On Being Nanny, Lover, Janitor, and Magician

The thing I hate most about freelancing is I always feel like I’m doing more work than the job I was hired to do. Maybe it’s me, or maybe it’s my clients, but there’s so much more that goes into freelancing than simply delivering the requested photo or video or whatever it is you’re working on. When people think of freelancing and the whole lifestyle that goes with it, I think this is the biggest thing they overlook. With a 9-5 job you’re typically executing a task and that’s it — the paycheck is deposited into your account, and you can clock out at the end of the day.

Over the years as a freelancer I’ve realized that this all-consuming job is comprised of several distinct roles, which I’ve identified as: the Nanny, the Lover, the Janitor, and the Magician.

The Nanny

As the Nanny, your first and foremost task is taking care of clients. While this should be simply introducing yourself, getting the project scope outlined, and the details sorted out so you can deliver the final desired product, the reality is there is oftentimes a level of babysitting involved. Maybe it’s just fashion and beauty, but in my experience, my role as freelancer has oftentimes been more about managing expectations and placating egos than actually editing video or taking photos.

Working in fashion and beauty, I’m sure the clients are a little more prone to dramatics than other industries, but as a freelancer I’m the one who is somehow responsible for making sure they’re getting their productions done and hitting their timelines. There’s an unreal amount of codifying and placating people in order to get the situation expedited and the project wrapped. As a freelancer, especially if you’re busy, you need to be on top of your calendar, and learning how to best maximize your time. The client doesn’t care about your schedule — it’s up to you to make sure you’re not a slave to them.

One thing I try to always keep in mind is what the workplace is like for the people I’m working for. I’ve had more than my fair share of rude and blunt emails, and while I think it’s mainly a sign of laziness in communication, it’s a miserable reality of the world. One of the ways I’ve learned to deal with that is to see those messages as a reflection of the senders environment. Using a bit of that Nanny psychology will serve you above and beyond if you can understand generally where those messages are coming from — and remember, their nastiness really has nothing to do with you.

On the more positive side of things, as Nanny you should also be taking care of your team and your talent. For example, I once co-directed a shoot where the lead director was way behind on getting her shots done, and she seemed entirely oblivious that her talent was freezing in an ice cold bathtub. I stepped up and told her the shot was wrapped, and got the talent some hot tea and and a warm blanket. The director’s inability to get the shot was negatively impacting everyone else who was there, and while she should have been mindful of the entire situation, she simply wasn’t operating on that level. Taking care of the people around you is critically important, and I think a bit of nannying is always a good thing when the industry can oftentimes be a coldhearted place.

The Lover

This is where your creative soul starts to sing, and you need to see the absolute best in your clients so you can bring the most to the project. As the Lover, you have to see the client for all of their good, all of their potential, and you have to totally throw yourself into the work. Everything I’ve ever done has a bit of my own heart and soul in it, and I tend to think that’s why people like my work. You can tell when someone cares about whatever it is they’re making.  When you’re in love everything is lit perfectly, the sun shines a bit brighter, and things just seem effortless.

At the end of the day you need to love what you’re working on, even if you hate it. In other words, you need to find the potential and bring it out of whatever situation you’re working on. Because sometimes you sign up for a project and it’s amazing and then something happens and it turns out to actually be an nightmare and you’re wondering how in the hell did you end up here? And in those times, you need to think back to that magic moment, focus on it, and then pretend you’re still feeling in love up until you get that paycheck and can walk away.

In the end, the work will reflect you and your reputation, so learning to see things as a lover is as much about the job as it is about your longterm career.

The Janitor

This one is a bit of a riff on the whole Nanny vibe above, but it’s more of a managerial side of the job. I’ve found clients are oftentimes wholly unprepared to direct or oversee the work they’re requesting, and instead of being up front about it, they try to hide it, for a variety of reasons. They think it makes them look unprofessional or stupid, or to get their job they’ve told someone they have production background when they actually have none. Clueless people are usually more damaging and dreadful to deal with than those who are just mean, and spotting them is often more difficult up front. But don’t worry, they’ll make themselves known eventually.

For example, I recently requested about 5 final select photos to be incorporated into a project. The production coordinator I was working with was, by her own admission, not used to production at all, and in the end she sent me literally over 12,000 unedited photos to sort through. I pushed back on the producer and in the end had some selects pulled, but still had to sort through everything to find those individual file numbers.

My remedy for this is to always over communicate at the beginning of a project — I know how to write scripts, manage production schedules, scout locations, train talent, etc. Typically they say they have it covered, but outlining every service you provide not only give you potential to leverage the project up in your own favor, but it also allows you to establish yourself as an authority and hopefully make them more comfortable in admitting their gaps of knowledge.

At the end of the day it’s literally not your job to do other people’s work, but sometimes you have to mop a few floors or take out the trash in order to get the job done. Metaphorically. You shouldn’t be doing actual janitorial work.

The Magician

And here’s possibly the most important role you’ll often have to play as a freelancer. The Magician. It will be up to you to create something from nothing. Whether that’s making a blockbuster with no budget, working on a production that has no schedule or timeline and yet somehow delivering on deadline, or creating the perfect concept from scratch and seeing it through to final execution. This is the part that I do love, and while it can sometimes be stressful, conjuring up the creative is the most rewarding part of the entire gig.

The most important part of this one for me is always keeping your creativity intact, but also operating within the confines and constrictions of the situation. Oftentimes people lament a lack of budget or less than ideal timelines, but that’s just the reality of the world. Everyone needs it yesterday and they want it for free, and I’m definitely not saying you need to give into that, but I am saying to look at these challenges as opportunities.

Learning to improvise on set is the most important part of the whole thing as a photographer for me, and there have been countless times where things have gone horribly wrong. I had a light die mid-interview with an A-list musician. I had the entire audio of an interview fail because a mic wasn’t on. One time an assistant didn’t focus his camera for an entire video shoot, rendering the footage useless, with no chance to reshoot.

All of these things (and more! yay!) will happen to you at some point, and you’ll need to find your own ways to adapt and make things work. The circumstances will never be perfect, there will always be something less than ideal, but that’s ok. It’s normal. It’s real. The more you learn and the more experience you get, the easier it will be adapting, and that learning process is what’s going to make your work really shine.

That’s everything that I’ve put into my work over the years, and if it seems like kind of lot, well, it is — but it’s also part of the process, and eventually you settle into a routine. Not saying I enjoy all of it, but overall the variety of experiences means you eventually get to raise your rates — which, after all of the stress and work above, well, you’ve earned it.

Jeff Smith

Jeff started in photography and short format video, and he's been at the forefront of the web tv movement. He’s worked on haute couture shoots in Paris, shot street style in Milan, and is currently developing a steady roster of beauty, fashion, and digital clients in NYC.