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|| News Item: Posted 2009-05-26

A Forced New Beginning
Brian Blanco is transitioning from being a staffer to a freelancer after being laid off.

By Brian Blanco

Photo by Carl Mario Nudi

Photo by Carl Mario Nudi

Bradenton (FL) Herald staff photojournalists Tiffany-Tompkins-Condie and Grant Jefferies carry fellow staffer Brian Blanco t the parking lot following Blanco's last day at the paper.
Interestingly enough, turning in my company-owned equipment wasn't the hardest part. Nor was it saying good-bye to my friends and colleagues at my farewell potluck held in the section of empty cubicles that, in the not-so-distant past, had been bustling with activity and decorated with family photos of the employees who once sat and worked there. Even the long walk, after having been summoned, to the infamous little room next to the publisher's office wasn't really that painful. For me, the hardest thing about getting laid off from my staff position was waking up the next morning and realizing I had nowhere to go.

"What do I do now?" I can remember sitting, fully dressed, on the edge of my bed after having showered and seeing my wife leave to go to work. "What the hell do I do?" I had no email to check, no assignments to schedule, no copyeditor to yell at for cropping my prizewinner into a mug shot and no one expecting me to be anywhere or do anything. I was on my own; sans cameras, and for the moment I was lost.

"Am I even a photojournalist anymore?" I wasn't sure of the answer to that and so I did what most everyone does on their first day of forced unemployment - I had a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios and watched about three hours of daytime television. I was midway through the second rerun of the West Wing on Bravo when it hit me. The answer was staring me right in the face.

"Of course I'm a photojournalist." I got up off the couch, booted up the desktop in the home office and immediately set the wheels in motion - "Of course I'm a photojournalist, it's not my 'job', it's who I am - I'm a photojournalist, a pretty good one too and I'll be damned if some McClatchy accountant in an office somewhere is going to take that away from me."

First step - I needed to exist. Since becoming a staffer, I knew that my name had long since disappeared from the Rolodex's of photo editors across the country that I had worked with back when I was a freelancer and I had little hope that, given the recent rash of layoffs throughout our industry, that those editors even had job themselves. I needed to start over fresh.

If I was going to be a freelancer again then clients had to have a way to find me. I had settled so comfortably into my staff job so many years ago that I had no website, no up-to-date portfolio, no domain name, no blog and if it hadn't been for I'm not sure I would have existed.

Well as it turned out the domain name was easy. A quick trip to Google Apps and was purchased for the low, low price of $10.00.

Next I needed a website to try out my new fancy domain name. A quick trip to and within minutes I had a fully functional website and archive online. Of course, having not saved any portfolio-quality "keepers" for the past several years meant that thinning down years worth of work into a portfolio was going to take some time and the truth is I still haven't quite gotten around to it.

TIP: For those of you who haven't been laid off yet, anticipate that it may happen to you and start finding portfolio images while you still have the benefit of your newspaper's archive system. Download (legally) as many important images as you can pull onto a hard drive before you get summoned to the little room next to the publisher's office. I hope that this will make things a lot easier for you than it has been for me. I'm certainly not suggesting that you violate any copyrights but at least you'll have them for your portfolio once you no longer have a key to the building.

After buying my domain name and setting up my website (which took less than an hour) it was time to buy gear, and lots of it. Looking around my home office I realized that the only piece of personally owned photo gear in my arsenal was a well-worn Domke bag, a lens-cleaning cloth and a Canon strobe that fired most of the time. Since I needed everything, I felt my best bang for my buck would be in used gear.

Note: Chances are that if you're a staffer and you've just been laid off, then you're likely going to be allocating your severance pay, or a good portion of it anyway, to purchase your new gear. A tip I got from a source in McClatchy's human resource department is that when they cut your severance paycheck, the IRS will "see" it as a "bonus" and tax the heck out of it. This means that you'll likely get a big (and I mean BIG) chunk taken out of what you're expecting but you'll likely get most of that back when, months later, you do your taxes. THIS IS NOT FINANCIAL ADVICE, but I've been told that if you do not want to wait that long to see that money, and you're interested in holding on to the biggest lump sum severance check you can get, then some people have told me that they bump up their number of exemptions to a total of 9 (which I've been told is the highest number you can claim before your HR department is required to notify the IRS) on their last day of work. This, I'm told, allows you to hang on to as much of that money as possible.

Photo by Tiffany Tompkins-Condie

Photo by Tiffany Tompkins-Condie

A Herald staff photojournalist attempts to contain his emotions (excitement over getting lots of new gear) as he and fellow staffer Brian Blanco share a moment on Blanco's last day at the paper.
Anyway, in my quest for gear I started scouring all of the big camera dealers' Used Equipment sections online and, truthfully, you'd be amazed at the deals you can find by just picking up the phone and calling some of the sponsors on and explaining that you need, well, everything. I also found sites like eBay and Craiglist to be helpful in finding deals on a few items but in the end it was the classifieds section where I bought the lion's share of the gear I ended up with.

