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State Press Play: Freelancing during a pandemic

Freelancers' entire business model is set up around meeting people, so changes have to be made in order for them to stay afloat

"State Press Play." Illustration published on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021.

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My camera has taken me everywhere. From music festivals to sports games, I've filmed many stories about rappers and athletes. A couple of years ago, I found myself in Zhuhai, China, filming a world-renowned kung-fu school. Knives were flying through the air while swordsmen clashed down below. Though the school has a reputation around the world, the Chinese government was shutting it down to build a hotel in its place. The story spotlighted how students felt as their school was taken over by the government.

That is only one of the many stories I've had while traveling with my camera.

But when the pandemic hit, everything stopped. 

There was no more travel and no more clients. I wasn't putting out any content or covering any stories. But somehow, Instagram and YouTube were still ablaze with content from creators. 

Dash McDonald is a freelance videographer in Phoenix, and he also found himself in a creative slump. A creative slump for freelancers means they are left without work.

“I had my entire March, April and half of May booked out,” Dash Mcdonald, a freelance videographer said. “I was gonna go to Las Vegas and Coachella, and I was gonna go to Europe for Red Bull, and everything within the same day got canceled.”

Many freelance videographers and photographers have a very similar experience to Mcdonald. A freelancer’s work is based on vibrant events, interesting places and people with a story. Without anything to shoot because of the pandemic, freelancers were left without work.

However, they weren’t going to wait until the pandemic was over to start making content again.

“It hasn’t affected me to the point where I’m down and out,” Tracey Garrett, a freelance photographer said. “It affected me to a point where I had to adapt.”

Adapting to change is something that freelancers know how to do. With their ever-changing work schedule, they know how to make things work.

“I don't sit and wait,” Azalea Lopez, a freelance dance videographer, said. “I just figured it out.”

I sat down with four freelancers to see their plans for navigating out of the creative slump. 

Drake Presto:

As a freelance videographer, I have covered everything from rappers at the Arizona Hip-Hop Festival to D1 college athletics. I traveled across the world, filming kung fu masters in southern China and skateboarders in Japan. Once COVID-19 hit though, all of those clients, all of that travel, gone. I fell into this slump where I wasn’t putting out any content. And because of that I wasn’t getting any new clients. However, I would look on Instagram and see all these other creatives still grinding it out. How were they still being successful while I was just sitting around at home?

These guys have adapted to the times, and I wanted to know how.

The first person I asked was Arizona State University alumni, Marie Obsuna. She has done freelance work in Okinawa, Japan, for the military newspaper that's distributed out there. She has also worked for both the ASU Athletics Department and Indiana University’s athletics department covering all of their sports.

So Marie, anything else we should know about you and your freelance career?

Marie Obsuna:

After living in Indiana for nine months I moved to California to work for a media agency called Mindshare, and once I moved to California, that's when I really started getting into freelance opportunities, because before COVID like really hit, I was planning like oh, since I moved to LA, I can reach out to different like sports teams or just like different creative people and see if they have any freelance opportunities.

Networking is a big thing for me, and I have a big Twitter following as well and I just know a lot of people in the area so I thought like it'd be a perfect opportunity to just try to freelance. But, given that sports were canceled for the past, first few months of COVID, I wasn't really big in freelancing, I didn't have anything.

So that opened up to — I had a really good friend growing up in Okinawa who now lives in California. He works in the weed industry, and he needed someone to take photos of the products at their dispensary. I just did that. It was very casual. It was just taking pictures of whatever they needed, and it was really fun. Like different types of weed products and everything that they had and even just atmospheric shots of their stores. 

Just from that one shoot, my phone number got passed around among different shops in Orange County. So a big part of my freelance career in the past year was just going to different shops and taking different product photography, which was very — it's so different from my background that I just explained. That's been a big part of my freelance recently. Then on top of that I have also been getting into wedding photography and couple photo shoots in the past few years, so that's been different. 

But also in college, sometimes when different teams would come to Arizona to compete, they're not able to bring someone to take photos of them so that opened up opportunities for me and other people at ASU to shoot freelance for those teams, which is cool. And then, since ASU is one big university there's always people looking for graduation pictures or just headshot photos, so that's another market of freelance that I am in as well, but not as active as I would like to be. 

Drake Presto:

How has your career changed because of COVID?

Marie Obsuna:

So, because of COVID, in the past almost year, the job that I was in was very different from what I was doing in college and after college. 

So, while in college I was working with ASU athletics, doing like a lot of creative work, same thing working in Indiana, I was really creative focused, whether it was photography, graphic design, social media, whereas in the past year, I worked at an agency called Mindshare and it's a media agency. 

It's less creative, it's more of just planning the campaigns that go out for like big name companies and working with a separate creative agency to bring the idea to life. So, I haven't really been doing a lot of creative stuff that I would like to execute myself, it's more of just working with other people to make sure like the idea that I envisioned will come to life. 

Drake Presto:

So changing career paths is one option, Marie eventually quit that job and is now going back to Sun Devil Athletics this week to oversee all the social media channels and all of the interns.

A part of me still wanted to see what other freelancers were doing. I hit up my former classmate Tracey Garrett, who has been a freelance photographer for over 5 years now. He has done work for events, landscapes and modeling. He is also a student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU.

Anything else I miss Tracey?

Tracey Garrett:

I've actually done photography in the military. As you know, you always suck when you first start. My ex-girlfriend at the time, she bought me my first camera, bless her heart.  And that's how I got into it. I just started snapping it ever since then and now I’ve just been building on myself.

The military helped because I was in a position of depression. So it helped me get out of my bubble. It helped me really interact with the world and see it in more a positive way.

