In this series, I attempt to identify the key professional virtues I have found to be the most important in building my own career, as well as identifying traits of other successful photographers that are most key to their success. Today’s virtue: teamwork.
It’s a bit of a trick play. Some teams call it a reverse. Some call it an end around. Others something fancier like 88 Glory Sprintback or Red Rounder. But as football plays go, it’s relatively simple.
The quarterback tosses the ball to a running back who runs wide of the line in one direction. As the defenders shift and claw ferociously to one side to tackle the runner, he somewhat slyly pitches the ball back to a wide receiver running clandestinely going the other way. Catching the ball at full speed heading in the opposite direction of traffic, the receiver will then be greeted with an open field in front of him on the now vacant side of the field.
Well, he hopes it’s vacant.
But generally, no matter how cool the offense may be in their deception, there seems to always be at least one defender on the opposite side that has seen it all coming. One overgrown adrenaline filled outside linebacker waiting to crush both the receiver and your team’s hopes for a championship.
The quarterback has a choice to make.
For those who don’t watch football, there is one universal rule for every team in the world. The quarterback is not to be hit. While the other twenty-one players on the field at a given time may earn their scholarships by alternately body slamming or being body slammed multiple times over the course of sixty minutes, the quarterback is the one player on the field the coach hopes will leave the game with a clean uniform.
He’s the golden boy, the team leader, the face of the franchise. The vast majority of teams will have an official rule that he is not even to be touched in practice and any defender that mistakenly breaks that rule does so at his own peril.
So, it’s no surprise that after the initial pitch of the ball to the running back, the quarterback’s responsibilities on the play basically amount to finding the fastest and safest way to get the heck out of the way!
Who cares if, following the reverse handoff, there is now only one defender standing between the receiver and the end zone? Who cares if it’s a playoff game and the whole season is on the line? Who cares if the awaiting defender happens to be an All-American and outweigh both the quarterback and the receiver combined? Who cares if every other player on his team is asked to sacrifice his body day-in and day-out to protect his personal safety? He’s the quarterback. He doesn’t have to do anything.
But he’s also a leader. So he has a decision to make.
These are those moments over the course of a season, over the course of a lifetime, that reveal the measure of the man or woman. These are the moments that define who we are not only professionally but personally. Those moments that highlight the core virtues that will define us.
Not every quarterback makes the same decision. But, generally speaking, the best of them do. Despite the severe disparity in physical girth, despite the high unlikelihood that the effort will lead to anything more than him being embarrassingly thrown to the side like child’s rag doll, despite the fact that he doesn’t have to do it, the best quarterbacks in the sport will inevitably charge towards the defender without a second thought. They will hurl their bodies between the defender and the receiver and hope to get just enough of a block to spring their teammate for a touchdown.
They may succeed. More than likely they’ll fail. But no matter the outcome of the individual play, they will have won something far greater than the spoils of a highlight reel. They will have won their teammates' respect.
Even though you may be the golden child and it is the responsibility of your team, or crew, to sacrifice life and limb for your success, a true leader is willing to offer the same pound of flesh in return. It may not be often asked of you, but if your team, and your client, know that you are willing to go that extra mile for them, they will go an extra two miles for you.
It doesn’t have to be anything as dramatic as throwing your fragile frame in front of a 6 foot, 4-inch, 360-pound man nicknamed “The Freight Train” to prove your point. Sometimes it’s just as simple as offering to help your assistants clean up the set or being willing to share your knowledge with one of your clients even for a project where they are working with another photographer.
One of my biggest clients is constantly running multiple shoots at the same time. I love working with them and they’ve treated me very well. Many times my set is only one of many they are running concurrently inside a large partitioned photo studio.
The other day I was wrapping up a day of shooting and my team was ahead of schedule. A second team, working on another set was running behind. The client came to me and asked if I wouldn’t mind adding one of their setups to my own shot list to help the other crew stay on schedule. It wasn’t a major ask. It was a simple table-top setup for a relatively straightforward product shot. It would add a couple minutes to the end of the day, but hardly constitute a full day’s assignment in and of itself. Despite myself and my crew being deservedly exhausted from our own shoot, we all stepped right up and produced the additional shot without hesitation.
We could have refused. Technically that shot wasn’t in the original client brief. We could have gotten really delicate and tried to demand a king's ransom for the extra few minutes of time it took us to set up the added shot. There was a third shooter on another team that made a big huff about the extra shot, and technically speaking, she was free to do so.
But, at the end of the day, was it really that big an ask for me to perform? I didn’t think so. And more importantly, building a career is about more than just that one individual shoot. It’s bigger than those thirty minutes that I’d otherwise simply be spending watching a rerun of "Friends" or perusing Instagram.
Instead, the simple act of being a team player and pitching in to help when I was under no obligation to do so bought me more than an extra half hour fraction of my day rate. It helped to show the client that I was willing to go the extra mile for them. It showed them that I didn’t have to leave the game with a clean uniform. I, and my crew, were willing to put ourselves on the line for the larger team. And, hopefully, as a result, the client is willing to go the extra mile for us. At a minimum, on a human level, the producer is likely to take into consideration our team-first response to the request when choosing between shooters for future assignments.
As a photographer, we are the kings and queens of our own sets. But being unafraid to get dirty for your teammates will go a long way. One of my favorite sayings is that when a poor leader wins a battle, his countrymen gather around and say “He won.” When a strong leader wins a battle, his countrymen gather around and shout “We won.”
Fight for your soldiers and they will fight for you.