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Copyright © Greg Latza

Evolution of a Freelancer
by Greg Latza

"Freelancing full-time? Are you out of your mind?"

Those were the questions running through my head as I contemplated my resignation from the Sioux Falls Argus Leader one hot day in August 1997. It was not an easy decision for me, just as it is for nearly everyone who makes "the jump," but I had some very good reasons.

The daily newspaper grind had become just that...a monotonous, screeching, slowly withering grind. I had already shot all the same festivals and sports tournaments year after year, had hunted every park and tree-lined street within 50 miles for weather features, had battled copy editors for space nearly every day and the backroom guys for better color. No one liked to listen to me anymore.

When I started at the Argus in 1994, things were on a much higher note. Jodi and I had spent the previous 14 months in Salina, Kansas, and I had helped create a very competitive and respectable photo department at the 30,000-circulation daily. I had even snagged the NPPA Region 7 title in my first full year as a professional photojournalist, coming off of a grand internship at the Milwaukee Journal during the summer of 1993. After coming home to South Dakota and the only daily newspaper gig in the state that paid well and offered some freedom, I continued my charge on the clip contest and won Region 9 the following year. Yes, I thought I was on the fast road to making it to a metro paper. Maybe the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Maybe a gig at the Indianapolis Star where my best buddy Matt Kryger was carving out a reputation.

But a transition had taken place during those three years back in South Dakota. Just as I had with Jodi several years before, I fell in love again...with my home state.

It wasn't an earth-shattering kind of realization, but rather a gradual transformation from someone who wanted to keep pursuing bigger newspapers into the person that I am now; someone who realizes that the key to workplace happiness isn't about where you work, but rather where you live.

It began when I started the job; I would run into old college classmates while shooting assignments throughout our coverage area--basically the entire state of South Dakota. I found myself able to stop by my home farm (about 80 miles west of Sioux Falls) during road trips and share cookies and conversation with my family, and enjoyed getting to know my parents again. It seemed like I knew people everywhere I went, and I liked it. I felt a certain pride in documenting a place that was so near my heart, and as Jodi and I talked, we agreed that we needed to stay for good.

The idea of freelancing wasn't a foreign one; in fact I had been freelancing on the side for many years already. I worked for various farm magazines and other trade publications on my days off or before my shifts started, and had already created a decent network by the time a new publisher was hired at the Argus in 1996. Things started to decline from there. No more huge picture layouts, no more spending relatively ample time to shoot photo stories. Our daily feature cruises ended (which wasn't such a bad thing), but were replaced by a strange formula of daily enterprise stories that often called for shooting boring environmental portraits.

We had a baby daughter by then, and I was growing weary of the night and weekend shifts that I shared with the other three shooters. Coupled with the anger I felt during most days on the job (bad play, bad assignments, bad scheduling), it became almost too much to bear. It was then that a strange ally came to my rescue.

Gateway. The computer maker, famous for the cow spots on their boxes and the hokey South Dakota roots, were casting around for some stock imagery. I met with a designer to pick out photos, and their Internet guru was also present. He had a tantalizing idea for me to ponder, and these were roughly the words he said: "Greg, we want you to use your storytelling skills to help us with a new online magazine we're launching. You can go out and produce photo stories about whatever you think represents South Dakota, and we'll publish them online and give people a little background about what kind of place our company comes from."

Hmmmm. It took about 30 seconds to take that bait, and then we talked about money. Each story, which I would also write, equaled approximately a week's pay at the Argus. It took about 15 more seconds to say yes.

For the next several days, everything seemed to click. How could I turn down a gig, however unstable (there was no guarantee that the magazine would last past a few months), that paid the same money for about a third of the work? But it was still too much work to complete on my days off. The light bulb in my head started to sizzle.

From the time I stepped out of that Gateway meeting, I knew I had to go. No more full-time shifts. No more battling with my boss for time off. And damn it, if I was going to shoot a crappy environmental portrait, at least I was going to get paid good money to do it.

One of the best days of my life was handing in my resignation. It was thrilling. I felt like a huge weight was lifted from my camera bag. My last two weeks flew by. One day I was eating good-bye cake in the conference room, and the next I was waking up with my whole life ahead of me, sans the full-time grind.

If this all seems like an impossibly rosy picture, it probably is. To be sure, there were hard days during that first year. Part of the difficulty was realizing that I'd put the future of my family into the hands of fickle clients. I can say that I never lost confidence, though...and that is the most important quality that a freelancer needs, even more than talent.