Being real here I met some gorgeous women, like actually met them, talked to them, like you know, wow you're actually a pretty good person. But I have also been on stage with some actually prominent artists like Mick Jenkins, Childish Gambino, EarthGang, Flying Lotus.

Drake Presto:

Why did you decide to make the move into journalism?

Tracey Garrett: 

I jumped into journalism mainly because I read an article. My dream job was to work for Nat Geo consistently. I want to travel the world with my camera and just snap, and see the world. Especially as an African American, we all know that opportunities presented to us to really do things outside of the states or outside of our community is rare.

Drake Presto:

Speaking of your career, how has it been affected by the pandemic?

Tracey Garrett:

COVID has definitely hit me hard, I’m not gonna stand front, but I have adapted.

Basically, instead of going to events, like you know big shows, now I'm going to private parties. The modeling section, not too much, it’s pretty much the same thing, you know, the relocation, we get COVID safety, the hands, the mask, all that stuff.

But I will say that COVID has affected me but it hasn't affected me to the point where I'm down and out. It affected me to a point where I had to adapt. 

The main adaption I had to make was understanding that — house calls. People do private parties at their houses now because we can't go to restaurants, we can't do what we want. So, guess what? I have to come to your house. So, obviously I have to know the people. I have to be safe. I have to have my friends on standby. So, that's one adaption.

Two is realizing that I have to get a longer lens now, because most sports are like, yo, we want you to keep a farther distance, than you already were from the players, or from the people.

And three, is basically changing my whole business model. It’s understanding that if I want to rent out a spot for a shoot, that maybe that's not gonna come through, so I have to look in the area of Phoenix to find out where I can actually shoot, safe-wise, and still produce a solid product. 

Drake Presto:

Adapting, that's the one the one thing I wasn’t doing. This past year I have been waiting for things to go back to normal to go out and shoot again. What I didn’t realize is that I can still find work, I just need to adapt to these times to find that work. 

Again, I found myself scrolling through Instagram and I stumbled upon an ASU sophomore named Dash Mcdonald. He’s a freelance videographer who has been doing freelance work since he was 12. His content speaks for itself as to why he has so many clients. Red Bull, Still Woozy, Lecrae, he’s done a lot of great work. He is also one of those people who could adapt.

I decided to hit him up and see how he had to change his workflow because of the pandemic.

What else should we know about you Dash?

Dash Mcdonald:

I did a little bit of freelance work in high school. I actually worked for a company called Good Vibe Media for a long time. I started there when I was 15 and I worked there until I was 18.

I was able to do a skydiving commercial. Like, I pitched an idea to — I was working with a tuxedo company called Nick's Menswear, and they wanted to make a viral video. I'd made viral promposals with my friend in the past, when I was a junior, and he wanted to try and recreate something.

So he was like, I'll give you a budget, just come up with a good idea, and see if you can make it happen. So, I pitched to him that I would go skydiving and make this big promposal video about it and actually ended up going viral. I think I went on like 10 different news stations and like bunch different radio stations talking about it, so it was a really cool experience just being able to like, I kind of went into the project with a goal in mind, and I was able to come out and make it happen and that was really exciting for me. 

Drake Presto:

That sounds great! So, how has your work been affected by the pandemic?

Dash McDonald:

Definitely like especially in the beginning of COVID back in March. I had my entire March, April and like half of May booked out, which for me at the time was really exciting because I don't really book out that far. Just because with school and everything, I'm just really busy so working a lot is definitely difficult, but I was able to like schedule myself super well, and right when COVID hit, everything got canceled. 

I was gonna go to Las Vegas and Coachella, and I was gonna go to Europe for Red Bull and like all these different things and everything within the same day got canceled.

It definitely hit my business a little bit, but over the summer I was able to just work a little bit slower with some companies and within the last two months, I'd say, everything's picked up. But definitely for like a six-month stretch was pretty tough for me.

Currently, because of the promposal stuff going viral a lot of schools will hit me up to like make their prom commercials, which is kind of fun. So I'm doing two prom commercials right now. I did a wedding last week. I've been working with the zebra scooters. You’ve probably seen those around. I did a golf documentary earlier this year. I switch up my work all the time, so just depends on who is calling me when.

Drake Presto:

So it’s possible to still have a business even during a pandemic. I wanted to ask one more person about it though. I hit up Azalea Lopez, an ASU alumni who was doing a lot of work in the dance community. She runs a dance studio that she also is the main videographer for. I wanted to see how she was running things.

So Azalea, what changes have you had to make?

Azalea Lopez:

Things were going pretty well before COVID. I was pretty much the go-to person for these dance classes, the other guys who were doing it kind of were doing other things, and there's some new people, but I was still like the main person so things were going good.  

Then once COVID hit like I took it very seriously, like right when I knew about the first case in China, I was like, oh no I think that's gonna be so bad, that's coming this way. So I took it very seriously. 

And then, you know, you couldn't have dance classes anymore. I don't really like just sit and be like, oh man, I'm just gonna wait, because I was like this thing's gonna be going on forever — not forever, but it's gonna take me a while. So I just figured it out. I still offered filming services, but I only did outdoor shoots, and like I wore my mask, I wore like my shield, I mean I still do. I wear my mask, I wear my shield.

I have just been doing concept videos, I mean now I'm doing the dance classes. But I have my own studio that I'm running now actually, which I can control; so like, a lot of people here don't take it seriously, like the masks and stuff, but like this studio that I'm running I'm like, masks are required, you have to wear masks. So that's what I'm doing right now; I just have my own classes and just doing concepts like mostly outdoors some indoors, but I'm just as safe as possible.

Drake Presto:

So being safe while also getting your work done. It was that simple. 

This pandemic has put me in a slump, but after hearing what these creatives had to say, I think I'll be able to crawl out of my hole and start making content again. 

For The State Press, I'm Drake Presto. 

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