photographer, visual artist and designer.

On Covid-19 and Being Antifragile as a Photographer

Ever since discovering Libby last year, I’ve been reading a lot more because the app allows me to download ebooks for free from National Library Board (NLB) to my iPhone. For many years, I’d lamented over the fact that it’s gotten too troublesome to go to the library to borrow (and return) books, especially during periods when I travel out of the country and kindle just isn’t an option for me. So for many years, I haven’t been reading as much as I’d wanted to.

But Libby changed that for me. It feels great to be able to read so conveniently.

I can now read while on the road. I can read on the plane. I can gain new knowledge whenever I have some free time to spare. I no longer have to worry about due dates because the ebooks get returned automatically and I can always borrow them again. And for someone who has been labelled as an OCD, I am certainly glad that I no longer have to wonder if the books are clean and germ-free. Even better, I no longer have to spend money on books that I might never finish reading and add on to baggage weight for no good reason.

Books that I’ve read (or still reading) and that influenced this piece of writing:
Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb | Atomic Habits by James Clear | Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman | Real Artists Don’t Starve by Jeff Goins | Crushing It! by Gary Vaynerchuk | Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki

And so late last year, while searching for books to read on my flight to South Korea, I chanced upon Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It’s a lengthy read and I have yet to finish it because it’s not as lucid and digestible as the other books that I’ve been reading at the same time. Yet, it has already convinced me that I was right to have worked towards diversified sources of income. (Hey, we readily believe what we want to believe in, right?) Even though there are times when I feel like I am stretching myself too thin and not growing my business the right way, sticking with it seems like the right choice now especially with the outbreak of Covid-19 that is causing so much uncertainty for everyone.

What being antifragile means.

In essence, “antifragility” is a term coined by Taleb and in the book, he attempts to illustrate how the majority of us are more fragile and easily affected by external factors than we think we are. We think that by working towards predictability, we are eliminating risks and creating more control over our lives. But what we do is exactly what makes us more susceptible to the many things in life that are not within our control. 

This is the central illusion in life: that randomness is risky, that it is a bad thing—and that eliminating randomness is done by eliminating randomness.

– Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile.

Chapter 5 is where Taleb talks about two types of professions to substantiate his point on being antifragile:

John and George are identical twin brothers. John works in a large bank full-time, while George is a taxi driver. One has a predictable income and perceived job security, while the other doesn’t. John has a better life.

At least, that’s what we’ve been taught to see.

What we do not see is that George, ceteris paribus, doesn’t depend on only one paying client. If John loses his job, he would lose his income. But if George loses a client, he still has other paying clients that will keep him going. If John makes a mistake in the company, it stays in his records. But if George offends one client, he might still have ten supportive clients to negate that one client.

George’s occupation is more antifragile because he is not dependent on one entity.

Why we see full-time jobs as the more attractive option.

Humans are herd animals. We want to fit it, to bond with others, and to earn the respect and approval of our peers. Such inclinations are essential to our survival.

— James Clear, Atomic Habits.

It’s in our nature to want to fit in and feel like a part of a community. We spend most of our time trying not to stick out like a sore thumb and we rarely think about the other ways of living life. We do what the rest are doing. We like things to be predictable so we make plans. We make plans based on presumptions. We avoid unpredictability and hence instability. We do all these in attempts to gain control over our lives and we forget to be spontaneous. In a small city like Singapore, where the economy just doesn’t allow as many options in life, most of us simply follow the path that has been laid out for us and many of us don’t even stop for a moment to ponder about the other possibilities and options in life. The failure of imagination is what keeps a lot of people on track and that helps the country to run smoothly as a whole.

Most of us have been taught the same thing in school, at home and by the society: Study hard, get good grades, go to college and get a stable job in a respectable company (and then finally get married and start a family).

A full-time job pays us on time, there’s job benefits and we can plan for the future knowing that we’ll be paid a fixed amount every month.

But the economy has changed.

Before industrialisation, most people were artisans and small family business owners. Family economy was the only way of life people knew. It wasn’t until industrialisation came into the picture that changed how people led lives. Work life and family life got separated. (And sad truth of life: We are spending more time with our colleagues than our families.) Education’s targeted at getting us ready for the job market.

But now that we’re in a post-industrial society, what worked in the industrialisation period no longer applies. Services and technology are taking over the scene and with the growing gig economy, simply working hard and staying loyal to a company no longer makes sense. In some sectors, companies are unwilling and unable to afford full-timers for the type of work that they do.

The general population may be getting more and more educated, but unemployment rate remains concerning. Technology moves so fast that by the time we graduate, we may no longer be relevant. We’re now told that degrees are not necessary and we’re encouraged to be entrepreneurs to create jobs for ourselves and for others.

