The Firm, Fear, and Photography
By Jim Lewis
11 Nov 2007
Just writing this story is a risk. To my family. To my way of life.
I have changed my online username as the Google search pointed to my photos on jpgmag.com rather quickly in my two weeks of membership and placed them far too high on the search list. Some corporations garner high marketing dollars for such dubious placement. For me, it could well bury me financially, my wife, my kid.
Once upon a time, I was a believer. Defying conventional wisdom, I believed the starving artist shtick was an urban myth and unpopular path most chosen by those wanting to be a decent photographer. My viewpoint was that I could have a nice home, a sound financial path for my family, security within my own four walls, put that college degree to good use and still become a model photographer. By working a corporate job full time, I believed I could be a damn good shooter...the job would finance the photography, and fuel the passion. Don't call it a hobby and pat me on the head like a cub scout, thank you very much....I wanna be a pro and chase my dream when I retire early, like those guys in the financial planner commercials on CNN. Lucky guys. If only I could retire early like those actors.
Now, if I were shooting trees or cute koala bears, all this grandiose might have been a good plan. I photograph female models, and I was foolish enough to think they'd leave me and my family well enough alone.
To understand this story, is to understand the cubical-culture of Corporate America. Everyone wants to get ahead, and predisposed to the sale project or Powerpoint deck at hand like the Almighty made the assignment Himself. Your inner being realizes how mundane such a pursuit is; the car in your driveway screams otherwise. Hence, the inner turmoil and conflict of why you're still sitting at that cube versus why the car doesn't totally take away that vacuum in your soul. Some people simply deal, and try to wade through marketing project mail piece by mail piece, go home at 5:01 pm, and keep their secret vices from the world.
As one who wanted to become a top-notch fashion/beauty model photographer but not live in the back of my studio eating Ramen Pride noodles every day, I should have known some of those people who could not find any inner peace with themselves in Corporate America would come after me, given what I shoot.
Information is power, and power can be used against you. (otherwise it wouldn't be power). In an age where information flickers across worldwide networks at the click of a mouse, the ferocious speed of these networks that breathe new life and viability to our photographs can also bring hell to your front door and into your life just as quickly. It only takes one mal intent SOB in corporate America to forget about who you are, if you have a family, how old your son is, if he likes being in a good school and a good neighborhood, click the mouse, and set cataclysm in motion.
I began shooting models in 1996. My genre leans toward the beauty/glamour side. Not quite pin-up but also not fashion haute-couture. I'm drawn to Abercrombie catalogs and editorial beauty such as Sante D'Orazio. If I had been recognized as much as Herb Ritts (and anywhere as good as he was), it would be called "art". Since I'm not yet a tour de force in the photographic realm, people far outside the art of shooting, and closer to the Republican dominated corporate banking scene have called it "porn" or "risque"
The Internet showed me in early 1997 that I could be famous like Elvis, if everyone simply ignored CNN and did nothing but look at my portfolio. After all, I was using my Dad's old and totally manual film Minolta camera with a crummy fixed 50mm lens. Yes, the monarchy was only five or six rudimentary web pages away, completely built with Netscape 4.0. The website went up. The original name had my real name as the studio name, but then I shortened it to my initials a little over a year later as someone finally asked me, "aren't you worried about your bosses finding that stuff?"
Why, I asked. If it's during off-hours, isn't it my business? People are bastards, this person said. Pshaw.....how bad could someone be?
And during this conversation, search engines eagerly gobbled up my name and pics on my website. Model posted my name as a way of saying thanks for the great pics. Picture collectors who stole my .jpgs and posted them on "babe boards" were kind enough to link to my site and give me full credit, of course. (I remember the guys in the Netherlands being particularly praiseful and especially to a bikini model named Jamie. So, for the record, u bent welkom.)
In the year 2000, I began to build a body of work that encompassed a couple of calendars, a couple of solid assistantships, and a few tearsheets.
To the photographic community, these were small accomplishments by a GWC (guy with camera).To the guy in my office who Googled my name out of sheer boredom, it was pure pay dirt. A way to strike and be noticed. I never tried to hide which was my first mistake...I wasn't shooting porn and was continuing to be influenced by the likes of Ritts and D'Orazio. Corporate America never heard of these righteous cats, and apparently neither did the HR office that sat on the Wall Street side of our lower Manhattan building who called me on the phone and asked me about my photography website.
I was shocked. How did they know? I never told a soul. I went out of my way to keep it a secret. Did I slip on the phone? Did one of my models call human resources? I kept it so quiet, it just seemed the Call was a bad dream and totally unfathomable.
It is from that moment I would ever fear the Phone Call, no matter which company I became employed, and forever will. The Call always comes. Keep in mind, at no time did I tell a soul at the company I was a photographer or what I shot. In hindsight, I did notice some people would ask me if I knew anything about buying a good camera.
When you're corporate HR, you know how to fire someone because of the color of the employee's shoes. Reason you were let go? "Communication skills".....sorry, Charlie. And if you look up "right to work" states, you're in for a shocker.
The voice on the line was female...she was an HR pro, and she was very good. As this was my third major corporate employer, one learns their culture and how to read between the lines. They act as your advocate to disarm you, while they work wholehearted to protect the folks who pay their salaries. (It's their job, and I get it.)
