doing puts a bad taste in your mouth?

Now, this isn't me encouraging anyone to up and leave their job. I'm not trying to romanticize the idea of it, either. I know we've all got bills to pay and it's probably not best to abandon ship without having one foot in another boat first.
In this specific instance, I got another job just a couple weeks later. And I fell in love with it. It paid one dollar less hourly, I was given half as many hours and no benefits, not to mention my commute time was four times longer (literally). I was picking up freelance work to make ends meet. Taking photos how I wanted to take them. I may have been scraping by, but I was happy. 

No one enjoys the obligation of going to work. I think if money just fell into our laps and we could spend our days however we wanted, no one would complain. But since that's not the case, it's important to remember not to settle with the ways your time is taken. Do your best to enjoy everything you do, even when it's your job and when working sucks and when you'd rather be at home with your girlfriend/boyfriend/dog.
You don't get that time back.

Gabby HallComment