15 Freelancing Thoughts from a Former Staffer


rewarding assignment last fall that I neglected to post to this blog, in part to respect the terms of agreements that are a part of freelancing. (Now it just seems odd to post a series of dated photos). I followed Democratic candidate Charlie Hardy as he attempted to unseat the Republican incumbent in Wyoming in the U.S. Senate race. It was a quixotic attempt, but provided a level of access and intimacy on the very old bus while he campaigned around the state. 


Oh goodness, I’ve become a photographer stereotype. This daily news photographer jumped to become a freelancer then his blogging slowed down and became inconsistent, just like so many others. I’m thinking about my behavior after I saw Melissa Lyttle‘s post on 6 months as a freelancer. “Wait…”, I realized, I wrote a similarly-titled post after 6 months, but never posted it. I didn’t post it three months ago because I didn’t finish it. I didn’t finish it because I was becoming a stereotype of a photographer who got too busy.

Why does this happen often to photographers? Once you go freelance after being an employee, you realize just how much mind-numbing paperwork and details you have to manage. Then you’re shooting as much as you can and trying to over-deliver. More time. Post-production. Even more. Then you find yourself looking ahead to future assignments instead of looking back. You become your own assignment editor. Then your kids get home and you want to teach math to your daughter and baseball to your son.

In the end, you’ll come back to blogging but only if you enjoy writing. So below are my belated 15 observations on 6 9 months of freelancing, now improved by a few more months of experience. Hope they’re useful!

1. Say no to fear. 

After being told by countless people that I would be “crazy” to leave a staff job, I’m happy to say I’m enjoying this. I’ve written about how much I miss daily work.  But now, I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to accept creative opportunities and paid work. I’ve even traveled more now than when I was at the paper. I’m also enjoyed a more flexible schedule, face-time with kids, and more presence of mind when I am home. I also have the independence to speak up about issues of journalism where others might be silenced because of their employer. There’s uncertainty, to be sure, but it’s still all good.

2. “Until the check clears, it’s all blah, blah, blah”

A business consultant friend of mine offered that pearl of wisdom. Cash flow is extremely important and a hang-up can put you out of business, so don’t spend money unless the check has cleared. 30 days can stretch to 120 days, sometimes by innocent mistakes on the part of someone who has more business to offer you (so you can’t get too upset). For some businesses (albeit not many), waiting 120 days for a check is not abnormal if you’re a sub-contractor. Not sure what’s happening with your expenses and income? NPPA’s cost of doing business calculator is invaluable.

3. Photographers are, surprise, sources of paid work.

I love this truth. I have given jobs to photographers and received jobs from other photographers. If you believe the fear narrative, no one has enough work and it’s a dog-eat-dog world. Totally false. Competing schedules and jobs that require two photographers, etc.. all add to the need of having photographers at your ready who you can trust to help you out. Yes there is competition but that exits both inside and outside companies.

4. Refer back.

If you want to keep getting referrals from photographer friends, then refer their clients back to your colleague if their client ever follows-up with you or wants to change a date. Nothing burns a bridge with a photographer more than taking away their clients. That’s like the third rail of Chicago’s “L”. Secure that understanding with your colleague.

5. Settle on experienced and trusted crew members.

Make-up professionals, producers, location scouts and assistants are needed on different types of shoots, so interview and hire people who are dedicated to their specific craft. Don’t think you can just hire a friend photographer to help you out. A good photographer doesn’t necessarily make a valuable assistant. One photographer I worked with as an assistant couldn’t turn off his charm and ended up schmoozing my client while I was trying to get a word in edgewise. Another photojournalist I worked with wasn’t versed in lighting so I had to micromanage their placement of lighting when I wanted to focus on other issues. Assemble a team who know their roles, for assignments that might be bigger than what you can handle by your lonesome.

6. Don’t bank on promises of work.

Projects pop in and out of existence like stories on an editor’s budget. Creative decision-makers can change their minds, or are told to change their minds by clients. Appointments get delayed and held up. Budgets fluctuate, layoffs and mergers happen , etc.. etc.. There’s so much you don’t know and can’t predict. If you don’t hear anything back, don’t take it personally.

7. Rent gear after having the basics.

Buying more gear creates the false illusion of power. There’s something physiologically appealing about new equipment because it’s something tangible and physical. But the acquisition of property takes away from your marketing budget – which actually brings in more business. It can also push up your insurance bill. Yes, new equipment can help expand your creativity, (and sometimes it’s needed) but it shouldn’t come to the expense of the business that supports it – especially towards the beginning of a business. It’s never been easier to rent.