I was asked...what is this we hear about a website? I'm a photographer outside this organization. I assume you've seen my work, I'm not shooting anything questionable....is this illegal? No, but someone overheard you offering to get your models into certain business promotions. No, I would never do that. Looked up your name on Google. I've seen your website...it's a bit risque. What you do in your own life is none of our business but....How did this come about? One of your fellow employees, we're not permitted to say whom, was concerned about this and felt like you were using company resources to pursue your photography career and use these models in the business. That's suicidal. I have a family. Of course, you do.
It was about a week's worth of torture of waiting for the phone on my desk to ring with the resolution to the human resources area's findings about my alter-ego, and then the nightmare of telling my wife I was fired over bikini pictures. The call came, but the HR person said that no evidence could be found that my photography was intermingled with the business and it was a non-issue. Forever then, I was branded. It was made clear to me later, by another manager, that my career movement was shot out of the sky and dead in the water because of my photography.
The time at that Wall Street job made me wary and on high alert. I was already shooting for six years and had accumulated a large body of work. As I became a little more popular in the local photographic circles, Google and Yahoo were shrewd in their memory of archiving postings on photo forums, even though I used my initials rather than my real name. There was always someone out there using my real persona in text and the search engines found it. Worldwide postings of such links and text continued, now quite a bit in Japan. I had to choose....either give up photography and wait out the Internet or continue to hide in plain sight, while becoming a more accomplished photographer. I chose the latter after long talks with my wife. We can't let them own us body and soul, she said.
I went to a smaller company after that in 2002, where I knew the CEO and he knew my photography, and always encouraged me to bring my models by the office. The first few times, I laughed it off. Then I could see that half joking is also half serious. I told him I didn't feel comfortable mixing both worlds (and I would not be his dating service contact), which I was pretty successful at doing before I left there in late 2003. It didn't help that he was a womanizer, alcoholic and drug addict. He would accuse me of being a pornographer in front of the entire office when he didn't agree with me. I told him one day that if he felt I was shooting porn, I would lend him my camera and see if he could shoot it better.
The problems were in reverse but oddly enough, the problem was still the same. It wasn't a secret in this small business culture...everyone knew, but they wouldn't let me hide. Women in the office asked me to photograph them, their families, or a wedding. It's amazing that everyone needs a photographer when it only suits their interest.
The current job came mercifully and I felt that I could start anew. No one in my new job would ever know. I'll never bring it up and I felt more impervious as I was working in a remote office with a few other people. Contact was limited to corporate staff, I would only be an entity on electronic memoranda.
The Phone Call came in 2006. It was my direct supervisor in New York.
What the hell is this about a website? The Director of Marketing is pissed. Wants your head. What did I do? Nothing. Look, I feel for you, man. You're stuff rocks. Real magazine quality stuff. Wish I could do it, and come with you on your next shoot. But I tell you, they already sent this to HR. I can only protect you for so long. When did this go to HR? I never got a phone call.
Six months ago.
So, the Call told me my neck, my house, my family was potentially slated for the guillotine for six months and never a call to explain, or defend myself. (what is to defend, your mind may ask?) They must have a file thicker than the Paramus phone book on my photography. My manager told me that it was dropped then but the director had asked him when I was taking down that "damn website".
He continued: Dude, I can't tell you what to do, but you need to make some decisions. This is killing you. I'll take down all my work and the website. It will disappear and I'll go anonymous. Good idea. I think you'll be better for it. I hate to see it go, too. Hey, thanks.
So, the website went down. But now, it just wasn't the search engines but also web archive sites like archive.org. Their 85 billion pages available on the "WayBack Machine" have many of my defunct webpages and pictures back to 1997. And even though my website somewhat faded from the search engines, they have never completely disappeared. Ten years of photography has turned into forever on the Internet. My pictures will live forever but not because of fame or mass appeal, but because of unyielding thirst of instant information on anyone and anything.
Today, 2007. Management has shifted. My current boss says the old regime that wanted my brains for dinner has left and that my photography is no longer an issue. I talk to his boss, and she says I'm a great photographer, she has no problem with me. I still try and stay anonymous in my postings and anything I do online but it doesn't stop third parties from posting my name, such as catalogs, make artists, websites, and models.
Could I use a ghost name? Maybe. But it would be foolish given all that's out there already. My new website doesn't have my real name on it, and it has hurt me. Models wonder if I'm for real when they find out my name is to protect my identity....they live in a world of predatory fears of anything that seems phony, and probably with good reason. And maybe, I'm just tired of running from the Call....from everyone with an agenda to destroy someone else and everyone around them. Simply because they can. Living like this has been hell, accentuated by the permanent knot in my stomach every time the corporate office shows up on caller ID.
There are no magic crossroads, no epiphany, nothing like the movies where they beat corporate America and gently rouse the masses with the story of the underdog who defeat an unfair system to pursue his dreams. Someone will make the Call yet one more time, and hopefully I'm in an organization that has fleshed out and memorialized my photography ad naseum that most will wonder why it's a road we need to travel again. They seem merciful enough to leave it alone once and for all.
Is it truly my own life, and if I don't mix it with business should I be left alone? What the answer is and what common sense tells you are two different things. The Call will invariably come again. And I'll never see it coming.
Maybe I should just unplug my phone for the next ten years.