Why Print Sales Matter

My recent post “I Declare War on David Jay” has taken off way beyond anything I expected. I’m grateful for all the supporting comments but also thankful for all the opposing voices as well. A healthy, professional discussion benefits us all.

Lest you think that I’m just a bitter old schooler who hates change, I’m going to get into the specifics of why I think PASS Prints is a bad idea.

Let’s look at some numbers; let’s say you’re a wedding photographer who charges $2,000 for coverage only. If you’re like most photographers, your profit margin from that wedding, factoring the time/expense of post-production editing is about 70%. Here what the numbers look like:

Coverage Only Price $2,000
Profit Margin 70%
Total Gross Profit $1,400

Now let’s look at the numbers from selling an 8×10 print at $25.

Sales Price $25
Cost 2
Margin 1,250%
Profit $23

$23 in Gross Profit for a print isn’t a huge amount of money, but let’s see what happens if we scale that number upwards. Let’s say we book 30 weddings and, on average, sell 3 8×10’s. (Keep in mind this is an average, you might sell six to one customer and none to another.)

Here’s the Gross Profit calculated for selling 3 prints per wedding:

Number 8×10’s Sold 3
Total Sale $75.00
COS $6.00
Gross Profit $69

Now let’s multiply out the Gross Profit from 8×10’s over our 30 booked weddings:

Number of Weddings 30
Gross Profit from 8×10 Sales $2,070

Given that our Gross Profit from a Coverage Only wedding is $1,400, earning an extra $2,070 from selling 3 8×10’s per each wedding is like shooting an extra 1.3 weddings per year – but without doing any of the work!

Now let’s factor in the cost of the pass system for 30 weddings:

PASS Price Per Wedding $29
Number of Weddings 30
Total Cost $870

Based on the numbers above, if you use PASS Prints, you’re potentially losing $2,070 in sales plus you’re spending $870 per year to use the service. That’s a loss of $2,940 per year which translates to the profit for more than two whole weddings per year. That means that the PASS photographer must shoot two more weddings than a similarly priced non-PASS photographer just to earn the same amount of money.

Now, I’ll grant you that competing services such as Zenfolio, Smugmug etc do cost money – but they’re a third of the cost or less.

“But Our Clients Love It!”
Finally, I’ll address a point that seems to be made over and over. That being that “Clients love it!” First, let me share some wisdom I carry around with me from days working for companies like Copy 4 Less NY; Just because clients love PASS doesn’t mean that they won’t love another service. Secondly, of course clients love free stuff. They’d love it if we shot their wedding for free. Does that mean it’s a good idea for your business?

Of course not.

In this debate, people have brought up iTunes/Napster etc. These technologies are great for the consumer, terrible for the artist. Unfortunately for musicians, they had no choice when it came to downloadable music. Insofar as PASS is concerned, we do have a choice. We don’t have to support businesses and technologies that negatively impact our bottom line.

John Mireles

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I Declare War on David Jay (and his Self-Serving PASS System)

Hopefully, you know me for my level-headed and impartial analysis of the photography business. Forget that. Today I’m going to go off on someone who is not only doing a disservice to the industry that he purports to serve, he’s actively working to destroy it. In the words of The Dude (from The Big Lebowski): “This aggression will not stand!”

I’ve written about David Jay before. Over a year ago, he released “The System” where he attempted to teach new photographers how to enter the world of wedding photography. Though it had a few useful points, for the most part, it was a dismal failure insofar as being a worthwhile tool for the newcomer.

Sure, many photographers thought that it brought the industry down by virtue of encouraging new photographers to “spray and pray.” While I won’t argue the point,  I personally viewed The System as more of an nonsensical annoyance from someone pandering to make a buck.

Despite – or perhaps because of – The System, David Jay remains a popular figure within the photography world, and as such, his voice continues to hold influence upon many working photographers. Maybe because he was once a photographer himself, he’s viewed differently than your average CEO trying to make a buck marketing to photographers.  David Jay still has that “man of the people” aura about him – which I suppose helps him to attract photographers as customers.

