Photography: Larry Shaefer
Larry Shaefer’s last professional project was in July of last year for the television show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. He’d donated his time to build a staircase for a needy family. The work done, he put away his tools, took his family on a vacation to Oregon, and on the day he returned was informed that the carpentry workshop that had employed him for the last thirteen years was shutting its doors. There were no new projects lined up, his employer couldn’t pay him and he — and the firm’s three other employees — was being laid off.
Over the last couple of years, as the recession has continued to bite and unemployment has stuck at just below 10 percent, it’s a story that’s been repeated more than 8.4 million times. Days that used to be filled with work and career-building are now consumed by job-searching, interviews and daytime television.
Photography enthusiasts at least have somewhere to turn. They now have weekday hours to practice their photography, learn new skills and even earn a little extra money from something they’d previously only considered a weekend hobby. Microstock firm Shutterstock reports that its site really took off towards the end of 2008, about the time that the downturn began. A number of publications had suggested photography as a way of supplementing income, and submissions grew from a public concerned about the stability of their salaries.
Magazine Covers and Getty Portfolios
It’s something that Larry Shaefer has begun to benefit from too. A keen photographer, Larry had long been putting his life on film, shooting nature, pictures of his son or still life images, and uploading the results to his Flickr account. One picture entered in a local fair — the first he’d entered in a contest — picked up a blue ribbon and was featured on the cover of Ozark Mountaineering Magazine, a request that earned him twenty bucks.
“I thought that was cheap, but I didn’t care,” he recalled. “I thought it was great that they even asked me.”
Subsequent offers have been more serious. Getty approached him after seeing his pictures on the site, and although he has yet to make a sale, the stock company does represent several of Larry’s photographs.
After the initial shock of thirteen years of work without missing a day, Larry says he’s now relieved. He’s back at college, retraining as a middle school teacher and hoping to find work in some of Missouri’s underprivileged schools, and he has discovered that he has the time to improve his image editing, something he’d overlooked in the past. He’s learning Photoshop and while he says he may take the same number of pictures that he used to, he now puts more time into producing quality photos rather than shooting large numbers of them.
From English Teacher to Editorial Photographer
A focus on post-production is something August Kelm has been concentrating on too. A former student with plans to teach English in Japan, August was forced to drop out of college when the bank supplying her student loan failed. She took a job to save enough money to re-enroll, but was laid off in January this year. Her days are now spent improving her photography. She’s also teaching herself Photoshop and is learning about the Zone System as a way of adding some extra flare to her black and white photos. She’s now hoping to become an editorial photographer and plans on enrolling in some photography classes at her local state college. In the meantime, she’s been sending her resumé to magazines and publications that she believes publishes the kinds of images she likes to create.
August’s unemployment then may end up opening a whole new career path, one that she might not have considered if she hadn’t been hit by the recession, and an activity that she would not have had as much time to practice. But the real benefit, at least in the short term, is photography’s ability to take some of the pain out of being unemployed.
“It’s made those days in between rejection letters and firing resumes out a bit more bearable,” says August. “I can just grab one (or all) of my cameras and just take a walk down the road and I usually end up with a couple of good shots.”
Larry Shaefer too has found that the prospect of making sales through Getty or figuring out how to improve his layering skills are little compared to the way in which photography is helping him through a difficult transition. He describes the creativity involved in taking pictures as a kind of therapy and enjoys the fact that he can still get to wield a tool that’s more demanding than a mouse or a board marker.
“The camera has filled that void, and I appreciate it more now actually that my hands have grown a bit softer,” he says. “I think over the months photography has helped me move on and grow into a better person.”
Recessions though do end. People who have lost their jobs go on to find new ones, sometimes better ones, and sometimes even in entirely new fields. Losing a job might be painful but photography can make it seem a little easier, perhaps by bringing in a little income, always by helping to fill days that can otherwise feel interminable. Both Larry and August say they’ll continue shooting pictures even after the economy has improved and their job prospects have brightened.
“I don’t think I’d stop just because of a job,” says Larry. “I may have less time to edit, matt and frame, but with today’s technology I’ll throw them on a hard drive for my son’s kids and their kids to look at.
“There is nothing more inspiring, than losing your job,” he continues. “If you keep your sense of humor about it, and take advantage of the extra time, a person can easily transform a loss into an added bonus.”