8. Make your website easy to navigate.

I have been very frustrated after having wanted to refer work to photographers only to find their sites impossible to navigate, or unreflective of the work for which I know them. I can’t point a client towards a site without it reflecting back on my judgment, so I have to think like my client. I can’t expect them to trust my opinion. Decisions can sway against you in 5 seconds or less, so make sure your site is easy to navigate, both on a desktop computer and on mobile, which is over 40% of internet traffic.

9. Learn the diplomatic art of negotiation.

Don’t be so eager to fight the cause of copyright with a client, especially upfront, such that the only thing you accomplish is to turn them off by making them believe you are a walking lawsuit. There are ways of standing firm without being obnoxious about it. ASMP has a list of great tips for negotiation. There are often understandable reasons why you will be asked to give up some rights, and the more you understand why through asking respectful questions, the more easily you can reach an agreement that satisfies everyone. Don’t be surprised, for example, if all of a sudden you’re put in the position of having to explain to a legal team the basics of copyright. Many people, especially legal teams, just don’t know better than to ask for everything.  But if you can’t negotiate diplomatically and be satisfied with the result, be willing to walk away.

10. Incorporate as an LLC but elect to be taxed as an S Corp.

Consider this option if and when you chose to incorporate. Many photographers don’t realize that you can combine the two, to get the best of both worlds (this needs to be done when you first create your LLC). Lawyers don’t know as much about this – but accountants do. Essentially, it’s a means by which to reap the ease of operation of an LLC and the tax benefits of an S corp, which can save you many thousands of dollars every year.

11. Embed photo licenses in the metadata of your images.

In addition to the normal delivery of documents, embedding your license agreement within the image makes tracking terms of an agreement a lot easier for some clients. It can help also help years later protect against misuse of images when your point of contact moves on and documents get misdirected. This happened to a photographer friend. After a set of his photos were used in violation of the license under new management, he was able to invoice for over $30K because the proof of the agreement was spelled out in the metadata.

12. Backup your backups.

It’s all on you as a freelancer. You can’t throw back any problems to the assignment desk, or the reporter, or anyone. I have to predict the worse case scenario in the same way I did as a photojournalist shooting big events, but now I have to deliver 100% of the time. What happens if an assistant you hired doesn’t show up? What happens if my gear gets stolen enroute or doesn’t get delivered? You need a backup for equipment, data, personnel, and yourself.

13. Get your cameras on the plane. 

I don’t care how you do it, just don’t let the airline check the bag with your cameras. Find out ahead of time what it will take to get your bag in an overhead bin. Pay if you have to. The bins fill up quickly and you don’t want to get stuck in one of the last groups of people to board. On a flight, I saw them forcing passengers to check bags even when I got aboard and saw there were many overhead bins that were empty. Just don’t let your bag get taken away from you. Have you seen the video making the rounds?  Yea, that.

14. Surround yourself with positivity.

As I said in #1, there’s too much crazy out there and the people who are not handling it well (for a variety of factors that might not apply to you) will make the most noise on social media, perhaps hoping someone will send them a life preserver. Complaining about your lack of business on social media will only contribute to the impression that there is something wrong with your business, the quality of the product you deliver, or even you. It can send your livelihood into a downward spiral of negativity.

15. It’s all about relationships. 

People work with who they trust and who they like to work with. Melissa’s post is a great example of that. It’s not about the brand you used to work for, it’s about the social network you have. Yes, there are a lot of photographers out there, but when a decision-maker has an assignment in hand, the pressure is on to deliver a high-quality product. In those moments, they can’t depend on the abstraction of many good photographers out there, or on the tired maxim “anyone can take a picture”. They have to depend on a person, a single person who you can trust to deliver. It pays to be known.



An Eye-Tracking Study That Makes Me Want to Jump Out of my Skin [Video]

A video that I executive produced about the value of professional photojournalism.  Thank you Bill Kurtis! 

In case you missed it, the National Press Photographers Association revealed last week the results of a study led by Poynter-affiliated researcher Sara Quinn on how readers interact with visual journalism. Today was the next installment in a four part series.

Besides for wanting me to do jump out of my skin,  the study should also give tremendous pause to any publisher making decisions about staffing levels in their newsrooms.

To be clear, the NPPA didn’t know what to expect when it asked Quinn to conduct the study. But they knew some kind of hard data was needed. News organizations have been firing photojournalists at a rate higher than their reporting counterparts, believing that the work of photojournalists could be replaced by reporters and reader submitted images (sometimes called citizen journalism, or UGC – user generated content).

It should be pointed out that these industry-shaking decisions have been made in a complete vacuum of solid data.

