Navigating the Downturn

November 12th, 2009 | Photojournalism |

During a recent “Navigating the Downturn” dialogue at the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Communication, four panelists discussed how to approach photography from a business perspective. About 25 students, professors and professionals attended. The panel, organized by the National Press Photographers Association, was part of a nationwide effort that has already included evenings at Syracuse University and in Seattle. The discussion was moderated by Donald Winslow, editor of News Photographer Magazine.

Alicia Wagner Calzada, right, speaks during the panel discussion.

Robert Seale, former staff photographer at the Sporting News and the Houston Post; Mark Sobhani, former staff photographer at the San Antonio Express-News; Michael Mulvey, former staff photographer at The Dallas Morning News; and Alicia Wagner Calzada, former staff Orlando Sentinel and Rumbo photographer and NPPA past president, all gave their perspectives on getting ahead and staying there in the current challenging environment for editorial photographers.

Students, faculty and professors listen to the panel. From left is Robert Seale, Mark Sobhani, Michael Mulvey and Alicia Wagner Calzada.

Robert Seale noted that since the time he was laid off from the Houston Post in 1995, he has never had a non-updated portfolio. He later worked for the Sporting News, where he spent years in anticipation of leaving, one of his ultimate goals being to own his own work. “That was a huge, huge thing for me,” he said. He suggests photographers save their money and build up their kit – lighting gear, a good tripod – as well as practice good business acumen by having a separate business checking account and creating an entity for your business to protect your personal finances. Seale added that one should research his or her market and figure out a niche. “You need to be a specialist.”

Mark Sobhani, center, cracks wise during the panel discussion.

Mark Sobhani, who freelanced before he became a staff photographer, is also the owner of Wildfire Coffee, a coffee house in San Antonio. He opened the coffee house while he was a staff photographer at the San Antonio Express-News. It was the experience of opening and running a new business that changed his perspective after being laid off. In the past, he approached his freelance business as a photographer. He now treats it as a business owner. Sobhani also emphasized how the law of supply and demand cuts across all genres of business, be it the demand for coffee beans or photographers. If there is a glut of beans or a glut of photographers, that will affect the cost or compensation of both.

Moderator Donald Winslow, off-camera, encourages Robert Seale, left, for his thoughts.

Alicia Wagner Calzada noted that a photographer should become comfortable with rejection; to not be afraid to turn down jobs that won’t cover one’s cost of doing business. She learned the value of her time during a visit with a small business development counselor. Time otherwise spent on an under-budget job could be used for marketing. In Calzada’s case, she likes sticking with “old-fashioned postcards,” saying that it’s too easy to delete an e-mail. Further, she said the time invested in marketing instead of taking bad deals would eventually pay off.

Dirck Halstead makes the point that the best tool is one’s head and emphasized being a problem-solver.

Michael Mulvey isn’t shy about asking potential clients what their budget is. “Do you want someone who’ll show up with $20,000 worth of gear and knows what they’re doing? What’s the value in that?” On the topic of value, Sobhani noted that clients who hire based on price instead of quality will move on when they find someone cheaper. Someone who hires a photographer based on their work will be a much better customer in the long run. “If their first question is about price, its a red flag,” he said. They’re not calling him because he’s a good photographer, but because they might think he’s a cheap photographer.

Robert Seale spoke about focusing on a niche and paying attention to details.

Seale finished by addressing the importance of attention to detail. A photographer should print two or three print books, create thank-you cards and postcards, having all correspondence seamlessly integrated with one’s brand. He also stressed e-mail etiquette and the ability to be pleasant in writing.

Later, the panel, students and faculty gathered at one of Austin’s oldest venues, the Hole in the Wall, for drinks and conversation.

Michael Mulvey, left, holds court at the Hole in the Wall following the panel.

Magnum photographer and professor Eli Reed quenches his thirst.

Mark Sobhani with a glimmer in his eye.

Alicia Wagner Calzada at the Hole in the Wall.

Robert Seale, left, and Michael Mulvey share a laugh.

- by Eric Kayne. Kayne is a freelance photographer based in Houston.

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