Career Advice

One Year Ago, the Chicago Sun-Times Fired Their Entire Photo Staff. Here’s How the Freelance Life Has Treated One Photographer Since​.

By Spenser Davis June 30th, 2014

When the Chicago Sun-Times laid off its entire photography due to budget cuts last May, the publication planned for reporters to take pictures with iPhones. Eventually, they rehired four of the 28 photographers. Rob Hart was not one of those four.

Hart, who had been at the Sun-Times for over a decade, turned to freelancing immediately after he lost his job. Earning a living with a camera now requires an evolving set of skills. Based on his experiences, Hart shared advice for those new to the photography business.

How did you get into photojournalism and end up at the Sun-Times?

I went to Columbia College in Chicago. I was always into photography as a kid. It was the only thing I ever wanted to do, the only thing i was ever good at. I wanted to be Andre Serrano, an artist. When I was at Columbia, in my first photojournalism class with John White, I immediately decided I wanted to be him. He got to do so much. He was in Nelson Mandela’s house, in his kitchen, when he was released. The first time he had walked into his kitchen in 27 years, John was there as he walked in and took his jacket off. I’ll never forget the night after that first class. It was one of those times where I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life.

So you basically went straight into it? Do you think it was the connections that really did it for you, or the internship experience?

Early on in my career at a workshop with Sun-Times photographer Bob Davis, he said, “Your network is your net worth.” This was right after he had shot Eva Longoria’s wedding. He said that everyone you meet as a freelancer is a possible client. I didn’t really get that until I actually become a freelancer, and it hit me. The Sun-Times allowed me to spend 12 years building up a client base, basically.

Did you do any freelance work while you were at the Sun-Times?

Yeah, a coworker and I ran a wedding photography business on the side. And the Sun-Times allowed us to do freelance work for the national outlets. I could do assignments for the New York Daily News or U.S. News & World Report.

Did you do very many of those?

Once in a while, yeah. I did more freelancing for colleges, for marketing and such. Some of the stuff I would shoot would actually end up in the papers with the PR company’s name on it, not mine. They were loose on what they would do, because no one ever asked. I kind of expected that to be my future, so I tried to keep one foot in the job and one foot in a potential freelance career.

Would you say to those just starting a freelance career as a photojournalist that they should just do their own thing in order to build a portfolio? Would you suggest they take any photography jobs? Or only take photojournalist jobs?

That’s a tough call. I have a student right now who is doing an internship that pays less than minimum wage that I told her she should absolutely never do. But for her, it does work out. They allow her to keep her right; they’re giving her an outlet to publish. I think you can make way more money just working for yourself, but really, I don’t like telling people what they should and shouldn’t do. It kind of is my job sometimes, as a teacher, but I never thought that most of my income would be outside journalism. Eighty percent of my income is non-journalism-related since I went freelance. Editorial takes up way more time, but doing what’s basically propaganda pays way more. I have kids, so that’s what I gotta do.

What other advice would you give to new freelancers, especially those who are recent grads?

Meeting people. I used to go to conventions, workshops, and just meet everybody I could. I’d shove my slides right into their faces, just ask for a little bit of feedback on my portfolio. One guy I did that with immediately gave me an interview while I was still in college.

When you were first let go by the Sun-Times, did you just immediately freak out, or did you immediately turn to all these connections and try to get freelance work?

I freaked out at first, but then I got really drunk.

I freaked out at first, but then I got really drunk. Everybody in the world wanted to buy us drinks when they heard about all of us being fired. Pretty much the whole staff of the Chicago Tribune heard we were at a bar in Chicago called the Billy Goat, and so they showed up and just kept buying us drinks. Stacy St. Clair, who went Twitter famous with the dirty-water-in-Sochi photos, was a reporter with me during an internship back in the day. She came over with a stack of twenties, and said, “We collected these for you, everyone at the Tribune says to call our bosses, we will get you work.” Building those relationships for more than 10 years was so important, especially right when we were let go and trying to figure things out.