Unemployment rate remains high in recent years due to skills mismatch. In many cities, more and more people are becoming degree holders. Ironically, the more we try to fit in, the more we get left behind. Because the supply of degree holders is more than what the society and the economy demands. We forget that universities are also businesses; and they provide education where there’s a demand for it. Whether or not the job market can support so many university graduates is not entirely their concern. However, most people still desire to be degree holders because, well, having any degree is better than not having one.

But when we become degree holders, it becomes harder to lower our expectations to meet the job market. After all, you don’t pay tens of thousands and spend years studying only to take a entry level job that doesn’t pay you what a university graduate is worth. Right?

The customs and practices of life in society sweep us along.

— Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays.

Major companies like Forever 21 that created jobs for many people worldwide filed for bankruptcy and Sasa will be closing down all retail stores in Singapore. So how did we come to believe in the fallacy that full-time jobs in large companies are more stable? And why do we still see being employees of big companies as the more favourable option? We know for a fact that getting retrenched is a possibility. We also know the fact that it’d be difficult to find another job when that happens, especially when the economy is bad. We are aware of how fast the economy is changing, but we’re not changing our mindsets about the way we work.

Of course, not everyone has the right skillset and personality to be a freelancer or business owner. But to think that getting employed as a full-timer is all you need to do to secure the rest of your life is naive. And with this false sense of security, many end up losing the ability to be flexible and adapt quickly to the needs of the economy. We forget to build a second source of income and to save for the rainy days. We overestimate our employability, forgetting that no one is irreplaceable and that the job market is not within our control. We forget that we can become irrelevant and fail to keep up with the times. We forget that we can lose our jobs, no matter how much hard work we’ve put in. And sometimes we give up opportunities just because we are afraid of the unknown and want to live in our comfort zone.

Is being a freelancer all that bad?

Thanks to variability, these artisanal careers harbour a bit of antifragility: small variations make them adapt and change continuously by learning from the environment and being, sort of, continuously under pressure to fit. Remember that stressors are information; these careers face a continuous supply of these stressors that make them adjust opportunistically. In addition, they are open to gifts and positive surprises, free options—the hallmark of antifragility […]

– Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile

As a photographer, a writer, a freelancer-slash-whatever-else, making a living isn’t always all that glamorous; there are times when I wished I had a clearer identity that could be summed up in a word or two. But I continue taking on jobs in different creative fields to spread out risks and gain more control over my work—something that would be difficult to achieve should I be working full-time for a company.

There are also times when I wish for a steadier stream of projects so I won’t have to always be on the search for something more or worry about the next project that may never come to me. And then there are times when I realise that stability should not be what I’m looking for.

Because when things are stable, it also means that I have reached a plateau. And for a freelance creative, that spells trouble.

So how does any of this have anything to do with Covid-19?

And how does being antifragile help in difficult times like now, when Covid-19 has officially become a pandemic and affecting economies worldwide? 

More importantly, how exactly does one achieve antifragility?

How Covid-19 is affecting the economy.

Companies are retrenching. Employees are made to take unpaid leave and pay cutsTaxi drivers are affected by the outbreak of Covid-19. Restaurants and businesses especially those in the tourism industry are seeing sales fall dramatically. Airlines, hotels and other travel-related services are all taking a hit. Travel influencers around the world are quickly also realising how vulnerable they are. Lost incomes, postponed and cancelled trips, inability to plan future trips and hence lost opportunities. We are all affected, whether we are business owners, employees or freelancers.

When the outbreak of Covid-19 got out of control in Daegu, I finally felt the impact of how my photography business would be affected; for the rest of the year, I will not be able to promote and market my overseas photo shoots in South Korea and Hong Kong. 

Wedding photographers who have planned overseas shoots are suffering losses, because not only will the overseas shoots have to be postponed or cancelled, they would have reserved the dates for their clients and rejected other work opportunities. Filling those time slots now is quite unlikely with the travel bans, event cancellation and social distancing policies in place. The same goes for photographers who have build their niche as event photographers.

Sadly, after having built a brand and be recognised for their expertise, these individuals and companies are now suffering because they have nothing else to fall back on. Unlike larger media companies providing a range of services, they only provide a specific service and that makes them vulnerable to market changes.

So what can we learn from this pandemic? As much as possible, diversify.

Having a niche is important. But so is not putting all your eggs in one basket.

In February 2020, an audio recording of Chan Chun Sing was leaked and in it, he briefly mentioned how important diversification is. Business owners are encouraged to change business models and to remember to avoid single source supply chains. He also talked about how Singapore lowers its risks by restricting the percentage of tourists from each country so the economy will not be “held ransom” and be swayed by travel bans.

That is exactly what Taleb means by antifragility. Never allow yourself, whether as a country, a business or an individual, to be tied down to one entity that could make or break your life. Be quick to adapt and change.