After scouring the country (via internet) for deals, I ended up with a decent package that I felt would be good for covering just about anything that came my way. This included:
2 Canon MkIIn bodies
1 Canon 5D body
1 Canon 1D (original) as a back up
1 Canon 400mm f/2.8
1 Canon 70-200mm f/2.8
1 Canon 200mm f2.8
1 Canon 50mm f/1.8
1 Canon 16-35mm f/2.8
2 Canon 430ex strobes
3 Nikon SB24 Speedlights (for quick and dirty lighting in the field)
4 wireless transmitters/receivers for the above strobes
A fistful of CF cards
1 MacBook laptop
1 iBook laptop (for use as a backup in the field)
1 Blackberry with the T-Mobile unlimited data plan
1 Tamrac rolling case (I still owe you three dollars Preston Mack)
3 light stands, umbrellas, softboxes, reflectors, etc…
1 really understanding wife that realized this was all a business expense

The vast majority of the above gear was purchased within a few days of posting a single "Want-to-Buy" ad on the classifieds section and while I waited for it to trickle in from the various delivery guys and gals, I came to realize that there were a lot of former staffers right here in the Tampa Bay area that were in the same boat. Some of them had plenty of studio lighting equipment but no long glass. Some had long glass but no back-up bodies for a remote, or they had video equipment but had not yet purchased Final Cut Pro and well, you get the picture.

I began to realize that we could work together and there was little reason for all of us to own 2 of everything. Because of this, I've yet to buy Pocket Wizards, a 300mm f/2.8, a tilt-shift lens, anything macro or micro or a few other odds and ends and I've appreciated the money I've saved in not having to buy gear that I'll rarely use.

Between laid-off staffers from my former paper, several from my former competition (who I now string for) and a few other local freelancers, we've been able to create an unofficial co-op of sorts. I know if I need a 300mm f/2.8 I can trade another local shooter my 400mm f/2.8 for the day or I can just simply borrow it.

I also know that I can turn to these shooters for advice on anything from billing problems with certain clients, to Photoshop tips. I've also been able to refer jobs to them on days when I'm already booked and I've picked up a few from them too. We work together because it makes sense and we've known each other for years and trust one another.

In building my new freelance careers I ended up adopting and unofficial mantra: "Forward Movement." It was simple and effective. All I had to do was make it a point to be constantly doing something (between the hours of 10am and 5pm) that was working toward building my new business. I quickly came to realize that this was my new full time job and that I had to stay busy. After all, I was now working for myself so it would have been easy to plop down on the couch and tune in to see Judge Judy's latest ruling, but if I was busy it meant I was working to make myself money and that ended up being a very liberating feeling.

I found that, even when I had no shooting assignments, there was still plenty of work to do:
• Design my new business cards
• Clean the sensors on my new cameras
• Send emails to potential clients
• Build my archive
• Invoice somebody for something
• Organize my home office
• Buy stamps
• Create a Facebook page for my new wedding photography business
• Figure out how to streamline my workflow
• Write a story for the Sports Shooter Newsletter
• Try to find the most affordable health insurance
• Learn how to buy targeted ads on Facebook (worth every penny by the way)
• Stop by my wife's office and take her to lunch
• Look at Chip Litherland's website to find inspiration
• etc…

Do you know what the best surprise of all was in starting my new business? That it wasn't that hard. Contacts I've met and friends I've made over the years as a staffer started calling me right away and offering me assignments and advice. Years of being friendly on the sideline, helpful in the media workrooms and respectful on the message boards finally paid off as friends, and colleagues began passing my name around to assigning editors.

I began to get work right away and I graciously accepted every paying freelance gig I got wind of and gobbled up advice from longtime freelancers in my area like it was going out of style. The sound advice that I received from local freelancers like Doug Benc, Preston Mack, Scott Audette, Mike Carlson, Matt May and others were an amazing help, and I soon realized that in the freelance world, knowing how to shoot, is less-than half the battle.

You have to be a good businessperson and make sound decisions if you want to survive and thrive in this field. I was lucky and, through the help of some friends and some sound business decisions I'm now doing as well, if not better, than I was as a staffer - even if it does mean I have to hustle a bit more than I did before.

The bottom line is that just because you've been laid off doesn't mean that you've got to bow out of this business. You, and you alone, decide when you want to stop being a photojournalist. Yes, it's expensive to get started and, yes, there are a lot of challenges facing our industry at the moment but just try to remember what you love about photojournalism.

Let that drive you.

For me, all I had to do was remember that, as a staffer at a local daily, photojournalism wasn't just my profession. Over the years it had become a responsibility to my community. I'm a photojournalist - the images that I produce are what I've chosen to contribute to my community and that responsibility didn't end when the paycheck from the paper ended. I've found a way to keep doing what I love and I hope, and trust, that you can too.

(Brian Blanco is a professional photojournalist based in the Tampa Bay area. Blanco is a former staff photographer for the Bradenton Herald. Check out Blanco's member page:

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