Did people you knew personally offer you jobs or were new people coming to you after hearing the story of your termination?

I got a lot of people from both sides right away connecting with me, sending me emails to tell me to call their editors. Some of my friends had moved into photo-editing positions over the last few years. When you hit your mid-30s, your friends actually start getting into positions of power. It’s a lot easier than when you’re 22 and everyone’s in the same boat at the bottom. Being vocal about the whole situation was important, and it helped people connect with me and my position, so they just called me up and offered me jobs.

One of the interviews I had last week was with someone I used to work with at the Sun-Times. They told me that one of the reasons they reached out to me specifically is that they liked how I just told people how I felt and was honest about my situation, trying to make the best out of it. They wanted someone like that, a problem solver.

For people who are starting out that might have a little trouble accessing the network and making the contacts, what else can they do? Are blind submissions to editors a good way to go?

I think just keeping yourself on the minds of editors is a good thing. Always producing new work. One thing I see a lot with younger photographers is a certain timidity towards calling someone up and asking for feedback or advice on their portfolio. One thing I always do is to tell people, ‘Don’t hesitate to call.’

I’ll look at anything. If you send me an email, I’ll get back to you in a couple of days with what I hate about it. I try to foster that ethos in people I meet in this industry. The only way you’re going to make it is by doing good work, every single day. I had friends in college who wanted to be photographers, but they weren’t shooting every day. Most of those people aren’t in the industry anymore.

Is it a good thing for people to cultivate an online portfolio and try to get a following on Tumblr, Instagram, etc?

Yeah, I mean anything that’s available to market yourself with, do it. I kind of wish I had taken some marketing and finance courses in college now that I’m pretty much running my own business. Now, I’m the finance guy and the marketing guy and the creative guy. So learning to do all those things is important as well. I’m not great at talking about myself, so I had to make this conscious decision to take hold of my story. In journalism, you never want to give up too much information for free. You’re in someone’s house to just… be there. But now, as a freelancer, I want editors to think about me. When you’re in a romantic relationship, you want the other person to only think about you. I don’t want these editors thinking about any other photographers. How do I make that happen? That’s the sort of thing I had to think about.

So now that you’ve been doing this for a year, a successful year at that, how proactive are you about finding new jobs, making new connections, etc.?

All of that being said, I haven’t really done much marketing. Like I don’t even have business cards, which is probably a bad idea. Actually, maybe I do. I just don’t know where they are. The good thing, though, is that I haven’t had the time to devote to putting together a marketing plan because I’ve been so busy with all of the freelance work—plus, about this time next week, probably, I’ll have three kids. Because of that, I’ve also been applying for tons of jobs.

So you’d like to have a full-time position right now?

You know, my wife wants to stay home more, and we could use the benefits. That’s another thing I’ve had to think about it. But again, the people who would hire me are most likely going to be my freelance clients. So, I just keep pushing for a position with every gig I get. I just mention, “By the way, if something opens up, let me know” every time I talk with an editor I’ve worked for.

I was talking to the Chicago Tribune, telling them that I’ll be at an event already, and if they’d like, I could shoot it for them. I’m always trying to come up with ideas to show how much value I have to both current and potential clients, to remind them why they want me in the first place. I wish I had time to sit down and find new clients, but some days I can be pretty lazy. Sometimes I just take my daughter to the zoo instead of working. It’s a constant struggle between growing your business and spending time with family.

Do you have any more general advice for freelance photographers, whether they’re in a position like you or just starting out their freelance career?

Not every photo I’ve ever taken is good, and I know that. I was terrible for a lot of years. I’m so glad I didn’t have to freelance immediately. My job allowed me to improve and get feedback in a relatively safe environment. When you’re a freelancer, every assignment can be a last job, so you have to get better much more quickly than I did with the cushion of a full-time job. It’s possible. If you really want to do it, you’ll find a way. You just have to learn to fail and accept those failures.

Image by Associated Press
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