This Guatemalan I know pretty well is a struggling photographer. For the sake of privacy, I’ll call him Ulises. Nearly every day, for over 10 years now, Ulises has been taking vivid snapshots of America’s underbelly, the dirty and forgotten exiles of our American Obsession. And though he’s actually very good at what he does, and getting better and better by the week, he still makes very little money, by which I mean no money.
“It’s the fucken internet,” he tells me during a recent chat at a local sushi joint here in Vegas. “The internet cheapens everything: pictures, words… everything.”
Lucky for Ulises, his husband’s a suit making good money — I mean damn good money. We’re talking six figures. They got a nice house, a sexy German car, all that. And while Ulises’s husband isn’t putting any pressure on Ulises to bring in dough — yet — and Ulises knows he should just be grateful he’s able to do what he loves without having to worry about making a living, he tells me he still can’t shake the shame, a heaviness weighing down his shoulders and swirling in his pupils like smoke.
“People gotta eat,” he says before sipping his Sapporo, those dark eyes of his darting around the restaurant. “And a man, if he’s able-bodied — I mean, if he’s not fucked up in any way, physically or mentally — then he’s gotta make money whichever way he can. He can’t just rely on someone else to bring him his bit of bread. It’s not fair, for one, load-wise. And two, what if that other person someday disappears? What then? That asshole’s fucked.”
Ulises looks genuinely afraid as he tells me this — afraid and sad. I try to console him by reminding him how artists have always relied on patrons, whether strangers, friends, or family: “like Da Vinci, or Martial, or Van Gogh.”
“Van Gogh?” he says like a defendant being charged with first-degree murder.
Van Gogh died broke, with one ear and, worst of all, unknown. So, O.K., bad example.
Ulises isn’t professionally trained. He never went to art school or anything like that, he has no photography certification of any kind, but he can boast a business degree from some state school back east.
“I should’ve gone into finance like I planned,” he says. “Or accounting. Those fuckers make money without even trying. I mean, they work hard like everybody else, but they got the whole shit laid out for them, a clean fucken path to the comfortable life. They got companies looking to hire them — companies that’ll pay them every week — with health care benefits and everything. And they know if they just keep doing decent work, they’ll keep making money; and if they do even better work, they’ll make even more money. There’s a ladder for them to climb, with the rungs clearly marked. All they gotta do is not fuck it up.
“But it’s not like that with photography — or any kind of art, I guess. You gotta fend for yourself every goddamn day. Every day you gotta decide what you’re gonna do with yourself, what work you’re going to leave your name on. Plus you’re trying to sell something that millions of people are doing for free on social media all the time. Yeah, my stuff’s higher quality than theirs, cuz I’ve been working at it a long time and I’m always trying to do the best work I can. But the companies I’m trying to get to buy my stuff, don’t really care about any of that. They’re just looking for the cheapest work with credentials — or better yet, a name. But without credentials or a name, you’re jack shit, invisible, laughable.”
Then why doesn’t he go to photography school or whatever? I ask.
He sighs, and gives me this look which makes me suspect I’ve just said something incredibly stupid.
“Fuck photography school, man. What can those lames teach me that I don’t already know? They’ll only fuck with my style, make me do work that’s exactly the way they want it, the way they say is good. Those schools pump out armies of art robots, and robots can’t make real art. Real art is human, a human being sharing a true piece of himself with the world. Schools can’t teach that shit.”
Ulises takes another sip of his beer, this time in a self-satisfied way, as though he’s giving me a few moments to savor the morsel of truth he’s just served up. But I’m only fighting the urge to roll my eyes. We’ve finished our sushi rolls, and I start thinking of how I can wrap this thing up and leave before Ulises’ haughty gloominess gives me a stomachache.
“Plus I don’t have the time to go back to school. Not now,” he says. I wonder if he means he’s too busy — but doesn’t he not have a real 9-to-5? — or too old: he’s in his thirties. “And it’s expensive,” he adds. “And I don’t wanna rack up any more debt. Letting R—- pay down my student loan every month is bad enough. He’s so selfless. I’m so fucken lucky.”