None of that however has anything to do with why I declare war on David Jay. The reasons for that lie in his PASS System. For those unfamiliar with the PASS System, it’s a web viewing platform for event photography whereby the photographer uploads the photos to the system and then the images are immediately available to the client for using as they wish, including sharing on Facebook and other social media site. It’s all part of his Shoot and Share method that is supposedly the new way for photographers.

But it’s not just the basic PASS System and this Shoot and Share ethos that’s got me convinced that David Jay needs to be put out of business. It’s his latest venture, PASS Prints, as well as his accompanying philosophy that is just plain bad for photographers. David Jay has gone from being a nuisance to actively working to destroy the industry that spawned him.

With PASS Prints, clients can now order prints from images uploaded to the PASS System much like they can any other service. The catch lies in that prices are set by PASS at $1 for a 4×6, $2 for a 5×7 and $4 for an 8×12. In the FAQ section of the PASS Prints website, the question is posed, “Can I make money off of the prints?” The answer is “Yes” since the photographer makes 50% of the sale.

I’m sorry but receiving 50 cents per print is not “making money” as a photographer. I think the technical term for this is “chump change.” The website goes on to emphasize that “PASS takes no commission on the total sale.” Well, duh, they don’t need to since they’re marking up the prints already. They buy the prints for 19 cents then charge the photographer 50 cents. I’m not sure whether to sarcastically thank David Jay for not charging us twice or to be insulted by the fact that he thinks we’re too dumb to realize his little game.

And while this is bad enough, it’s the ethos behind his message that I believe is truly corrosive to the industry. In his introductory video to the PASS Prints system, David Jay states, that “PASS is not a way to mark up your prints and make as much money as you can off of them.” He goes on to add “That’s just a different business model.”

And what is this “different business model” that he’s referring? Oh yeah, it’s called Earning a Profit! So if Pass is not for photographers interested in maximizing their return on their business efforts, who is it for? Those interested in working for free? Not making money is not a business model; it’s a hobby at best and recipe for failure at worst.

To be fair, Pass is all about those photographers who “don’t like to sell” and just want to “shoot and share” (as though they are part of some free loving hippy commune). Now if you’re a photographer who just likes to shoot the wedding and then wash your hands of it, that’s your prerogative and I respect that. It’s just important to know that you’re leaving a significant amount of money on the table. The difference between a sustainable living and one where you’re constantly working to get ahead but never quite do is in all the stuff you deliver after the wedding.

My problem isn’t with those who choose to operate their businesses as they see fit, it’s with someone, specifically David Jay, who promotes a product and a philosophy which works against his customer’s business interests just so he can make a buck. I don’t know if the term “con man” is the term to use for someone who smiles as he takes your money but stabs you in the back – but it’s the best description that I can come up with.

And it gets worse. Not only is David Jay promoting a product and ethos that is harmful to the profession, he also takes the time to personally browbeat someone who choses to leave his service. I’d heard about a Facebook message that he sent to a former user where he did just that. I took the time to track down the recipient and, fortunately for us, she’s a fan of the Business Coach so she forwarded to me the message in its entirety. (A screen capture is posted below.)

David Jay sends a Facebook message to a former user of his service

From the above: “Shoot and Share photographers are making it really difficult for sales driven photographers to continue marking up prints to high heaven so I’d suggest making the switch to a service based business quickly even if you don’t use PASS. The days of massively marked up prints are over.”

Wow. First, I have to wonder if David Jay is that desperate for customers that he feels compelled to take time to essentially guilt this former customer into staying. Perhaps the PASS system isn’t the cash cow that David Jay had hoped for. Instead he finds himself clinging to every last customer like a desperate lover wailing “Please don’t leave me!”

Regardless, I take exception with his claim that “The days of massively marked up prints are over.” This idea that photographers “massively mark up prints” is absolutely ludicrous. It’s an insult to every photographer out there who’s ever worked hard to create a product that the client will love for years to come. Yes, many photographers may charge $25 or more for an 8×10 with a physical cost of $2. To the uninitiated, that may appear to be a substantial markup.

But that markup does not include the time and often times years of expertise that it takes to prepare the files for printing nor does it include the overall profitability from the wedding. I’ve yet to meet a wedding photographer who was just rolling in cash from his or her “massively marked up prints.” Photographers charge the rates they do because that’s the bare minimum required to operate sustainably.

