By Warren Watson
(Third in a 5-part series)
Russ Kendall, a lifelong photographer and photo editor, believes that every journalist should have a Plan B with their career.
“If they don’t, he says, they are simply negligent to their lives,” he says with the decisiveness of someone who learned the hard way.
Kendall left his photo editing job at the Bellingham (Wash.) Herald in December 2012 after eight pay cuts, forced furloughs and the loss of most of his staff.
“Partly I could not bear the embarrassingly poor work the paper was producing, partly I couldn’t stomach that unpaid interns were replacing paid staffers at an alarming rate but mostly to save the job of a staffer who was going to get laid off,” he said.
Today, he owns and operates “Plan B” – his Gusto Wood Fired Pizza, which produces artisan pizza and is has become a fixture at farmers’ markets, festivals and special events around Bellingham, in western Washington.
“I had started a catering business three years earlier, partly to make up lost wages, partly to have something fun to do, but mostly to be my Plan B when I inevitably got laid off. Now it is my Plan A and in truth I haven’t been this happy in a very long time, he said, proudly noting that his high blood pressure was measured at a very normal 103 over 70 (down from 164 over 110) during a recent doctor’s visit.
Kendall is 56.
“My income has increased and I am proud of the meaningful work I do now,” he said.
Kendall was an award-winning photojournalist and picture editor who has published eight photo books for children with Scholastic, Inc., with total sales of over 3 million books.
He’s been a staff photographer for The Rocky Mountain News and The Anchorage Times, now both defunct. When he was the director of photography for the Bangor (ME) Daily News the photography department was named the Region One Photo Staff of the Year. Before moving to Bellingham in 2005 he taught college in Portland, Ore., for three years.
He has also organized seminars, clip contests and generally been a champion for photojournalism since his first days shooting for a newspaper near his home in Wareham, Mass., where he made $125 a week.
“Regrettably, I don’t see myself ever going back to work as a photographer although I consider myself as photographer. Things have declined so much in photo.”
He added, “In the last years, I have seen photojournalists shrink inward into themselves. People have worked out of fear only. And at risk to their health. And we have become lemmings.”
About three years ago, Kendal started thinking about his love for food as a possible new direction in his life. He sold pizza on the side, and began to seek out manufacturers who sold pizza ovens on trailers.
He also watched his photo career vanish, his income evaporate with pay cuts and company-forced furloughs.
“I needed something else in my life. McClatchy (parent company of the Bellingham paper) began cutting everywhere. The food thing became by Plan B. I figured as photo editor I was a target. I saw the writing on the wall,” he said of his decision to leave newspapers.
So he got that portable pizza oven.
Almost immediately be and his wife became busy, trucking their wares to the local farmers’ market, where he now makes and sells up to 180 pizzas on a given Saturday in good weather.
On one market day, he used his Facebook account to promote his “special Pizza of the Week.”
Then, he went on site with his trademark white waiters’s jacket, tie and ‘Gusto” baseball cap. The pie would draw ingredients from other vendors at the Bellingham market:
- Green onions from Rabbit Hill Farms.
- Zucchini from Terra Verde Farms.
- Shiitake mushrooms from Cascadia Mushrooms.
“I just love this work. I love to be around my friends and customers,” he said.
Earlier in 2013, Kendall began to take on more work at festivals, company retreats and even weddings.
Kendall is insistent that journalists prepare for what could be an uneven future. “Ask yourself what you love doing and see if what people will pay you to do,” he said.
“So much of what’s happening to our jobs and our lives is out of our control, in the hands of people whose shoes probably cost more than what most of us make in a week,” he wrote before leaving newspaper work. “The threat of ‘more and worse’ hangs ever over our heads like a Damoclean sword. Remember last year’s call to do more with less? Now it feels as if we’re being asked to do even more with nothing at all.”
Kendall said he is constantly challenged in his new world. He isn’t balancing how to shoot assignments anymore. But he’s solving problems, figuring how to promote his work.
It just now involves mozzarella cheese, cherry tomatoes and Caprese salad skewers.
And the chef is whole lot happier now.
(Warren is SABEW executive director and a 40-year journalist.)