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The Difficulty of Monetizing Photography (Or Anything) Online

I want to write about my own subjective experience with attempting to monetize my talents in photography and writing. It’s something I have wanted to write about for a while but the subject matter intimidated me because it’s not a success story by any stretch of the imagination and while you could argue that my story is still in the process of being written, it’s still hard to come to grips with certain financial realities especially when they are linked specifically to your own passion(s).

An excellent article came out a few days ago called: “The Facebook Illusion" by Ross Douthat, a columnist for The New York Times. It’s an opinion piece about the state of the digital landscape in the wake of Web 2.0 and lofty collective aspirations of finding ways to make "lots and lots of money on the Internet". One of the segments from Douthat’s article that resonates deeply with my own situation is this:

“As The New Yorker’s John Cassidy pointed out in one of the more perceptive prelaunch pieces, the problem is not that Facebook doesn’t make money. It’s that it doesn’t make that much money, and doesn’t have an obvious way to make that much more of it, because (like so many online concerns) it hasn’t figured out how to effectively monetize its million upon millions of users. The result is a company that’s successful, certainly, but whose balance sheet is much less impressive than its ubiquitous online presence would suggest.

This “huge reach, limited profitability” problem is characteristic of the digital economy as a whole.”

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Some context is always good.

A few years ago, I decided to go back to school to finish up a degree I was unable to finish in my early 20s due to financial limitations. I spent the middle part of my 20s working in various corporate environments and I wanted to broaden my further job prospects down the line by finally finishing my undergraduate studies. The economy was right at the point of collapse and I initially decided to go the pre-med route because I have a love for science and medicine, and at the time job security seemed high in the medical field. After two years of pursuing those studies, I became increasingly dismayed that job security was rapidly declining in the medical sector and as my student loan debt increased, my confidence in my field of studies and the amount of time it would take to finish them dwindled. This made me rethink my future and my schooling.

During this time, a strange and unlikely set of circumstances occurred: I discovered photography. I had a little over a year left before I would finish my Bachelor’s Degree and I decided I had absolutely nothing to lose by pursuing photography as a means to support myself while finishing up school. Certain circumstances happened that propelled me into the world of photography that were largely based on being in the right place at the right time. I became a regular contributor to a local New York Times blog and I started to compose photo-essays for another hyper-local news and events based site.

While testing out the waters of freelance photo-journalism, I started to focus heavily on my photography blog which was/is based on Tumblr. As my follower count on Tumblr went up after being featured in their Spotlight section for photography, so did my confidence to broaden my own style of photography. I found that my interest in exploring the over-arching concept of New York City via my photography was quickly becoming a major focus rather than local photo-journalism. After a few people contacted me via private messages on Tumblr about selling prints of my work, I decided I had nothing to lose by setting up an online store where I could sell my work on various merchandise.

The first online store I created was on Zazzle. I spent endless hours setting it up, creating product templates, writing out descriptions and making sure I had enough of my work on there. I poured through blogs full of SEO tips. I spent countless hours perfecting my tags and linking to my products on my blog. I thought to myself “This will be incredible! All of the people who inquired about purchasing my work can now purchase it. This is the way to monetize my photography.” And while I added more and more work to my store there, I waited for sales to come rushing in.

And I waited. And waited.

And waited some more.

I made almost no money the first four months that I was on the site in 2011. I was beside myself. I had another semester of school left, school loans were looming over my head, and with barely enough money for food I thought to myself: “Maybe it’s this way because I am terrible at online marketing, or maybe I need a larger reach.” I opened another store on yet another print on demand photography site with an active community, RedBubble. I spent countless hours (once again), uploading and preparing my work for sale there, interacting with the community and fueled by hope, I started to gradually market my work on there.

In July of 2011, I received an invite to Google Plus. I was ecstatic to finally find an online spot where I could not only meet other photographers but also interact with other artists, thinkers and people from around the world. It was something of a revelation to me during my initial months on Google plus that not only were there a ton of other photographers out there but that some of the photographers out there like Trey Ratcliff were actually making a living off their photography. I was in total awe (actually I still am!). As I posted my posts that were previously only ever posted on my photography blog, people from all over started to interact with me. On my own photography blog, here on Tumblr where I had gained quite a following (around 40,000 at that time), I barely received any sort of regular interaction about my work other than Tumblr’s version of ‘likes’ and infrequent private messages. On Google Plus, each post in the early months would result in some of the most intensely cerebral conversation about photography. I was over the moon.

However, I was still struggling financially. I started to make a few sales on Zazzle and RedBubble based purely off random luck whether it was people finding my work via Zazzle’s online marketplace (which is beyond enormous) or via searching for various subject matter on RedBubble but it was barely enough to keep my head above water. I also did some commercial work for various magazines, books and album covers based off of people finding my work via Google Images as well as Flickr.

