We don’t talk enough about how relationships, or the lack thereof, will either make or break your career as a photographer. I’m not talking about the relationships with your clients. I’m talking about the needed strong relationships with all the supporting people that allow you to deliver the goods. These relationships are to be cultivated and nurtured.
Currently, I’m in a place where I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for all who kept me and my business going over the last few months. The relationships you need to build will move more to the personal side now and then. You need to allow yourself moments of vulnerability if you want to succeed.
The relationships that drive my business multiplied when, at the end of November 2021, I signed a publishing contract. The moving parts of my enterprise became overwhelming as I agreed to write and shoot a book on a rushed production schedule, in the middle of a fifth wave that had a huge negative impact on my client base, and we were hit with multiple natural disasters that cut off supply chains; entire highways and rail lines washed away in an instant. Imagine being a food photographer without the ability to get food. Moreover, there were multiple health emergencies among family members.
During this time, the importance of these relationships hit home.
When you author a book, you need to write an acknowledgments section. It is the norm in publishing to acknowledge all the people whose supporting roles allowed you to complete that book. My list includes roles like assistants, family members, my editor, my publisher — which is a job title — book designers, suppliers, recipe testers, beta readers, fellow writers, and so much more. If a single person in this group were to stop supporting me, my enterprise would crumble.
You may work with modeling agencies, stylists, wardrobe specialists, post-production people, and more. Regardless of what your system looks like, there are shared strategies to nurture the relationships that keep you going.
Vulnerability fosters an environment of trust. Everyone on your team needs to know they can rely on each member. There isn’t time or room for micromanagement. There isn’t space for doubting the reliability of those surrounding you. If you collaborate with models, they need to know you aren’t going to put them in distressing situations. When you are vulnerable, you are not only signaling that you trust your team members but that they can also trust you.
Be Slow to Anger and Quick to Apologize
The days can be long and frustrating. Things will go wrong. People get hangry. Build frequent 15-minute breaks into the day’s schedule to allow people room to breathe. This helps to keep frustrations from boiling over into anger. But in those moments where too many things are happening at once and you can’t hold it, apologize without reservation or excuse. Own it. Acknowledge that you messed up. If you’ve also been practicing vulnerability, everyone will be cool with it and quickly move on, with no hard feelings.
Give Your Knowledge Freely
It doesn’t matter if it is a delivery person dropping something off at the job site. If anyone asks a question about how and why something is done, teach. Spend that 10-15 minutes giving something of yourself without strings. Reward curiosity. Every other person you work with is already doing the same. When you are open and giving, people start to create opportunities to collaborate with you.
Be the Student
Pay attention to everything people have to offer you in return, especially in areas where you feel you are an expert, or close to. There are always things to learn. People who are new to the world of photography often have fresh ways of approaching things that will improve your work. Someone who humbles themselves is someone people want to continue to work with.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
There are the obvious things that you need to communicate. Timelines and schedules. Shot lists. Equipment lists. Deadlines. Safety protocols. Artistic direction. In the case of collaborating with my editor and publisher, it also involves a year-long production schedule with multiple delivery dates on which multiple departments rely.
Then, there are the things we can be afraid to communicate that are more important. Events that have thrown a wrench into plans. Illness. The need for help. If we have learned anything over the last two years, it is that best-laid plans always need to have room for a pivot. People have learned that stuff happens, and timelines and deliverables need to be reworked. They are happy to work with you on something manageable, but only if you created trusted and open lines of communication.
Learn to Thrive on Constructive Criticism
Get critique partners. They will push you and help you to grow. When you learn how to be a gracious recipient of constructive criticism, you also learn how to deliver it. As artists, we all want to evolve and reach that next level of success, whatever that means for each of us. People you trust to give you critique are how you will get there and help others achieve their successes.
You need to be vulnerable but not too vulnerable. You need to be available, but not too available. Check in with yourself and make sure you have the bandwidth before taking anything new on. Have a hard stop to your workday where you turn everything work-related off. Don’t do things that make you uncomfortable.
When you set boundaries, you signal to everyone you work with that you want them to have boundaries too and that you will respect them. In a world with so much vying for our attention and pulling at our emotions, everyone on the team needs clear divisions and hard boundaries that will be honored if you want them to arrive on the job happy to be there.
Just like you will need things shifted, respect and honor that the people you work with will need to same. If you are following up on an action item, start the conversation with something like: “I know things are stressful right now. So just a gentle check-in to see how this is coming along.” Don’t preach. Don’t recite a job description and tell them how they are failing in so many words. When they come to you saying they need an extension, thank them.
And before you even begin to work with them, ask them if they need any accommodations on the job. You can even practice vulnerability in the process. When I ask about accommodations, I will let the person know that I’m autistic and live with chronic pain. Because of this, I need to have 15 minutes completely alone and quiet every hour so that I don’t have an actual autistic meltdown made worse by pain. It fosters a safe working environment.
Acknowledge Their Importance
Bringing this back to the acknowledgments you see in books. They are so especially important. People in the publishing world are always checking acknowledgments to see if their names are there or if their friends are in there. They celebrate each other’s work and want to continue collaborating with the person who wrote the acknowledgment.
Saying “thank you for [fill in the thing they did that made the result possible]” goes a heck of a long way, especially on the days where an assistant is tired because they had to play human c-stand in a tight corner all day. Just like the publishing world will spread the word about people who acknowledge them, the same goodwill word of mouth will spread about you when you thank those who keep you afloat.
What are the things you do to build and nurture your working relationships?
LOVE this article
This is a great question! I'll write an article about it as there isn't a simple answer. The nebulous answer is networking. But, it needs to be highly targeted. The biggest things that catapulted my business was getting involved in the local farming cooperative and getting involved in government initiative, like economic development and tourism departments on the local level. And if you live outside of a major city, targeted mailers have huge ROI. I'm not sure how it works outside of Canada, but Canada Post does both the printing and drops, and I get to pick which businesses and farms get my mailers. Anyway, I'll definitely write a post about this!