So let me ask a rhetorical question,  who thinks it’s smart to tamper with your brand without meaningful data? 

The results of the study surprised even both Quinn and the NPPA. The data showed that in every meaningful criteria, from engagement, to appeal, to sharing, the work of professional photojournalists scored the highest ratings across the charts.

When compared to user-generated content, readers showed an overwhelming preference for the sense of story in the images made by professionals. Moreover, readers could easily tell the difference between the work of professionals and those of amateurs, 90% of the time.

Turns out, because we are living in an increasingly sophisticated visual culture, standards rise as well.  Readers are becoming more visually literate.

Or, as one former publisher said pointedly after hearing of the results,  “Readers aren’t stupid.”

Those who understand photojournalism get this. But not everyone has understood that message. After Sun-Times Media laid off their entire staff, I was blown away by the ignorance of the move and labeled it, indelicately, “idiocy”. Afterwards, I was dumbfounded to read uninformed pontification in the journalism world, written by people who don’t understand the process of  photojournalism let alone the power of visuals. So I kept writing, and writing, and writing – about responses to the Sun-Times debaclehow and why professionals deliver images when others don’t, why crowdsourced photojournalism was a fantasy, and why photojournalists are essential to news organizations.  While at the Chicago Tribune, I used the unique blog platform I had to explain and defend what photojournalists do (I have since left of my own accord).

Impatient to change the false narrative that was leading to more firings, I talked to NPPA magazine editor Don Winslow and said, “Why doesn’t the NPPA make a video that promotes our industry?”

Mike Borland, the NPPA president at the time, called me soon after and asked if I would be willing to lead a video project with Emmy Award-winning videographer Mark Anderson to do just that. Mark then brought in his trusted producer Gail Brown Hudson, to help make things happen.

Our team spent months last year following Sara’s eye-tracking research in Minnesota and Florida, interviewing current and former publishers, and showing Boston Globe photographer John Tlumacki in action. I sought out subjects to interviews in those locations, added a still photography component to the video and made sure that our subjects were both asked and answered questions that captured the nuances of the situation. When the publisher of The Herald in Jasper, IN agreed to an interview, we made a trip to one of the most visually-oriented newspapers in the country.

We were all incredibly grateful at the opportunity. Personally, I felt that the video would speak for my former colleagues at the Sun-Times and for everyone who cared about the future of professional photojournalism.  We hope to show the video at conferences to spur discussion. Current NPPA President Mark Dolan has helped to shepherd along the study, as he continues his mission to lift up the need for quality and to strengthen NPPA as a more powerful advocate for visual journalists.

If you are concerned about the future of not just photojournalism, but journalism as a whole, then please watch this video. Read the results of the eye-tracking study, and share them in your social media feeds.

The current narrative that undermines photojournalism is false and destructive to the business of newsgathering.  It is harmful to the free press and our democracy. There is no easy solution to the business challenges that face news organizations but, as the experts interviewed point out,  sacrificing visual quality will only add to the death spiral of a business.

If you still don’t believe me, look what happened to the Chicago Sun-Times, 15 months later. Once walking with swagger and braggadocio about how they would buy the Chicago Tribune, the owners were forced to sell the bulk of Sun-Times Media – six daily and 32 weekly suburban newspapers – in order to keep the downtown newspaper alive. It is sad and disappointing.

So who’d they sell to? The Chicago Tribune’s parent company.

If you care about professional photojournalism, this 9 minute video will fly by.

Thank you for sharing. Please give your thumbs up, and “like” the video where you can.

As they say in Chicago, vote early and often.

6,000 Reasons Why the Embargo Won’t Go Quietly



©1999 Alex Garcia

So I’m walking through Havana one day and see the picture at top and think to myself, that’s pretty amazing. It was 1995. Relations between our two governments were tense but I’m staring at the words “New York”, in the heart of Havana, chiseled in stone.  As I found out later, the bank was one of 11 expropriated branches of the National City Bank of New York, which later became Citibank.

The value of its branches when seized after the Revolution was estimated at $6 million.

But Citibank became embroiled in a 22-year battle over the expropriation, in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. The decision had implications for how U.S. entities could recoup funds when another country seizes its assets.

Some five years later, I’m walking by the exact same location and looked up. Different sign. Again, I thought, that’s pretty amazing.

Like this branch, thousands of properties across Cuba were confiscated after the Revolution. I have family who came here and had to leave everything behind except what they could carry with them. It’s both a financial and emotional issue. The Foreign Claims Settlement Commission recognizes almost 6,000 claims, the vast majority of them from individuals.

