Burrill Strong Photography officially opened for business on 15 March 2007, and that means last Saturday marked the beginning of the third year of BSP. Each year this venture exists is a blessing, so I think it’s important to recognize each year the business continues to operate and to look back at the growing history of BSP.
Just a few days after I left my office job for the last time two years ago, I was in Milan shooting a Chelsea basketball playoff game; Chelsea held a comfortable margin at halftime, so I joined the team in the locker room to get a few shots of the coach talking to the players. As I was standing off to the side shooting pictures of the coach talking to his team, suddenly I realized: this is what I do. There was no day job in the background; I was a photographer. Period. That wasn’t the moment of decision — I’d decided to pursue photography full-time shortly before my office job ended — but it was the moment decision became reality in my mind. It was a little strange, a little surreal, a little frightening … and completely exhilarating.
Two years later, that moment still sticks in my mind as a watershed. To that point I’d worked jobs that provided a paycheck but little else; when I stood in that locker room photographing that team, I knew I’d found something that would be more than a paycheck.
This is what I do.
Jennifer Jones portrait session, 16 March 2008
Spring cleaning, 6 April 2008
Chelsea baseball vs. Milan, 8 April 2008
City directory photos, 9 April 2008
Chelsea House Orchestra concert, 19 April 2008
Chelsea soccer vs. Milan, 21 April 2008
I’ve learned a great many things since I started BSP, and chief among them is this: even for a simple operation like BSP, being self-employed is more work than having a job. The lure of Being Your Own Boss sounds great on those absurd commercials featuring people who are making thousands of dollars each month! Working part time! At home! With no experience necessary! Call now! But the reality of actually being your own boss in the context of a real business is that you have to worry about the numerous important details of running a business without having a boss to catch your mistakes and to keep you working when you’re feeling lazy. Being your own boss doesn’t mean you answer to nobody; being your own boss means you have to answer to your own clients and your own balance sheets.
But while that may sound intimidating — and when you start out mildly clueless as I did, it really is — there’s a major upside: if you’re your own boss, you’re probably doing something you enjoy. And when you’re doing something you enjoy, the hassles are bearable and the satisfaction is significant. I don’t really enjoy the organizational details of running BSP, but when I’m out somewhere with a camera in my hands and I get The Shot, all the non-photographic details are worth it; when those details are in order, I know I’ll be able to spend more time pursuing The Shot.
This is what I do.
Chelsea water polo vs. Holt/EL, 29 April 2008
Chelsea shopping center fire, 5 May 2008
Memorial Day, 26 May 2008
Ron Mead retirement farewell, 28 May 2008
Wind storm damage, 3 July 2008
Zoe Rozsa portrait session, 13 August 2008
Last week I visited Beach Middle School to talk to Jason Morris’ eighth-grade digital photo classes. Public speaking is another one of those necessary details I don’t enjoy, so when I’m compelled to speak, I grit my teeth and make an effort to sound like I know something about the English language. In this case it wasn’t too difficult; I showed the classes my camera equipment and answered their questions, and that covered most of the time. With the remaining time, Jason put all my photo books around the room and gave the students time to flip through the books.
Nearly all of the books I’ve produced have been sports-related, but there is one non-sports book in my catalog: the BSP Year One book, featuring a selection of my favorite images from my first year in business. When one small group of students finished looking through the Year One book, one of the girls closed it with a slightly exasperated sigh, lamenting that her pictures never seem to turn out that well and wondering if she’d ever be able to take such good photos.
I didn’t say anything in response to her plaint, but I couldn’t help but smile. Why? Because there have been many times I’ve looked at the work of more accomplished photographers and, with a slightly exasperated sigh, lamented that my pictures never seem to turn out that well and wondered if I’d ever be able to take such good photos. This is one of the truths of the creative world: unless you are one of the very few elite in your field, you’re always going to be looking up at somebody else.
It’s important to remember, though, that it’s a damaging truth only if you take the wrongly self-deprecatory view — that is, that your work somehow isn’t good enough because somebody else’s work is better. The last two years have helped me learn that while my work doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it also doesn’t exist to be endlessly and unfairly compared with that of more accomplished photographers. I’m not in this line of work to measure myself against other photographers or simply to be better than somebody else; I’m in this line of work to produce the best images I can.
