One year ago, in November 2013, I sat down at my laptop to edit another newspaper photography assignment - probably my third or fourth assignment of the day. Finished photos due by the next morning. But I'm a procrastinator at heart, and I can never get to work before letting my mind settle down a bit. So before I dove in to editing the school fairs, city council meetings, pet of the week and Christmas tree lighting photos, I pulled up a little blog I had been following, by Sarah of Weird Sisters Circus. It was all about Making the Escape.
She writes so frankly, but her tone is warm and confessional. Sarah left her full time job to teach aerial, do graphic designing and write her blog. And right then, I was wishing I could do the same. I adored my job as a photojournalist, something I had wanted to do since I was little. I loved my father's stories of racing around town on his motorcycle for the News Chronicle, dashing to photograph a brush fire, a car crash, or telling a beautiful story about a local family's struggle to make ends meet. But I was frustrated after five years at the wonderful, but understaffed, photo department of a weekly local paper. It was so rewarding being out in the field doing photography every day, but the editing load, crazy schedule and repetitive assignments made me crazy. At the same time, Joe was more than ready to leave his job as a manager at his family's motorcycle dealership - something he'd done since high school.
We were trying to hold down these full-time jobs that we loved, but were a little burnt out on, while clinging to the suddenly blazing rocketship of our little photography business, Alloy Images. Sweet (Jesus) success! When we started Alloy, we thought it would be a fun way to combine our passions for pole and photography. A little side business. But this community... there's no place like pole. A raucous whirlwind of side-busting laughter, death-defying moves, flying legs, hair flips, glitter, stories of incredible passion and despair, resurrected dreams and bucketloads of rhinestones. Anyone who loves pole understands deeply that it truly belongs among the circus arts - just because of the wonderful insanity! How can any other job hold a candle to living and breathing pole full time? Joe and I wanted out of the "normal" world and into the circus.
So back to Sarah's blog. Instead of reading a post or two, then putting my nose to the editing grindstone, I took out a shiny new red notebook I'd bought and a big sharpie, and I wrote ESCAPE PLAN in big block letters on the front. Then I started calculating.
Over the next few months, Joe and I would go over the numbers countless times. Tabulating all the bills, determining where we could cut a few dollars, where we could add small income streams. We stopped going out. I added more classes at Metamorphosis: Mind, Body & Pole and The Vertitude. Joe went over the budget and we started filling up our calendar. We booked open shoots, private shoots, local events, travel studio shoots. It was our fourth year since starting Alloy and our second year as official photographers for Pole Sport Organization - which meant that we were traveling to photograph PSO events nearly as much as we were home. We started adding travel shoots at studios near the competition venues. My little red notebook filled up with marketing ideas, workflow streamlining plans, and photo concepts.
In June, I ran out of vacation days for traveling to PSO events. And there it was, the end of the line. Nothing left to do. And so. I wrote a resignation letter for the paper. I took a very, very deep breath and tried not to think about the enormous boulder hanging over my head labeled MORTGAGE. Not two weeks later, Joe's family let him know that they were selling the bike dealership. So his last day would be July 3, and suddenly he was at the end of the line as well. We had to take the leap.
There's no reason we should be able to make a living photographing pole and aerial. When we tell people, their jaws drop. They just can not believe that pole can pay our bills. There is no reason that this "fitness trend," composed entirely of people who do this relatively expensive form of dance, entirely for fun, that society as a whole frowns upon - should be able to support us. It seems like a world of spun sugar, liable to collapse at any moment.
But in the six months since we left our "respectable, normal" gigs, this world of unicorns and rainbows HAS really, truly, supported us.
It's still terrifying.
Social media marketing is its own kind of heaven/hell. We joined Instagram! What a tool for connecting with other people, but follow all your photographer competitors and look at their endless feeds full of adoring comments... and feel like you're never going to succeed. See new photographers coming into pole who do amazing, creative work with the biggest pole stars - for free. And wonder if you need to give away your work to grow. Watch polers posting video screenshots, photos of photos, phone selfies, heavily filtered snapshots, and wonder if your focus on quality matters to anyone at all. See other photographers shooting the same look over and over, and wonder if you should stop trying to do new things and just stick with what sells. It's easy to get sucked in to that kind of thinking when connecting with the people your work serves happens almost entirely online. When you're your own boss, doubt is always there.
But in the end, despite the seeming fragility of our success, this has been the best six months of our lives. We're doing work that we really care about, and that seems to be what other people care about as well. We launched Alloy Visionaries, a new project that lets us shoot with specifically chosen dancers of all levels on experimental shoots and make powerful work together. It's something we always wanted to do but never had the schedule flexibility to do. We set our own schedule. The generosity of this community is incredible - polers open their homes to us so we can save on hotel costs, they cart us around their hometowns and feed us and let us join their classes. They buy our photos! It still seems insane.
All of this is just to say, THANK YOU, pole and aerial community. THANK YOU to all the companies who supported us by hiring us this year. THANK YOU to PSO for being the foundation of our success. THANK YOU to all you amazing dancers - for a year of competitions and shoots and travel and dance and fun. To say that we're grateful is a huge, enormous, massive understatement.
And a big mushy thank-you as well to Sarah (who is now part of the California circus community!) for inspiring me, personally, to take the leap. Check out her blog too!