Under the Helms-Burton Act, the embargo isn’t going anywhere until these claims are satisfied. How that will happen would take something of a miracle, given that the Cuban government doesn’t have the money to pay and many of the properties don’t even exist anymore (or are even worth claiming).

Cuba will likely advance the argument that its losses against the embargo should be taken into consideration as well.

Even with the best negotiation and the best signage, there really is no papering over this issue.




Stumbling into Cuba’s History


©2014 Alex Garcia


©2014 Alex Garcia


News that Cuba and U.S. might finally normalize relations has put my normal plans to a stop today. I can’t stop thinking about my relationship to the island.

Several years ago, before working for the Tribune’s bureau in Havana, I was a photographer in Orange Country for the Los Angeles Times. I had only been there 3-4 years but had a decision to make. I was in my 30’s, realizing that it was now or never if I was ever going to act on a passion to deepen my connection to my father’s homeland. I could ask for a leave of absence for 6 months to pursue a study program in Havana, or leave the paper and do the same. Gratefully, the editor at the time, Colin Crawford, approved my return (those were different days). I knew that if he hadn’t, I was single and could make it on my own – a “Hail Mary” pass.

It was an incredible trip, and if you ever are thinking to yourself whether to pursue a personal project that could interrupt your life, know that it could be now or never. I went as a student and stayed true to that mission by largely foregoing photography in order to forge connections to family that had been dormant for decades because of our governments’ political divide. I wanted to see what I could experience beyond for the typical narratives that you know about the country.

But I stumbled into history twice, completely by accident. The first was not long after I arrived, when it was announced that the remains of Che Guevara would be returned from Bolivia in a procession that would move across the island. His remains would also lie in state in a very small coffin, where thousands of Cubans waited in the longest lines you’ve ever seen to pay their respects. Since then, there was some doubt about whether it was all just a symbolic ceremony.

The second was the visit of Pope John Paul II. All visitors with U.S. passports had to leave the country prior to the visit, but I was able to return for the week-long event with my student visa in order to witness all the positivity in the Catholic community. From a sad and mourning event to one filled with hope and joy. It was an amazing roller-coaster of emotion. In those days, there wasn’t an internet and this was all on film. My pictures have largely never been seen.

A few years later, however, my experience proved invaluable. The Tribune Company won approval to open a bureau on the island and I hopped to it, staying three months.

As a child, I could not understand why I could not visit my family in Cuba. It affected me so much, apparently, that when my grandmother made her one and only visit, I apparently declared I would see them in Cuba.

Years later, when I finally did make the first trip while at the Los Angeles Times, I rolled into my father’s hometown in a Soviet-made Lada taxi. It was dark and I could barely see the people at the end of the sidewalk outside the family home. I heard the voice of my aunt, the one who had accompanied my grandmother on her one and only visit to the U.S.

She said, “When I heard one of our family members in Chicago was coming for a visit, I knew it was you, Alex.”




7 Ways Experience Makes You a Better Photographer






All images ©2014 Alex Garcia

It was déjá vu all over again, as Yogi Berra once said. I was roaming the campus of my alma mater recently, taking pictures for Northwestern University. Some 25 years ago this very year, I was doing exactly the same thing as the yearbook and newspaper photo editor. It was a trip down memory lane, and I was tickled at the opportunity, which I explored more than once.

What was instructive was just how much more productive I was this time around. As a student, I remember spending waaay too much time trying to find photographs, carrying my camera in desperate hopes of populating the yearbook with beautiful images of campus. It was crazy. The publisher once found me curled up under a table, sleeping in the office after struggling to make deadlines.

10,000 hours of photography later (at least) I was amazed how much easier it was. I was seeing moments left and right – even pictures I could have made 25 years ago but didn’t. My productivity, as measured in volume and creativity, was maybe 10 times that of my days as a student. I shake my head at the reality of the time spent away from my studies and friends.

What did I realize that my experience brought…?

• Improved cost-benefit analysis – I knew not to waste my time with pictures that wouldn’t yield the most impact. With experience, you have a sense of the best picture that can be achieved by chasing down a bunny trail, and the cost of doing so. There’s only so much quality light you have to work with, and only so much time to wait for a situation to ripen into a fruitful photograph. You know when tremendous patience is warranted, and when tremendous impatience is warranted.

• Accumulated visual memory – Partly what your cost-benefit analysis is based on is your memory of your pictures in similar situations, but also your memory of pictures taken by others. If there are some factors coming into play that you recognize as being rare and unusual, you’re quicker to jump on them to come closer to images that you have been inspired by or found before. With more visual memory, comes more visual inspiration and more excitement to share.

