I Looked Into a Mirror and Realized I Had to Change My Relationship with Professional Photography
They were heady times. Not much left of that era but the shock waves.
How I Changed My Career Focus Midstream and Why
(But I still stayed behind the lens, so there’s that!)
I started my creative life as a jazz musician who found photography to be a stress reliever when on the road.
When the dust of the road became more than what I expected it to be, I knew I would either end up burned out or a druggie.
So I lied my ass off to get a job as a junior designer in a very good ad agency, and that eventually led to me becoming a full-time (but usually broke AF) fashion photographer in LA. The gigs were amazing, and the pay was good, but it was always a pain in the ass to collect, and keeping on top of the financials while shooting 7 days a week was harder than I thought. Especially troubling in mid-April.
Although I wouldn’t trade those heady, wild, and inspirational days for anything, I knew in the depths of my sleep-deprived soul that I needed to be doing something different for a more stable business.
I want to tell you about how I finally diversified and began making more money with less stress and still spending a great deal of time behind the camera.
It’s 1983, and I am on the road a lot.
Back in Phoenix after a business disaster in LA involving burglars literally pulling the steel door off the back of my studio on Melrose and relieving me of all my worldly possessions—at least camera-wise—and I’m wondering what the hell to do.
I doubled down on my goals.
I took a job teaching at a post-secondary school and saved every nickel.
It took a while to regroup, but with some good friends and borrowed gear, I was back in business within 18 months.
I’m shooting my ass off. Sometimes two or three shoots a day.
Locally and nationally.
Clients and gigs in New York, a partner in a studio in Chicago, and a little shop here in Phoenix. As I said, heady days.
And long nights on Jet Blue red-eye flights with full aisles to myself. They would only lightly board the plane due to carrying lots of heavy stuff in the cargo bays and left enough weight room to carry 30 passengers per flight.
Knapsack with shirts, jeans, socks, and a camera bag full of Nikons.
Good to go.
I bought the film when I landed, so I didn’t have to carry it with me through the X-Ray machines. After the shoots, I would send it home by FedX — two separate shipments.
In NYC, I was staying at a friend's apartment down in Chelsea. He was a sports photographer and always gone, so I kept the refrigerator stocked with his favorite beer, and he would leave my coupons for cheap meals.
That was a lifesaver, for sure.
I would usually have at least two weeks full of assignments and tests.
Tests paid about $200 at that time. Agencies like Elite, Wilhelmina, and Ford liked me so I would generally make a couple of grand while building my book for fashion and catalog clients in Chicago.
Chicago clients loved using “New York” photographers, although the shooters in Chi-town were amazing as well.
And Phoenix. Damn, the Phoenix people would go nuts when they saw Brooklyn, the World Trade Centers, and 7th Avenue in my photos.
Even though I lived in Phoenix, most of my fashion was done in the windy city.
Catalog work, OTR crap, and some trade ads mostly, but hey, models and stylists and MUAs and editors, so yeah, Imma gonna call it fashion.
During this time, I was learning how to design because some of my clients liked the way I created presentations of their work. Of course today we would call it a “look-book”, they would call it an in-house catalog or promo.
(I had also done a lot of ‘design’ for my band, and a few other musicians and artists in the previous decade, so I knew myself around a lot of this stuff. Rubber cement, typeset, T-Squares, and a sweet old drafting table that cost me a fortune.)
I would spend a week in Chicago, a week in New York, and two weeks in Phoenix every month for nearly three years.
I had the apartment in NYC, and in Chicago, we lived right in the studio.
It was a three-story old home on the edge of the places no one ever goes in Chicago. Southside was right out my door.
We were low-key, blacked out all the windows on the lower floors, and kept mace with our baseball bats handy near the doors. We always took taxis to and from, and tried not be be outside after dark.
I lived cheaply and flew redeyes on every tript.
But I was building a book and a reputation, and I knew, just KNEW, that I was going to be in Vogue at some point. Soon.
And then, we had a baby.
And just like that, the idea of spending two weeks away was not something I wanted to do anymore.