The subtext to this message is that David Jay is essentially telling us, “I am enabling the race to the bottom among photographers by significantly undercutting the market. If you don’t undercut your fellow photographers, you will be left on the chopping block.” Unless you feel that what this industry needs is more undercutting and lower prices, you can understand why this whole attitude leaves me livid and with nothing but contempt for David Jay.

Fortunately, the days of photographers charging profitable prices for their work are definitely not over. There’s no question that times are tough, however I meet with plenty of photographers who charge healthy rates and incorporate profitable pricing throughout all aspects of their businesses. Good business practices are certainly not dead.

Though I can’t say that I don’t wish the same about David Jay’s business. My recommendation to all photographers is that they avoid using PASS and spread the word that others do the same. If you’re a PASS user, I suggest switching to a service that is not working to destroy the very industry that you’re a part of. Though we can’t do anything about the fact that digital cameras are everywhere and the economy continues to remain a challenge, we can do something about who we choose to support with our hard-earned dollars.

My suggestion is don’t use those dollars to pay David Jay or his misguided PASS system. Like a bad virus, let’s stamp it out before it spreads.

John Mireles

PS: Since originally writing this post, I have followed up with another Why Print Sales Matter to explain why this issue of print sales matters to photographers.

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A Great Lesson in Setting Prices and Understanding Costs

I’ve been in the middle of writing my latest book, “How to Price Wedding Photography” so it’s been tough for me to switch gears and update the blog here. I just came across this New York Times Small Business section article entitled “Will This Business Ever Make Money?” and had to pass it along.

It almost echoes word for word one section of my book where I talk about the typical path taken by small business owners. It’s a short and to the point article but worth the read.

John Mireles

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Thoughts on Continued Success in the Photography Business

We used to say I could walk all night, and we could and we did
Down that gravel road, to that tiny town, and the door always opened
Now we say I could walk all night. It’s not true
We can’t walk all night, no, because we don’t want to
We want a bed and a blanket, some light breakfast, sometime tomorrow
We want a bed and a blanket, some light breakfast, sometime tomorrow
And I sing it now, hey hey, hey hey, who woulda thunk it
Hey hey, hey hey, who woulda thunk it

Greg Brown from his Song “Who Woulda Thunk It”

This morning, as I reflected some recent forum discussions about the challenges facing wedding and portrait photographers, one idea kept coming to mind. That’s this notion that because established photographers are in trouble, the entire profession is therefore doomed. Maybe it’s not that the profession is doomed that’s the problem. Maybe it’s just a simple matter of new photographers being in a better position to respond to the realities of a changing market?

I recently saw a sales video of a presenter telling the story of a young man eager to succeed in the world so he sought out the guidance of a successful guru. The guru took the man to the beach and had him walk out into the water. When the man got to the point that he could barely hold his head above the waves, the guru suddenly grabbed the man and forced his head under water and held it there.

Surprised and not ready for this dunking, the man fought to get back to the surface. The guru however wouldn’t let him. The man struggled with all of his strength and will until finally he was able to break free and gulp air from above. Afterward, the guru told him that he must work with every bit of his strength, just as he did when he was struggling for air underwater, if he was to succeed in business.

When I was getting started in the photography business, I would actually “walk all night” as Greg Brown would say. I’d not only bust my ass for every buck, I’d make huge sacrifices along the way. I remember traveling to San Diego to a trade show. I had enough money to pay for either gas or food, but not both. So I didn’t eat for a day and a half. So what? That was just part of what was necessary to force my head above the water.

Am I willing to make the same sacrifices now? No. I’ve gotten used to a certain level of comfort and work. I want that “bed and a blanket, some light breakfast, sometime tomorrow.” Nor am I alone. It’s hard for people who have become successful based upon doing things a certain way to give that up. The problem is that the established pro is competing against new photographers who are fighting with all their might to succeed in the profession (even if in so doing, the profession itself becomes that much harder to succeed in).