I nod in agreement and signal our Japanese waitress in geisha-garb for the check.
“You know,” Ulises says, launching himself into one last soliloquy. “R—-‘s dad came over Saturday. R—- wanted him to do some repairs on the house cuz he knows I’m retarded when it comes to that shit. Two grown-ass men, and neither of us knows how to work a hammer.”
“Anyway, the old man asked me to help him hang this big-ass mirror that R—-‘s mom gave us way back when we got married; we just had it leaned up against the wall this whole time.”
Another little laugh.
“So I’m helping him hang the thing and he starts asking me about me, about my work and how things are going. ‘Good,’ I tell him. ‘Everything’s going good.’ A fucken lie, of course, but I don’t know what he expected me to tell him. What, am I supposed to tell my father-in-law that his son is married to a broke artist in a dead-end fucking career?”
He smiles and snorts, shaking his head, then sips his beer.
“So anyway, he asks me if there’s good money in photography, and I know what he’s getting at, right? So I go, ‘Sure there’s good money in it. Decent money at least. If you do good work and keep at it.’ And he goes, ‘Are you doing good work?’ but in Spanish, looking me dead in the eye to see if I’m being honest, like a human lie detector. And my heart’s up in my fucken throat, obviously. ‘Yeah,’ I go, ‘I think I’m doing real good work, actually. But you can never be sure, you know.’ ‘Well,’ he says, ‘how can you know if your work is bad and you should quit?’ Can you imagine? Can you imagine me standing there as he asks me that? And we’re alone by ourselves, mind you. R—- was at the office. And here’s this solid, serious old man, my husband’s father, working a stud finder and his power drill, doing something I should be taking care, since his hard worker of a son makes all the money. And he’s asking me if I should quit and get a real job.”
My friend’s antsy, as if he knows the world is coming to an end any minute now. He takes another sip, all wild-eyed. The check comes and I insist on paying; he’s visiting from out of town, after all.
“So anyway, I tell him the truth, you know? I go, ‘To be honest, I don’t know whether I should quit or not. And I think about it all the time. It’s natural, you know. Cuz I’m trying to do something that I have no real measures for success for, no role models, at least now. It’s not like in accounting or something where you get raises and promotions every now and then to let you know you’re on the right track and doing a good job. But I dunno. There’s something in me that just won’t let me quit, I guess. Maybe it’s ego,’ I go.
“‘And is it?’ he says. Meaning: is it my ego? Fuck, I love that old man. Really! He’s so fucken real and straightforward. Makes me wonder how R—- came out so tight-lipped, keeping everything close to the chest.
“Anyway, I go, ‘I don’t know if it’s my ego making me chase this stupid dream and won’t let me quit. Maybe. But it feels deeper than that.’ I mean, I didn’t tell him this, but I don’t think it’s my ego cuz my ego’s the one telling me to quit every fucken day, every hour. Telling me to do something respectable, something that makes money.”
Just then the waitress brings the check back, and as I’m signing I tell Ulises I don’t think his ego’s to blame, at least not in the ways he and his father-in-law think it is. People don’t go into art because they have weak egos, I say. People with weak egos do whatever they think society wants them to do. They chase money and fame instead of the things that’ll make them truly happy. They don’t try anything too hard or too risky so they won’t fall flat on their faces in front of everybody. “Only people with strong egos go into art and stick with it through all mud — “not big egos, but strong ones.”
“What the fuck’s the difference?”
“A big ego gets in your way,” I say. “A strong ego keeps you standing, keeps you you, pushes you to become the best you can be.”
He relaxes, leaning back in his chair, maybe for the first time since he sat down. He spins his glass of beer on the table between his thumb and middle finger, watching the last of the golden liquid swirl around. Then he downs the beer in one great gulp.
And I think to myself: Fuck, am I glad I didn’t go into photography.