An Experience In Failure, Loudly

Judging by all of my friends’ social media feeds, and mine too, most of the time, it would appear that we are all financially independent, succeeding wildly beyond our dreams, embracing every crazy opportunity that falls in our lap, and living life to the absolute fullest while dancing like no one is watching.  Every time I scroll through IG it’s like a Pepsi commercial with all the cheesing and grinning.  This thing we’ve all had a hand in creating is supposed to mirror our lives, but instead we’ve constructed ego-trumpets that we can’t stop blasting at the top of our lungs, regardless of what the string section is doing.

Social Media is the highlight reel.  We don’t see the behind the scenes, we are cautious to expose our vulnerabilities, the hard work, the missed opportunities, the times we really effed it up.  And in fashion photography, especially, there’s a sense of image that’s important to clients and followers that we maintain.

I was watching Elon Musk talk about how we are basically cyborgs already, the way we have digital personas and keep huge parts of our lives online.  If it all froze today, historians would look back with absolute wonder and amazement at what a posh time it was for all of us.  But it’s bullshit.  I think on some level as we all construct our own fantastic life-projections we realize that…I least I think I do until I fall into that trap of thinking that everyone has a cool life but me.

I don’t want my feed to be just a list of my embellished accomplishments so I’m going to share this with you.  It’s embarrassing, it’s painful, it’s funny, at times.  Ok, I’m actually still looking for the humor part, but you get the idea.

In December 2015 I started a Patreon account for my photography, videos, and zines.  Patreon (quickly) is a site that allows you to donate to artists whose work you really like.  You can do it on a subscription basis, for as little as a $1 a month, and in return there are different levels where the artist rewards their “patrons” with photo sets or zines or BTS stuff, etc.  It’s a cool concept that has a ton of artists making money each month where they weren’t before.  And, importantly, fans and followers get to contribute in real time to goals the artist sets.

I’ve been blogging on tumblr for years and was really stoked about the idea of releasing whole sets of photos no one had seen before. The idea of making photo zines that you can hold, booklets and sets that people can collect and keep as art objects has always been exciting for me.  I’ve had amazing feedback on my video work but paying for music licensing, props, studio space…it adds up.  Zines are not cheap, printing and mailing costs are high.  I do these things because I love doing them, but ultimately I was hoping other people loved them enough to contribute as well.  I thought that people who already followed me would be into the idea of helping me create more of what they loved about my work.

I was wrong.

It started kind of strong.  3 patrons in the first week.  I was elated.  And then a plateau.  Weeks went by and I changed tactics, adjusted reward levels, changed my pitch. Nothing.  I contacted all the magazines and blogs I contribute to and asked if they would help me promote my Patreon, getting as many eyes on it as possible and they did.  Maybe 10 different blogs featured it, one or two mags as well.  Some big Tumblr and Twitter friends blasted it out, I put it on everything I owned…Tumblr, Vimeo, IG, and I hammered it home.  I had a ton of help that I really appreciated because getting it into the world is what you need when you’re basically competing with everyone on the internet.  We’re talking in the hundreds of thousands of views.  Good numbers.

A slow trickle.  One or two more people would drop in, drop out.  Stay for an update or a reward and then bounce.  4 months in–I got worried.  I watched two other artists I’m friends with start to really make money each month and they started their accounts after I did.  I emailed Patreon and asked for some help.  It takes time!  Is what they said.  Send us your project and maybe we’ll put it on our front page.  I did, a few times, and they never did.  I’m sure they had a billion of these to go through so I’m not mad, I’m just building the narrative that I worked hard on my end to promote it.

And it sort of went on like this for the next few months.  I was pulling in around $46 a month, then $20, then $17…and then last month I got my statement…$6.  Six dollars.  Despite knowing this was really going to fuck me up, I checked in on my friends doing Patreon and they were killing it.  I checked in on my nemesis (we all have an art nemesis so don’t act like I’m an asshole) and he was REALLY killing it.  I cruised by some models that I follow–all doing much better than I was.  So I couldn’t blame it on the economy.  I can’t blame it on no one knowing what Patreon is, because people do know, and they are supporting it, they just aren’t supporting me.  (It did, in fact, fuck me up.)

What do you do when you ask the world what they think your art is worth, and they decide it’s $6?

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You flip out.  You lose your shit.  You question everything.  You text your friends maudlin messages.  You drink whiskey and text even more maudlin messages.  They can’t relate though…they have a Patreon and a dedicated group of supporters.

A good friend told me I should take that $17 and be really proud of it and take my wife out to coffee.  But this is from a guy who makes around $1500.00 a month from his.  The truth is, I’m the outlier from my group.  In fact, in the pool, I’d be the statistic they cut for standard deviation.  I’m not even below average, I’m so far below average it fucks up the curve so they toss it!  (Is that the funny part?)  A bar has been set by my contemporaries and I couldn’t cut it.  It’s a really hard thing to swallow.

Yesterday I turned my account off.  I’m out.  To be honest, I don’t have the intestinal fortitude to hang out and watch this thing cough and sputter any longer.  I asked a question to my supporting base: Will you help me fund more projects?  And they collectively said No.  Loudly.

Full Disclosure: I’m stoked about Patreon being a service for any artist who can make it work. We live in a fast world where art is in jeopardy always, and getting paid for doing art is never easy.  Patreon found a way to patch the holes in the dam and I genuinely appreciate the support they offer and the platform to make a lot of dreams come true.  I’m not bitter about my friends making money doing what they love.  They absolutely deserve it.  (Maybe about my nemesis, yes.)  Am I jealous?  Oh fuck yes.  Am I hurt?  Incredibly.

I follow a guy on IG who can’t stop talking about how humbled he is by his followers, his fans, and his supporters.  But there’s really nothing more humbling than approaching the people you think like and appreciate your work, your struggle, your passion, people you’ve shared this with for years, who’ve watched you evolve and grow and create, and asking these people for help and have them to collectively, nearly unanimously, say no.

It has always felt to me that a big part of being a fashion photographer is trying maintain this image of how cool your life is and I hate it.  It’s not healthy for me or anyone else.  There are pitfalls in life.  There are embarrassments, lapses in judgement, jealousy, envy, failure, butthurtedness! The opposite of success!  I’m just putting this here so you’ll know that some guy had a pretty rough day on the internet and maybe you can relate to that. Dancing like no one was watching, or whatever it is that Abraham Lincoln said.



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