Standing-near-window4

Established pros do have many things going for them however. We have a list of established clients, advanced photographic skills, greater business knowledge and, if we’ve been playing their cards right, money in the bank. Doing the same thing as we’ve always been done absolutely will not work. Instead, we need to use our strengths and our resources to figure out new ways of meeting the needs of our existing markets and/or adapt our skills to succeed in other markets.

Established pros also need to bring to the fight what the French call “la rage de vivre.” That singularity of purpose and will that we all have but only kicks in when we realize that we are fighting for our lives.

John

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The Story of My First Camera

I don’t believe in fate or “it was meant to be” or that life has any meaning other than that which we extract from it after the fact. Sometimes though, events leave even the most die hard pragmatist like my self wondering. Such was the case with the story of how I came to own my first camera.

Actually, I had two first cameras: one a point and shoot, the other an actual single lens reflex camera that fatefully set me off on the career that I have made my life’s endeavor.

The story begins alongside my avocation as a mountaineer cum rock climber.  About the time I entered college, I caught the mountaineering bug. The fact that I didn’t have many classes since they were all over-enrolled made it easy to race off campus at noon with a friend. Together we’d drive, B-52’s blaring on the cassette deck, into the local mountains for an excursion up the snow covered peaks. Though they weren’t technical ascents (which would require a rope and protection), we did seek out the steepest routes up so we could put our ice axes and crampons (spikes for our boots) to use.

On one such march up the 10,000 foot Mt Baldy, I discovered a metal, gold colored point and shoot camera resting amidst the rocks and crunchy snow leading to the summit. Seeing as how I had no camera nor funds with which to purchase one, I happily slipped it in my pocket. As my climbing career progressed, I popped it out during climbs to snap blurry photos of my climbing buddies. It wasn’t a much of a camera so I eventually lost track of it without even realizing that it was gone.

Fast forward two years later to a spur of the moment trip to the Pacific Northwest. As a mountaineer and fan of Fred Beckey’s descriptions of the Cascade Range, I’d longed to climb the glacier covered peaks of this mountaineer’s playground. On a lark, I jumped on the Amtrak train in Santa Barbara, sat for 36 hours as it meandered its way to Seattle, rented a car with my last dollars and made my way to the heavily glaciated Mt. Baker where I set off for my first ever romp on a glacier.

A few miles up the trail lay a cabin open to anyone who cared to rest their feet and take cover from the often nasty elements outside. Inside the sole furnishing consisted of a wooden table. What immediately caught my eye was this perfectly positioned Pentax SLR camera sitting on the rustic tabletop. I’d seen no one else on the trail; they’re weren’t even any other cars in the parking lot seeing as it was midweek. This new, more-expensive-than-I-could-afford camera was mine for the taking.

But I left it. I thought that whoever forgot it might come back for it so I hiked on empty handed. The next day as I returned, I stuck my head in the cabin to see if it was still there. Not surprisingly, the table sat empty. Staring at the spot previously occupied by the gleaming Pentax, I reflected on my decision to leave it behind. Kicking myself, I decided that I should have taken the camera and then reported it to the local ranger station. That way its owner could claim it. If no one claimed it, it would be mine. Perhaps the person who took this camera wasn’t the rightful owner and just pocketed it. If I’d rescued it, the owner would at least have had a chance to get his camera back.

Right then I vowed that if I ever came across another camera, it would be mine.

Of course, what are the odds that I might find another expensive SLR camera while out and about on my adventures? Finding even one such treasure is one more than most people find in an entire lifetime. I didn’t think too much of odds though as I was intently focused on climbing and the incident soon faded into a memory.

A few years later, a few months after graduating from college, I took a typical weekend climbing trip down to San Diego’s Mt. Woodson. Though I forget the specifics of the climbing, I do remember something about a side trip to the bars in Tijuana with Mexican prostitutes trying to coral us into a back room and us with no money to buy our way out from the expensive beers that were thrust upon us. Meanwhile my buddy thought that five bucks for oral sex was a pretty good deal. (I talked him out of that bad idea.)