(I have always contended that people have to decide what they want out of life and do that. Sometimes we end up sacrificing one thing for another. I have never regretted my choice of family first.)
So I moved all my stuff back to Phoenix and began shooting more commercial work and less ‘fashion’ which was easy since there was no fashion in Arizona. None, nada, zip.
And that is when things changed in my relationship with photography.
I had a nice little studio on the border between Tempe and Phoenix, a good client list, and I was doing more and more big jobs. The travel hussle was behind me, and I was shooting far more local than I had ever been.
Mind you, my entire portfolio was fashion, beauty, and lifestyle. Indeed, it was all women. I had a few male models in fashionable OTR for catalogs, but as I mentioned, there wasn’t enough fashion to even speak of in Phoenix.
So I was burning the candle at both ends, working on assignments while building my portfolio of tabletop, product, and food in every spare moment I had after spending time with my little one.
I do not think I came up for air for about 18 months.
No movies, vacations, or San Diego weekends.
And my funds were not coming in as fast as they were going out.
I was doing a lot of work for agencies, and that was great.
But they seemed to have a problem with payments — not so great.
My vendors wanted to be paid in thirty days.
And I always took care of my vendors first.
I had lab bills of up to $3500 consistently.
And the agencies started down this path of we’ll pay you in 60 days, then 90 days, then… WTF?
Screw that (sorry, but really, screw that!)
My wife and I had been planning a short hop to the beach for a while. We were excited to take our little one out to the waves.
After I paid my lab fees, vendors, model and talent agencies, rent, insurance, and quarterlies, I had $670 in my account and was owed nearly $90K from agencies that were dragging their feet.
Yes, I should never have let it get that bad, but looking back is easier than being there.
So I took money out of savings and we went.
On the beach, watching my girls play, I made the decision that I would NEVER get into that situation again.
The following Monday morning, I began my expanded services business.
Yes, I was a photographer, but I was also a designer. And I was damn good at what we would today call ideation; coming up with advertising and marketing ideas.
I looked for clients that needed photography, AND a brochure, AND branding (identity), and went for them with all I had.
I stopped shooting for advertising agencies soon after.
I would get a client who needed what I could offer, and I would design, shoot, produce, and deliver the product. I would be paid for all of it.
Like at delivery, or within 15 days at most.
Within two years, I had begun building what would later (1993) become an ad agency. The agency, OCEAN IMG, went from my spare bedroom office to the third largest agency by billing in Phoenix in 2000.
We even made the region’s Fast Fifty at number three. Not bad for an agency in business for less than 7 years.
All because I wasn’t going to accept being at the bottom of the food chain anymore.
The people who delivered drinking water to the agencies, the people who maintained their plants, swept their floors, and made sure the coffee makers worked, all got paid before me (and other photographers), and I was never going to be treated like that again.
In my agency, we paid on delivery and would, on rare occasions, do 15 days, but never longer.
Now it is 2023.
And it is time for all creatives to widen and deepen their offerings. Expand your toolkit, enhance your skills, and take back the reigns of your career by becoming a visual creator.
One that delivers the goods.
YouTube can help.
Courses can help.
Social Media can help.
Design, video and motion, writing, ideation—all of these are within your immediate grasp.
And, in my opinion, any good photographer is probably a pretty darn good designer and art director, so how about adding that to your list of skills today?
I decided early this year to sunset Project 52 and launch The Creative Class, focusing on this specific topic; helping photographers build a sustainable and steady business in the visual arts. The course took me a little longer to develop than I thought (AI jumped in the middle of all of our stuff in March) but it is ready to go.
Check it out if you think it might interest you.
THE CREATIVE CLASS: Where photographers learn to develop a sustainable and scalable business.
Hi, I’m Don Giannatti, a photographer and mentor for up-and-coming photographers. You can find me on my own site, Don Giannatti, and at my Substack site, where I also publish for creative people. All subscribers to my Substack have access to a free, long-form workshop on the business of commercial and professional photography.