An example.

In 2006, Fujifilm (originally known as Fuji Photo Film) rebranded itself as sales for photo film dropped drastically with the rising popularity of digital photography. The company sought ways to survive the tough times and was not afraid to be creative and agile about it; Fujifilm created a new cosmetic line called Astalift, which made use of their technologies and knowledge in the film imaging business. While Fujifilm was aggressively exploring other options to keep the business alive, Kodak failed to think out of the box and eventually filed for bankruptcy in 2012.

By 2016, Fujifilm has made itself known again in the photography industry. The company is unafraid to not follow digital trends. While Sony and the other big names in the digital camera industry are chasing paper specs, Fujifilm focused on creating powerful tools for making emotive images.

How does this apply to us, photographers?

During tough times, there is no shame in doing side gigs and part-time jobs to help tide you over.

In Real Artists Don’t Starve, Jeff Goins shares instances where artists do not just make money with their art. Even Michael Jackson. Real artists will do whatever it takes to promote and to sell their art. And real artists will take on work that pays in order to thrive and create better art.

Your art is never beholden to a single form. You can always change and evolve, and the best artists do this regularly. They understand that in order to thrive, you have to master more than one skill. This is the Rule of the Portfolio: the Starving Artist believe she must master a single skill, whereas the Thriving Artist builds a diverse body of work.

— Jeff Goins, Real Artists Don’t Starve.

While it might be a good idea to specialise in a niche when you’re first starting off as it helps with branding, diversification allows creative ownership. When your art is not your only means of making a living, you are less concerned about pleasing others and making only art that sells. You become more confident in rejecting clients whose ideas are not in sync with yours.

So what should you do if photography is the one and only thing you’re good at? Start building your portfolio on other niches such as product and food photography which you can shoot at home.

Education is an industry that will never be out of trend. People are always looking to learn new skills and knowledge, especially if they see how it can help them make a better living. The education industry will continue to evolve and you will just have to be flexible enough to go with the flow.

Can’t hold workshops and classes? Teach online. Start a YouTube channel. Live stream on Instagram.

Photographers and videographers on YouTube:
Peter McKinnon | Jessica Kobeissi | Daniel Schiffer | Mango Street

And what should we not do?

When times are difficult, the most intuitive thing to do is to cut down on unnecessary spending. Seems logical, right? 

But that is precisely the paradox of thrift. 

The economy is sustained by spending. And if all of us start spending less, the economy suffers.

For example.

People are worried about the bad economy, so they spend less on the non-essentials. They eat out less. The restaurant makes less money. The restaurant might hire fewer people to save on labour and hence, fewer jobs in the market. The restaurant might buy less ingredients because of the decrease in demand. The suppliers have no one to sell their supplies to. The restaurant owner tightens his/her budget. So do the suppliers. As well as the employees of the restaurant and of the suppliers who are worried about losing their jobs. Eventually, the economy suffers because people are keeping money to themselves.

How can we help each other?

As people practise social distancing and stay at home more than before, brick and mortar stores are suffering from huge fall in sales. In order to keep their business going, many have been pushing out discounts, 1-for-1 promotions and the like. But what else could we do to help each other out?

Shopping online, purchasing gift vouchers and ordering food delivery are some ways that come to my mind. To support smaller eateries and hawkers, order from Foodpanda, which also creates more income for the delivery services.

Have no choice but to cancel a service such as a photo shoot? If possible, take the option for free postponement instead of demanding for full cancellation. If a photographer you like has an online shop selling prints and other merchandises, give them some support.

Be empathetic. It helps to keep small businesses alive.

How can we help ourselves?

The Singapore government has been pushing out schemes and measures to help us cope with the impact of Covid-19, and one of them includes SkillsFuture. This is the best time to invest in upgrading and expanding your skillset. Instead of lamenting over what we can’t change right now, invest in the future. And remember to invest in the right set of skills that the job market is looking for. If you’re a business owner, invest your time and money into improving your business model, so that when the economy gets running again, you will be all ready for it.

Some of the ways that I’ve been investing my time and money back into my business: working on my website and researching ways to improve branding, productivity, workflow and client experience; re-strategising my social media and content creation efforts; developing and learning new skills; re-looking into my subscriptions and business expenses; as well as brainstorming and creating more products and services that can be provided and sold online.

Feel disorganised and need to gain control over your life and business? Read The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo and tidy things up while business is slow.

For photographers facing slow business, this is also the best time to collaborate, experiment and work on personal passion projects as you no longer have excuse to take up paying jobs to pay the bills over realising your creative concepts.

Final thoughts.

If you’re feeling bummed out by the current situation, remember that we’re all in this together and you’re not alone. Stay strong and stay healthy!