The Gateway job held up for an entire year, which was enough to springboard me into a bevy of other clients eager to accept my journalistic style. They pulled the plug (Gateway's corporate offices moved to San Diego in 1998 and shed their prairie image), but I rebounded nicely. In fact, there was a new big project looming on the horizon: a book.

Throughout my newspaper years, I'd been compiling stock slides of agriculture and general farm life around the state. A book was always something that seemed unreachable, something that you did when you were 50. I noticed that no one had ever done a photography book about farming and ranching that encompassed only South Dakota, and I had a hunch that there might just be people willing to buy one. Jodi and I discussed it at length, and we thought we could produce the whole thing ourselves. In addition, Jodi had quit her job to freelance as a writer and graphic designer for various local companies.

Dean Riggott, a good friend and fellow photographer in Rochester, Minnesota, was in the process of self-publishing his own book, a pictorial essay on the city of Rochester. Through Craig Blacklock, he had discovered a printer in Seoul, Korea, that charged about half of any printer in the U.S. Being a stout patriot, it was hard to swallow at first, but I came to realize that about 90% of the photography books I saw in the bookstore were printed in Asia...they must be doing something right, I thought.

Begging the bank was the most difficult part of the process. We ended up having to mortgage a vehicle owned by Jodi's family to come up with the balance of the printing cost, and it was scary to say the least. But our confidence never lagged. We decided to print 4,000 copies of Back on the Farm. By self-publishing the book, we needed to sell only 1,600 copies to recoup the $25,000 printing cost. We estimated that it may take a few years to sell the whole lot, but what the heck...let's go for it.

With Jodi at the editing and design helm and myself doing the writing and captioning, we put together a pretty classy book. As a thick softcover, Back on the Farm sold at a decent price but was still low enough to be appealing to the common man. We got the big shipment--four tons of books--in October of 1999. I was amazed that my dream of publishing a book had come true not at 50, but rather at 29. What an incredible feeling.

We were nearly sold out by Christmas. There was a whirlwind of press coverage, signings across the state, and dozens of heartfelt cards and letters from South Dakotans who felt that I had hit the right nerve. Besides getting married and witnessing the birth of our two children (Luke was just a baby at the time, Anna was now three), it was the best time of my life.

Here was a way to produce journalism that offered the ultimate in freedom; unlimited photo play, executive decision on all content, a statewide audience and a way to make the photos last longer than it took for newsprint to fade. It didn't take long to brainstorm a companion volume; Hometown, S.D. was published in 2001 and documented South Dakota's small towns instead of farms and ranches. And in between the two, Jodi wrote a children's book about South Dakota using the alphabet as a guide. To date we have printed a total of 21,000 copies of the three books, and they are all still selling well. The next project arrives this November, and is a documentary on the Missouri River in South Dakota, written for me by a good friend and local outdoor writer Kevin Woster.

The books have become more than half of my workload, and I couldn't ask for anything better; what photographer wouldn't enjoy taking 2-3 days at a time to do nothing but shoot journalism and stock for books? I do this nearly every week, and it serves a greater purpose than just producing books...my stock library of South Dakota is now bulging. Now selling stock photography has become a larger staple of our business income, freeing me up for even more time shooting book work. The balance of my assignment work has evolved into advertising, which pays much better than editorial and serves the same purpose; better paying assignments means you don't have to do as many of them to survive.

I tell would-be freelancers to make sure their market can sustain them if they decide to make the jump; South Dakota is a unique market that can only support a handful of us...luckily, there aren't many people who are eager to live and work here. It's their loss. The variety in this state is endless, from the mountains called the Black Hills, to some of the most rugged ranch country in the nation, to lush farmland dotted with glacial lakes, to the massive behemoth known as the Missouri River.

I wouldn't live--or work--anywhere else.

Enter Greg Latza's Photo Gallery

Video Interview
with Greg Latza

Camera: Bill Alkofer

To view these interview clips, you must have
the free RealVideo or Quicktime plugins.

Introduction, "I grew up on a farm..."

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"I always assumed I'd be a farmer."

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"We wanted to give something back."
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"I always had an extra camera with slide film."
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Entering the freelance world.
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"I knew I would have enough work here."
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Working commercial shoots and personal projects.
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The economics of self-publishing.
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Future publishing projects.
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Balancing freelance work with family time.
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