Anyhow, towards the end of our second day of climbing, we headed up the mountain to one of the most popular and difficult climbs on this boulder strewn peak: Stairway to Heaven, an overhanging 5.12 rated climb with perfect handholds spaced farther apart the higher you go. I’m far from the speediest hiker but, on this day, I was in front of my climbing partners. As I rounded the corner to the base of the climb,  I spied a blue camera bag perched by itself atop a small boulder right near the center of the wall . If someone wanted to leave an item as a gift to the next passerby, that’s where they would have left it.

I quickly nabbed the worn padded case and peered inside. Sure enough, a gleaming 35mm Canon AE1 SLR camera sat inside. My pledge from years ago firmly in mind, I claimed this camera as my own. I could see that my friends, jealous at my score, wanted to get their hands on it – so I swiftly tucked into my well-scuffed rucksack. Unfortunately for the Canon’s previous owner, there was no ranger station or other central location where I could report that I’d found it. Home with me it went.

Because of that camera, I decided to take a black and white photography class at my local community college. (I got an A.) That in turn fed my desire to document my climbing life. That desire led to my work becoming published which in turn opened the door to what has been my long career in professional photography. The AE1 didn’t last nearly so long however. Because it had limited manual functions, I exchanged it after a year for the camera that I’d use to get published – the all manual Nikon FM.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this little history, I’m not a believer in fate and such things. But… I do wonder about the forces that seemingly guided me to posses my first cameras. Had I not found the Pentax and subsequently the Canon AE1, many years would have gone by before I would have seen fit to actually purchase a DSLR. By then, my life would have veered towards law school or some such other profession and my window of opportunity to follow the artist’s life would have been likely closed.

Now the fact that I found three cameras during my formative years may or may not have been the universe’s signal that it intended for me to be a photographer. Perhaps it was indeed luck that I found three cameras presented as though they were waiting for me. I will say this though: since coming upon that third camera 25 years ago, I have not found another one since.

John Mireles

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Back from the Bakken – Lessons Learned from Photographing in the Oil Fields of North Dakota

I’m back safe and sound after a couple of long days of driving back to San Diego from my personal project of photographing in the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota. As I drove through the unending rolling hills of Wyoming and Montana with nary a car in either direction for many miles at a time, I reflected on my week of roaming in and around the boom town of Williston in search of the interesting moments and great subjects. No question it was a tough week – one especially challenging from the perspective of just trying to get access to the people and places that I wished to photograph.

Unfortunately, there’s no central repository for hard working subjects who wished to be photographed. And to the extent that there is, good luck getting to them. Access is strictly controlled and anyone with a camera is viewed with suspicion. Still, the week was a fantastic learning experience in so many ways. For example, I now know the difference between a roustabout and a roughneck. Beyond learning that a roustabout is someone who does the dirty work around an oil rig and a roughneck is the guy actually getting oil on his hands, I did manage to glean some other, more photographically inspiring lessons that I hope are worth sharing:

Embrace the BHAG
James Collins, in his book “From Good to Great,” writes about how successful companies create what he calls Big Hairy Audacious Goals – BHAG’s for short. These are ambitious goals where the odds of failure are pretty high but the rewards even higher. For me, driving to a distant part of the country that I knew nothing about for the purpose of photographing oil workers, truck drivers and other hard working individuals with whom I shared no connection was indeed a BHAG.

The site manager aka “company man” at a drill site near Williston, North Dakota.

Not only that, I had more than a couple people tell me I should pack a gun and that Williston was a lawless Wild West. Though I didn’t bother with carrying a gun, I did indeed wonder what I’d gotten myself into. In the end though, none of that proved to be true. Not only did I learn so much of what has proved to be a fantastic story, I’ve immersed myself into a project that may well change the course of my career.

Be bold in your goals – then act upon them!

Persistence Is the Key
I can assure you that I did not enjoy walking into an oil company office unannounced and asking complete strangers if I could shoot photos of their workers. I certainly did not enjoy being shown the door almost immediately afterwards. Though there were moments were I grew discouraged – I remember arriving in town and just wondering “what the hell did I get myself into?” The possibility of going home empty-handed was not one that I was willing to accept – so I just soldiered on. Ultimately, I knew what I wanted and was determined to get it.

