The $10,000 Assignment


Let’s be honest with ourselves; we all want to get paid to take pictures out here.


Good day, one and all!

This is the first post I’ve had a chance to do for – I’d be ever so appreciative if you would head on over there and take a look at some of the things we’re working on.

As a photographer, as a writer, as a photojournalist, this is what you want, right? You want XYZ Magazine’s features editor to call you out of the blue, tell you that she loves your work and commission a gargantuan project from you – all expenses paid, round trip across the globe, $400 per diem. You want this dream to be reality. This is the way you want to work, to travel and to live. You know that if you catch just one big break, if someone would only realize what you have to offer as a creative professional, you would do sensational work.

So you wait.

And you wait.

And you’re waiting.

I believe the only way to make it as a creative professional is to treat each and every job as a $10,000 dollar assignment – no matter what you’re being paid. If your local paper comes to you and asks you to shoot a Saturday Morning USA Market piece but can only offer you $100 – times are tough in the print world, they’ll say! – treat it as if you’ve been sent on assignment by National Geographic, like they’re flying you to Marrakesh to get down and dirty in the most colourful market in the world.

I’m not telling you to undervalue your work. If you feel as though you’re worth $10,000 a day right now then that’s exactly what you should charge. Who am I to determine your value? But if you’re a beginner struggling to get your foot in the door you need to take a real, hard look at yourself and your career in the mirror and you need to come up with a plan. My plan was – and is – to treat every single assignment like it was the biggest and most prestigious in the world.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve shown up to a job with a big kit, unpacked my lights, set up my gear to hear, “Shawn… I thought this was only going to take two minutes? You’re just taking a picture, right?” The fact of the matter is this: I’m never just taking a picture. I’m always creating images, expanding my portfolio and, most importantly of all, networking.

Networking is key. I do a lot of it online – sending queries, inqueries, images, portfolios, etc. I’m always looking to build a new relationship with an editor or publisher. I’m also always on the lookout for real life, walking and talking people. You can’t build a career in a creative field online (unless you’re some kind of weird crypt-keeping blogger or Myspace stripper, I guess); in my experience, it is easier to convince someone you’re the right man or woman for the job if you can meet them in person. Doesn’t hurt if you keep a stack of business cards in your bag and a portfolio of images on your iPad, either. Just sayin’.



Even when I’m on vacation I shoot like I’m being paid to do it. I’m always asking myself if I can turn what I’m shooting and what I’m experiencing into a story or a set of photos that will get the attention of one of the editors I regularly work for – or someone new entirely.


Should you work for free?

No. Never. Not on purpose, at any rate.

I began my professional career in the arts as a screenwriter. I used to do a lot of work on spec; I got burned on it from time to time. No one wants that. No one deserves that. You’ve worked hard to create and you should be compensated for it. But let me tell you something – you’re not always going to be compensated monetarily. Not when you’re starting out, anyway.

Think about that photo tour you’re planning on taking later this year. Is anyone paying you to go? Is someone putting up the money for you to chill on the beach, hike through the jungle and explore the gnarliest markets in the world? Of course they’re not. Are you still going to go? Of course you are! If you are, or want to be a travel photographer, you’re making an investment in yourself and your own talents by going on this trip. Shoot what you want and how you want, but don’t forget to explore every avenue you can to show people – and tell people! – what you’re doing and what you’re good at. Treat your personal vacation as a professional assignment. Get out to see the sunrise. Take advantage of the good light. Meet the people that make a place interesting and unique. Work at it. Simply work! This creative game isn’t any easy one. No one is going to chase you down for assignments and gigs; not when there are so many people out there trying to do the same thing. So many talented, motivated people. Don’t forget to set yourself apart from the crowd.

Setting yourself apart.

Focus. Focus, focus, focus!

Telling someone you’re a travel photographer is cool, but everyone on vacation who owns a camera is a travel photographer, to an extent (trust me on this; I’ve sat through plenty of unedited family slide shows of 3,000 images). You need to find a niche, not a genre. Back to screenwriting once again: it’s one thing to tell people that I write movies. It’s another to tell them I write politically charged-techno thrillers (Wireless) or crude R-rated slacker comedy (I Hate Dating). One thing I’ve always been good at is nicheifying (that’s your Flashism for the day). Back to photography: travel is your genre. What is your niche? Mine is built right into my name. Sure, I’m adapt at shooting grungy markets under natural light or bold landscapes under the sun, but when I turn in a package of images to an editor I always make sure there are a few images in there with my stylistic stamp on them. I use flash. Sometimes it’s just a gimmick, but it’s the way I’ve carved out my travel (and to a degree, my commercial and portrait) niche.

Back to the $$$ game.

Treat every assignment like it’s the biggest one you’re ever going to get. One day, it will be. I’m still waiting for Nat Geo to track me down, too.

– Flash

Join us on flickr!


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