Young photographers say yes a lot. If the money’s right—or even if it’s not—the tendency is to take practically every assignment that comes their way. But that’s not necessarily the best path to long-term success. It can be tough to find the right balance. You’ve got to eat, upgrade equipment, pay rent… So how do you know when to say no?
According to longtime National Geographic photographer and Sony Artisan Ira Block knows a thing or two about longevity and staying energized and creative. In addition to decades traveling the globe for National Geographic, Block is one of the most popular photographers on Instagram with more than 320,000 followers. He firmly believes that the ability to be increasingly selective with the assignments you accept is a side effect of success. But being deliberate in the assignments you choose is also a way to find success. It’s as important on day one as it is decades into a career.
“As of late,” Block says, “I’m more picky about what I want to do. When I was younger it was great because it was a new experience any time anyone called me about a project. I’d never say no, just go yeah I’ll do it. I think I was just saying yes to too many things, so I wasn’t creating a specific body of work. My advice now to a young photographer is to get into a subject that you like and work a lot on that, so after a number of years you’ll have a really expansive body of work on one subject. And you’ll be able to do more of it because you’ve got it so completely covered.”
Get Over FOMO Because Sometimes Saying “No” Is The Smart Thing
Selectivity with assignments is admittedly easier said than done—particularly in an increasingly challenging business environment and especially for young professionals trying to get a business off the ground. Fear of missing out, FOMO, is an extremely powerful emotion that drives us to say yes as much as possible. Still, a deliberate direction is helpful in the intermediate and long term because, ultimately, we are what we shoot. Photographers build our reputations with every assignment; do it deliberately and develop the reputation you want.
“You have to make money to be a photographer and stay in business,” Block says, “to eat, to stay alive, to take care of your family. And to practice your craft you need to be shooting. But being a bit more selective is important so that you do build up a body of work and photograph things that you have an interest in. Make yourself happy. If you’re not happy with what you’re doing photographically, what you’re doing in life, you can’t move forward as well. And it’s important to do things that make you happy. It’s also important to make money, so you have to develop a balance at the beginning. ‘Okay, I’ll take certain jobs because they pay good money,’ or ‘I’m going to take a certain job because it’s going to take me to a place that I want to go and after the job is over I can stay a little longer and work on a project that fits into this place.’ You have to be smart.”
Go To The Places Where You Want To Be
Block always has long-term passion projects in the works, and so as he travels on assignment he’s afforded the opportunity to pursue them more effectively. Even if an assignment isn’t especially well paying, this kind of added value can make some assignments worth taking. It’s also especially important to him to make personally gratifying work—something he recommends other professionals do not only to benefit their portfolios but to avoid burnout.
“At some point I based my selectivity on where I wanted to go,” he says. “If your photo business includes travel, then you start thinking ‘I like being in South America’ or ‘I like being in Asia,’ and the types of pictures I’m getting there, even though it’s on assignment that may not be my favorite, I’m still able to get pictures that are fulfilling to me. Having a project that you can piggyback onto your regular work is a good thing. You have this other thing happening that brings you so much joy that at the end of the day you may say, ‘well, my regular project is okay, but then wow, I got a couple of great personal pictures.’ Just be aware and looking for projects or things to do that are fulfilling to you. If someone offers you an assignment that you don’t want to do, and the money’s not great, and there’s a lot of aggravation factor involved, then don’t do it. There’s got to be something positive out of it. If it’s not a great assignment, it’s going to be aggravating, but it’s going to pay you a boatload of money, do it if you can because that’s money you can put away for a personal project.”
Being Selective Is Like Making A Long-Term Investment In You And Your Business
If you want to avoid regret later, Block says take charge now and choose the assignments you want to do for whatever reason you’d care to—not just because you think you can never say no. Being selective with the assignments he accepts has shaped the photographer he’s become. It’s also largely formed the life he’s led. Blink and a decade or two has flown by, and a career can easily be summed up by the way you spent your days. So how do you want to spend today?
“It’s brought me certain fulfillment and a richness in my life,” Block says of the deliberate manner in which he’s carried out his career. “I do have some friends who are photographers who have shot only commercial sort of assignments and only work when they’re getting paid money, and they have a different photographic feeling in their life. They look at being a photographer more as being a job. I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to travel, see new cultures, meet new people, learn a lot about the world. Things that aren’t necessarily photographic, but it’s enriched me as a person.”
“No one got into photography to be rich and make a lot of money,” Block says. “Everyone started in photography because you wanted to take pictures. You wanted to express something for many people to see. And photography is a great way to do that. For me, the extra benefit was when I started with a lot of the travel and cultural photography I got exposed to incredible things in the world that took it even beyond photography. There are so many things, experiences I’ve had, that are not necessarily photographic but are enriching. And they came from being there as a photographer. If I weren’t there as a photographer I couldn’t get these experiences. Being a photographer opened a lot of doors, gave me a feeling of a certain license that I could do whatever I wanted and see and experience what I wanted.”
In the end, Block says photographers have just a few choices in the way they handle the assignments that come their way, which for good or bad ultimately defines their career.
“One is you’re just so persistent and so dedicated and that’s all you’re going to do,” Block says, “and you’ll figure out a way to survive. The second way is the smart balance of doing work that pays you money, that keeps you fed and housed, and balancing that with other things you that you want to do. And the third type is just not thinking about really what you want to do, just looking for the money. And when you get older you’ll go ‘wow, I wasted a lot of time, now I want to do my own projects. I should have done more.’”
About the author:
William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.