• Techniques – If you want to read about how to get blood from a turnip, read my post about How to Make a Boring Situation Interesting. I toggle through the various options in my mind to make the most in front of me. The more you practice them, the faster you get.

• Problem-solving – If you’re the kind of person who gives up easily, gets flustered, or has a propensity for powerlessness, I can’t imagine you’ll do well in photography. Photography is all about problem-solving, with all the technical, logistical and interpersonal barriers that throw themselves your way. Even if you text someone desperately with more experience, “HOW SHOULD I SOLVE THIS?” they won’t be able to tell you. You have to find ways to deal with issues that are consistent with your own make-up and resources, which no one can tell you how to do.

• Previsualization – Previsualization isn’t just a one-and-done thing that happens before a shoot. It also happens during your shoot, where you are spotting changing circumstances and previsualizing (with cost-analysis and accumulated memory) where the next best shot will be. Generally, the more you practice this, the better you get. Otherwise, you can end up chasing your tail, missing moments that could have happened because you weren’t prepared for them when they sailed by you.

• Mistake avoidance – When you drive down a road many times, you know where the potholes are, where the kids randomly cross the street, where the red light cameras are and where the birds love to dive-bomb cars.  It’s the same as a photographer. With painful mistakes comes mistake avoidance. You know what catastrophic issues can arise, and you prepare for them – humbled by experience. It sometimes takes the pain of a mistake you’ve outlived to avoid repeating.

• Maturity – One of the things I’ve observed is that you get better access to situations when people trust you and learn to let you do your thing. Generally, people watch you and the decisions you make, and make judgments about your ability and skills. They watch how you cope with disappointment and with exertions of power that come to your expense. It’s just the way it is. With more experience comes more maturity (well, ideally) and people respond to that. You’re worth their time and investment, and doors can open with that trust.

All this is why why many professional photographers are counseled not to charge per hour, but per a creative fee. Your efficiency and productivity can’t be measured by time. It’s measured by your creative output, which significantly increases with experience. How can you compare hourly rates among photographers of vastly different experience and talent?

All the experience that photographers gather through their work is incremental, such that you may not even realize it.

Yet it’s very real, and translates into substantial value for those who invest in it.







Upcoming Talk at the Michigan Avenue Apple Store

Untitled 5apple-store

I’m delighted to say that APA Chicago has asked me to speak as part of their regular photographer talks at the Apple Store. I’ll be talking about visual storytelling, both in an editorial and a commercial context, and what that means for photographers looking to connect with their audiences. I’ll be there for two hours on Monday, Oct. 20th from 7-9pm. For more details, please go to the APA Chicago website. Please mark it on your calendars!

Enjoying Redmoon and the Fire Festival

Photo ©Alex Garcia 2014 for Redmoon Theater 708-824-7778

Photo ©Alex Garcia 2014 for Redmoon Theater 708-824-7778

Photo ©Alex Garcia 2014 for Redmoon Theater 708-824-7778

Photo ©Alex Garcia 2014 for Redmoon Theater 708-824-7778

Photo ©Alex Garcia 2014 for Redmoon Theater 708-824-7778

Photo ©Alex Garcia 2014 for Redmoon Theater 708-824-7778

Photo ©Alex Garcia 2014 for Redmoon Theater 708-824-7778

Photo ©Alex Garcia 2014 for Redmoon Theater 708-824-7778

Photo ©Alex Garcia 2014 for Redmoon Theater 708-824-7778

Photo ©Alex Garcia 2014 for Redmoon Theater 708-824-7778

(All images ©Alex Garcia and protected by the Incredible Hulk)


For me, the Redmoon Theater is like hot sauce. Everday life is better with it. I’ve always felt that way, even before being asked to be part of their official photo team this year. Their what’s-going-to-happen-next creativity and in-every-neighborhood orientation gives such flavor to the civic life of Chicago.  My designated spot was the lower Michigan Avenue bridge, shooting eastward down Chicago River towards the lake. There was such a build-up to the houses being consumed by fire that I could understand that many people were disappointed by the lack of a cathartic burn. At a live event, sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s unpredictable. It keeps you on your seat, better than live television. Yet to me, the ultimate joy of such an event is just being among other Chicagoans from all over the city, feeling connected across divisions that keep people apart.  It’s why my favorite part of the show, a part that many missed because they left too soon, was seeing faces of Chicagoans floating down the river. All of the faces were of people who had surmounted obstacles in their lives, and all were connected to an event that aimed to celebrate a city that has and will overcome obstacles as well.