Worker at a frack site outside of Williston, North Dakota

One Thing Leads to Another
More than anything else, this thought kept my hopes up and my wheels moving. Whether through boldness or foolishness, I left for my trip without a single contact in Williston. Along the way, a Facebook friend gave me the number of his ex in-laws. They in turn gave me the number of the local state assemblyman who in turn gave me the number of a local economic development liaison. She then referred me to a contact at an oil company – who turned out to be married to the man who proved to be the guy who discovered the secret to unlocking North Dakota’s oil. Not only that but she was able to get me onto both an oil drilling and fracking site. Bingo!

Sometimes the task in front of you may seem overwhelming with no sign of the way forward. No matter. Just start with one thing and see where it leads. Just one thing is all you need most of the time. Then stay in motion.

An oil well during the process of being fracked. The pipes contain water that is forced down the well at high pressure to open previously created fissures in the rock.

No Plan Survives First Contact With the Enemy
If you’re a military strategist, you’re familiar with this axiom. Events rarely work out as planned so allow yourself to be flexible and inventive enough to go along with Plan B – even if you have no idea what that might be. I remember waking up on my first morning in Williston and staring in despair at the ceiling of my cramped camper van. I realized that my original plan of showing up at work sites wasn’t going to work. My solution was to set up shop at a nearby truck stop and see who walked by my little spider’s web. Though that wasn’t my preferred option, I ended up getting some of my best images of the trip that day.

Blend In
If you’re going to take on a project like mine where you visit another city as an outsider, but wish to walk away with images as though an insider, you need to fit in so that you can be accepted. For me, this meant trading in my usual Southern California wardrobe of skinny jeans and quirky t-shirts for something more… um… country appropriate. I busted out my cowboy hat (hand made in Texas) and well-worn boots. I found that people tend to open up to a guy wearing a cowboy hat. More important than that, I didn’t come across as some California kook out to make a mess of things.

Oil worker, Williston North Dakota

People Skills Are More Important Than Photography Skills
I’d like to think that I’m a pretty good photographer. What I came to realize though is that I’m even better at connecting with people and getting them to pose for my camera. In so many situations, I had just seconds to convince someone to pose for me or let me walk onto their job site. Without the ability to connect with a stranger in a micro-slice of time, the best photography skills in the world won’t be of one whit of use. Disarming people and making them feel comfortable enough to relax in front of the camera is an absolutely necessary skill for being a successful people photographer.

Bow Your Head Upon Entering the Teepee
This lesson is one that I heard from my business mentor, but I sure lived it in North Dakota. A key component of excellent people skills is being respectful of the people you’re working with. Coming in as some “expert” who knows how things should be done will not get you very far. Be open to what people have to say. Take their recommendations to heart. Take interest in what they have to say. You may well learn much more than you expected.

Besides, if you’re doing all the talking, you’re doing none of the listening – and it’s in the listening to what people have to say where the learning takes place and new ideas are born.

Truck driver, Williston North Dakota

Have a Clear, Compelling Story to Tell
People constantly asked what I was doing. Though in the beginning, I had little clear idea, as I began to talk to people, I quickly developed my concept and an elevator pitch to go along with it. (An elevator pitch is the slang term for being able to pitch a plan in the length of time it takes to ride in an elevator.) If you stutter and stammer your way through an explanation of what you’re doing, no one is going to believe you nor take you seriously. Having your story down cold is supremely important.

Downtown Williston at night.

Make as Many Friends as You Can
You never know who is going to be in a position to help you. I learned more from people I wouldn’t have thought to talk twice to. I remember sort of getting stuck talking to a particularly tough looking guy at a bar I stopped in at. Turns out he was the boss of a work crew and could get me in to shoot at his work site. I later dropped his name to another site manager who then let me photograph his workover crew. (You can also file this one under “One Thing Leads to Another.”)

Mile long trains with 100 oil cars arrive empty but leave full. The railway is BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) which is owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway company.

Be Honest
Don’t lie or try to pull one over on your subjects. Be clear about what you’re doing. Nothing gets people riled up more than being told one thing and then finding out that the truth was something different. A big part of the reason why people were so reluctant to work with me was because they had been burned so many times in the past. Now it’s just easier to say no and not worry about it.