In the later half of 2011, I entered my last semester of school broke and reliant on student loans for support but in a better place creatively. I started to write quite a bit with each of the photos I posted encouraged mainly by the Google Plus community. Prior to Google Plus, I would include writing with my posts infrequently. After lots of absolutely incredible interaction and support from the Google Plus community, I decided to explore writing as a complement to my photography. In the later half of the year, somehow I managed to get put on the Suggested User List on Google Plus. I still am not quite sure how it happened but it did and my follower count soared to well over a million followers at the beginning of 2012. I got the confidence to enter a few photography contests which I made no headway in but allowed me to better understand the world of online photography contests a bit more.

I also met some absolutely incredible people on Google Plus who I can single-handledly credit with encouraging me more than they probably know like Thomas Hawk, Julia Peterson, Lee Daniels, Lotus Carroll, Sean Cowen, Daria Musk, Billy Wilson, Tiffany Henry, Alan Shapiro, Kelli Seeger Kim… I could be here listing people for days. I am so thankful every day for these people because they have and still make me absolutely love sharing my world with everyone else.

As for my financial reality, I started making a few holiday sales at the end of 2011 on Zazzle, RedBubble and a few other sites like Fine Art America, Society6 and SmugMug that I spent quite a bit of time putting my work on in order to gain a wider reach. I thought to myself: “Surely now, with such a vast reach and broad network and with the amount of time I have spent putting myself out there, this will become lucrative.”

But, the truth is, it hasn’t become the lucrative career I envisioned for myself a little over a year ago.

It’s quite difficult to make a living selling fine art photography via print sales and/or random contract work. And that’s a truth that has been a bitter pill for me to swallow since graduating at the end of January. I see many posts from people online that remind me of myself when I first started to pursue photography as a financial career. I see a lot of variations on this thought: “Well, maybe if I had a wider reach, I would sell a lot more.” However, with over 1 million followers on Google Plus, over 175,000 subscribers on Facebook and a photography blog followed by 65,000 people on Tumblr (all places where I interact heavily with my own posts and other people’s posts because I truly love engaging with people online), I haven’t been able to crack the secret code of online marketing that would somehow turn my photography career into something that is profitable.

I have noticed that few people discuss the less than positive aspects of putting yourself out there online. For every incredible success story about becoming successful based on large online reach, there are probably hundreds, if not thousands of stories like mine. I believe that the reason there are few stories like mine that get written is because when you struggle financially in regards to something you are passionate about, sometimes the only tangible thing you have at the end of each day is the hope that you will be the exception to the rule. By admitting that you haven’t become the success story you wished you could have become, you lose your grasp on that tangible bit of hope that you have been keeping close to your heart for so long.

And so, when I read Douthat’s article where he states: "This “huge reach, limited profitability” problem is characteristic of the digital economy as a whole.", it was as if all of the heartache I have been experiencing regarding my own subjective reality pursuing photography as a lucrative career was staring at me in the form of a thought that so perfectly sums up a glaring issue that I barely see discussed regarding having a huge reach and barely making headway in terms of making that reach profitable.

I would love to open up discourse regarding this subject but I am not sure how many people will actually read what I have wrote and I am not sure that people are open to discussing something as touchy as this subject based on what I wrote above regarding hope. Do I regret any of the things that I did or the enormous amount of work and time that I put into pursuing my dream? Of course not. Without trying, you will never know how things will pan out. I definitely think that while I haven’t been able to make photography work for myself financially, I have met so many incredible people along the way who have truly inspired me to never give up on photography as a passion and that is something that I consider to be priceless.

In a recent post by Paul Stickland about Google Plus and Visual artists, Marie Helene Visconti made an incredible comment that I agree with wholeheartedly: “I have the feeling of having found the equivalent of the artistic circles which used to exist in Paris before and after WWII, a very stimulating environment.”



As for myself and my current subjective reality, I will be embarking on a job search soon. I am in a great place in that I just graduated from college and I have quite a bit to offer to any company with my experience and skills which involve: community support, a passion for social media, a commitment to excellence, audience development, communication skills, the ability to anticipate issues, brand development, and writing skills.

Don’t worry, you can be sure I will post about that too in the coming weeks.

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View this post and interact with it on my Google Plus page

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View my photography for sale here, email me, or ask for help.

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  1. ohstvn reblogged this from nythroughthelens
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  4. zendimz reblogged this from nythroughthelens and added:
    I think aspiring photogs should read this
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  6. suzilight reblogged this from nythroughthelens and added:
    honest, helpful article I’ve read...balancing paying...doing...
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  11. asacsdoublearabian reblogged this from nythroughthelens and added:
    As someone who has had a passion for photography for the better part of 15 years, and had at one point hoped it would...
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