Joe McNally Takes Stock of the Photo Industry He Once Knew

February 21, 2020

By Joe McNally

Image © Joe McNally

Younger Self,

So, what do I say to you, all these exposures later?

Oh, you know, the usual. Try not to worry, even though this is a worrisome thing to do. Be frugal and conservative on the money side of things, even though this business requires a degree of entrepreneurial risk that practitioners of more sober-sided endeavors would look upon as positively quixotic, even downright foolhardy. 

Try to relax! Even though the slightest quiver in the weather patterns can dash your hopes for a picture, thus imparting to this profession a certain level of ambient anxiety. Be comfortable with uncertainty! There are many unseen dangers out there lurking in the pixel forest. Ahh, but the biggest dangers lurk within yourself.

So, get over yourself! That’s a good and important one, and one that many a shooter simply cannot seem to manage, even when faced with insurmountable evidence that being more light-hearted and less self-involved would be a good idea. Remember that lip service about your pictures and how fantastic they are is in abundance. Serious support is scarce. It’s tough. Photographers can fear being inconsequential as much as many people fear death and dismemberment.

I have been to many gatherings of prominent photographers, both real and self-appointed, and one hears a generally intoned mantra mumbled in between cocktails and an increasingly disappointing and economically minded offering of hors d’oeuvres about what we do as being “important.” (Upon my first cover story for National Geographic, I hosted such a gathering, honoring the longtime tradition photographers upheld there by throwing a cover story party. It was de rigueur at that time. I went over the top, so giddy was I about the cover, spending about $1,000 on shrimp and vodka-soaked sardines or whatever. Those cover parties rapidly receded into the realm of boxed wine and Ritz crackers, and thence to no observance at all.)

And of course, what we do is important, massively so. But then, a cautionary note always creeps into my head. If what we do is so important, why do the people we do it for treat us so poorly? Those increasingly drab cover parties marched in lockstep with the downgrading of contracts, predatory rights grabs, layoffs, and a variety of indignities manifesting themselves in restrictions in field expenses. 

So, how to weather this long-term, never-ending storm? Let go. Be happy. Realize the trappings of photographic ego are heavy indeed, like carrying a massive tripod around with you on a shoot. To a reasonable degree, care not about the fee or the deadline or the unrealistic expectations. Be lighter of heart about all this, for photography itself is not designed to be ponderous and dark of mood. 

Revel in the sound of the shutter; it is the exclamation point at the end of the sentence, “I am a photographer!” Understand that being a photographer still requires you to take a walk, whilst others labor seated at computers. Accept the glorious fact that what you will do today with a camera will almost certainly be inconsequential, but that sliver of hope still gleams in your head and heart that the next frame is the one. 

And the beautiful thing is, whenever you pick up a camera, there will be a next frame.