This is what I do.
Krystin Schwarze portrait session, 17 August 2008
Chelsea Community Fair demolition derby, 19 August 2008
Phil Wickham concert, 14 September 2008
Chelsea football vs. Lincoln, 19 September 2008
Chelsea Area Fire Authority training, 5 October 2008
Chelsea football vs. Dexter, 26 October 2008
Before I officially started BSP, I was spending some of my free time photographing a few Chelsea High School sports. When I launched the business, I knew I’d have to branch out into different areas of photography to make the numbers work; however, I didn’t know how much work it would be to step outside the sports box I’d unwittingly built. Covering sports teams is an excellent way to meet a lot of people, but the more time you put into it, the more your identity becomes attached to those sports. Where do many potential clients see me most often? At sporting events. Which photos are most regularly featured in the newspaper? My sports photos. Which photos have won awards? My sports photos. I’m glad to be recognized for my sports work, but that’s not all I do!
Now, despite the frustration displayed in that paragraph, I have to be honest: I love the work I do with the local sports teams. As a sports fan, I enjoy the time I get to spend on the football sidelines or in the baseball dugout; it’s fun to get a chance not just to watch sports from afar, but to experience them close-up as I work. But I have to be honest about something else: to this point, I’ve probably gained more enjoyment than revenue out of sports. That makes the sports box considerably more confining because, sadly, enjoyment doesn’t pay the bills.
The good news is that the past year has shown some progress in my efforts to move beyond sports: I had more portrait sessions, I shot most of the photos for the current Chelsea School District brochure, and I produced a poster for the Chelsea District Library. It’s been encouraging to see the public perception begin to shift in the right direction; the progress can seem glacially slow, but there is progress. My sports work may always be one of the most prominent facets of my business, but finally, the word is starting to spread that it’s not the only facet of my business.
This is what I do.
Jennifer Jones concert, 26 October 2008
Youth Dance Theater’s Nutcracker, 6 December 2008
Chelsea hockey vs. Lumen Christi, 10 December 2008
Wind storm damage, 29 December 2008
Chelsea basketball vs. Dexter, 30 January 2009
Bruneau Dune, Idaho, 4 February 2009
Over the past year I’ve done a fair amount of freelance photography work for the Chelsea Standard and Dexter Leader, and I’ve come to enjoy the variety and community connection that work brings. Since I started shooting for the paper, I’ve attended numerous events in the area that I might not have attended otherwise and met numerous people I might not have met otherwise, and I’ve gotten to know both towns a little bit better through those events and those people. From youth theater productions and Christmas festivities to classes at the library and fundraisers for local nonprofit organizations, I’ve been able not just to experience many different parts of both communities, but also — and perhaps more importantly — to become more a part of my community through my work for the Standard.
When I hear positive feedback about my newspaper work, or when somebody asks me to shoot an upcoming event because they’ve enjoyed my published work in the past, it’s both professionally and personally gratifying; my newspaper work is a part of my business, but it’s also a part of my interaction with the local community, and my hope is that it makes some small contribution to that community.
This is what I do.
Ethan, 13 February 2009
Chelsea basketball vs. Pioneer, 17 February 2009
Chelsea hockey vs. Lansing Catholic Central, 21 February 2009
Chelsea basketball vs. Tecumseh, 4 March 2009
CHS faculty & friends concert, 6 March 2009
CCA’s Jazz & Chocolates, 13 March 2009
When I announced the beginning of BSP two years ago in a blog post here, I concluded the post with a verse from the book of Proverbs:
“Many are the plans in a man’s heart,
but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.”
A great deal has happened since I jumped headlong into photography, but it doesn’t matter what happens: that verse will always hold true. I don’t know what the next year — or five years, or ten years — will hold for BSP; I know only that I’d like to see it grow into something much greater than it is now. But this business rests not in the plans in a man’s heart, but in the purpose of the Lord, and it will grow or fail according to that purpose. If that includes another year of BSP, then I’ll be back here next March, looking back on one more year filled with images from the life of a small-town photographer. After all…
This is what I do.