While there, I bumped into two different film crews doing programs on environmental issues. The oil companies worked with them because they wanted to get their story out too. They don’t mind working with people who are honest and upfront. What they don’t like are people who are sneaky and operating with a hidden agenda. Now if you’re a muckraking photographer whose goal is to infiltrate and reveal the dark secrets, then I guess you’ve got to do your thing. As much as possible, be honest though. It’s a lot easier to burn bridges than to build them.

Roughneck on an oil drilling rig outside of Williston, North Dakota

The Story You Start With May Not Be the Story You Finish With
The more you go into a story with an open mind, the more open you’ll be to perspectives that you never would have thought of on your own. It opens you up to turning around and seeing what’s behind you or on the other side of your anticipated subject.

More than a few people encouraged me to approach this project from a perspective of environmental activism – I’m a former Sierra Club member so that’s no stretch for me. But that to me was far too simplistic a story that others are already telling. Instead, I allowed the story to reveal itself to me. By focusing on the people, listening to what they were telling me and then observing scenes as they unfold, I feel like I’m onto a much more powerful and mostly untold tale.

Tired oil worker resting after a 12 AM to 12 PM shift working on a workover rig near Alexander, North Dakota

No Work Is More Important Than Personal Work
I want to stress the importance to photographers of personal projects like this. I could have left these posts on my personal blog, but I feel that there’s a genuine business interest in creating work that excites both photographer and viewer. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: It’s far too easy to get caught up in the daily grind of doing client work. But it’s the personal work that inspires us and pushes us to create work that stands out from the crowd.

You have the potential to create great work. Make it happen!

Workover crew repairing an oil well near Arnegard, North Dakota.

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The Widow’s Mite

In a sense, I’ve been schooled. It’s not easy to come into an oil town and get the sort of access that I’d like. As much as I’d like to walk onto a drilling site and start shooting photos of guys working hard, that’s just not going to happen. I tried starting at the top but, in cold-calling a couple of drilling companies, “not interested” and “this conversation is over” were the highlights of my efforts.

I have managed to secure some other contacts so things are moving forward – though not at the pace I’d like. Instead of focusing on that, I’d like to share another experience that I didn’t think too much of at the time, but in retrospect was one of those moments that only could happen out here on the Bakken Oil fields.

Walking back to the van after taking photos of a passing train, a man in a car pulled up. “Which way to Williston?” he asked.” That was an easy answer as it was just a mile or two down the road. Seeing my camera, he asked if I was a professional photographer. “Yes I am” I answered in my well-practiced drawl.

Eager to talk, he swiftly exited his car and began asking questions and telling us about his life. He’d been in his car for days – traveling from 1,800 miles from his home in Louisiana, his road atlas as his guide and only companion. From his excitement in speaking with us, it was obvious that he was overjoyed to connect and share with someone, anyone – and that just happened to be us, two strangers who gave him directions.

Like every other newcomer, he came in search of work. He wore a neat collared shirt.  Recently dry cleaned shirts hung in the back of his car – ready for him to proudly wear at his hoped for new job. Though I hated to squelch his enthusiasm, I gently let him know that in this town, t-shirts and jeans are the standard uniform. No matter. He lifted his pant leg to show us his duct taped shoe that one of his two labradors had chewed on. (He left his wife at home, but it was the dogs that he missed most.)

Because the sun was not far off from setting and I had a photographic agenda to attend to,  I let him know that we had to move on. That didn’t stop him; he asked if we drank coffee. I said no, Tulsi said yes. He opened his trunk and offered us a small vat of Folgers coffee. What were going to do with that, neither of us knew. What we did know was that refusing his kindness was not an option. Finally, we wished him well and drove off.

Sitting here the day after and reflecting on this ten minute connection, I’m truly moved by this man. From his car and his clothes, it’s clear that he had some well-paying job in the past. But the fact that he’s come to Williston means that it’s over and this his last chance. The money is all gone and hope following soon after. All that he’s got is packed in his small sedan – his likely home for the next days or even weeks. Yet, like the Biblical widow who donated her two coins to the temple, this man offered to us all that he had to share.

Though I can’t remember your name – was it Dave or Tom? – thanks for the coffee. May your story be one of success.

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