Today, I’d like to share with you a story. A story about a brief moment that was a long in the making.
I arrived for my appointment early. I always do. All it takes is one instance of blowing a massive opportunity by misjudging the chronically impossible to judge Los Angeles traffic to cause you to pledge your loyalty to punctuality.
This meeting wouldn’t necessarily fall into the category of massive opportunity. Then again, it certainly did. Through a series of contacts, persistent networking, and random introductions, I had finagled myself a meeting with the photo editor of one of the largest entertainment magazines in the world. Like most, I’d spent countless hours in the checkout aisle or surfing the web admiring the top notch photography assigned by the publication. More than occasionally, I would imagine my own celebrity portraits gracing one of it’s covers. A chance for editorial immortality.
But, as astounding as it was to be seated in the waiting room, beneath the large framed cast portrait of one of my favorite television shows of all time, there was still no hiding the fact that this was a bit of a long shot.
Not because I didn’t qualify to be there. I was invited, after all. And not believing in your own abilities is the quickest way to convince other people not to believe you either. Instead, the surprising lack of pressure was due to the fact that, while much of my formative years as a photographer consisted of long periods of fawning over celebrity portraits, my actual career has developed in another direction.
I am a commercial photographer primarily focused on fitness, lifestyle, and activewear brands. By adhering to a laser sharp focus on my niche and branding within a specific market segment, I’ve been able to carve out a career and shoot for brand names that were once well beyond my wildest dreams.
It has taken a simply Herculean amount of self-reflection, hard work, and dedication to even make it to my relatively low place on the totem pole. But I’ve come a very long way from my days spent sitting in my cubicle at a day job I hated, spending every free moment “borrowing” the company’s internet to research all things photography despite the fact that the job they were paying me to do had nothing to do with it.
Year after year, I spent robotically going through the motions. I tested my patience. I used all my emotional resources just to fight back the feeling that I was wasting my life pouring over meaningless spreadsheets, when what I really wanted to do was to create art for a living. Sure, I had my weekends. Or really I had those brief twelve hours of waking life on Saturdays sandwiched between the work-induced exhaustion of Friday nights and the anxiety addled Sundays spent resting up for Mondays. Until I found the resources (and courage) to leave the golden handcuffs of corporate monotony, I had literally spent every day of my adult life wishing I were somewhere else. Wishing I was doing something else. Wishing I could be someone else.
Cut to present day. I sit in the photo editor’s office, flashing my best grin, making hopefully entertaining asides as she thumbs through my freshly printed portfolio. I’ve been in this chair a thousand times. Well, maybe not this exact chair, but one’s just like it. Face-to-face meetings are the bread and butter of a commercial photographer’s marketing plan. In my head, I may fancy myself to be Richard Avedon. In practice, I’m more like Willy Loman, traveling from office to office with a briefcase full of promo pieces and a firm handshake.
She seems to enjoy the work. And she and I have a good rapport. Meetings like these are rarely about making the hard sell. It’s unlikely that you are going to walk out of the room with a set assignment. They are more about allowing the client to get to know you and your work, forming some kind of bond, and hopefully setting the stage to work together in the future. You are there to make an impression and show that you have both the personality and experience to provide them with the assets they need to do their job.
Of course, when it comes to experience, that word can mean different things to different people. Depending on the particular company or publication you are presenting to, there may also be an added level of specificity to that experience. For example, I have a wealth of experience in commercial advertising photography. And since I have a very well defined target market of fitness and activewear brands, my portfolio reflects that. What my portfolio does not reflect is a large amount of celebrity portraiture. I’ve shot celebrity athletes. But, try as I might, I have yet to be able to get Brad Pitt to agree to visit my studio.
One day, maybe. But, on this particular day, I had to go into the office with what I had, make the best impression I could make, and hope that she could see something in my work that could translate to her business.
So, why not change my branding for just that one meeting and try to present myself as a celebrity photographer just for that meeting? Well, for one, that’s not financially practical. Printing a professional portfolio is not cheap. Investing a significant amount of money into a secondary book that you will only represents a small sliver of potential revenue is unlikely to make it’s return on investment.
But two, and far more important than one, there’s absolutely no use in spending your life pretending to be someone you are not. As an artist, your real power comes from knowing who you are and what you have to say to the world then trying to say that in the best way possible. Trying to be all things to all people is the quickest way to become a jack of all trades and master of none.
But, you may be asking yourself, am I not limiting myself by sticking to my carefully focused brand message? How can showing images of athletes do any good when pitching to a buyer who needs images of actors? Well, let’s play out that scenario for a moment to get a better look at the question.
Yes, a buyer may not look at my book and think of me instantly for a beauty editorial on an up-and-coming ingenue. They’ve likely already seen dozens of portfolios, just this week alone (I do live in Los Angeles, after all) of established celebrity portrait photographers who have shot everyone from Emma Stone to Emily Blunt. So, when the chance to book that assignment comes along, she will be overloaded with options to choose from. Some just as good as me. Several significantly better than me. Even if I tried to hide who I was and reform my book just for that assignment, I would likely just be hamstringing myself by taking my best and most personal work out of my arsenal, fearing it to be too athletic based, and replacing it with likely lesser work just because that’s what I think the buyer wants to see. Even if I create a terrific celebrity portrait portfolio, it’s still not going to be work that comes from the core of who I am as an artist. And it will be competing against other dedicated celebrity portrait artists who are shooting from their center of strength. I might still get lucky and win over the client with good chemistry on an occasional gig, but it’s not a sustainable strategy.
Or, I can stick to my guns. I can stay focused on my brand and my core values as an artist. I can walk into the office and present only my absolute best and see how the chips fall. True, I may not book every job they have to offer. Although, honestly, it's impossible to book every assignment anyway. But, by staying true to myself, I am far more likely to make an impression. Passion seeps through the surface of your photography. What you are really passionate about will show in your work even if you are not fully conscious of it. That underlying passion is what clients respond to. They can see it. They can feel it.
So, while I may not be considered for the assignment on the ingenue, I am very likely to be high on the list the next time a former NBA star decides to start his own production company. Or what about when they need athletic images of the contestants of the latest fitness reality show. These may not be what I initially thought of when pitching the magazine, but, by sticking to my truth, I am positioning myself to take the lead when those opportunities do arise as opposed to just another fish in the sea trying to get the expected jobs. And, if the ultimate goal were to get an assignment photographing Emily Blunt doing, well, anything really, then it is best to use my area of strength to separate from the pack to get inside the machine first, build the client’s trust, and then maybe they will give me a chance to spread my wings on a future assignment. It just take patience.
Okay, I may have gotten off on a bit of a tangent there. But, I think it’s important to reinforce, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my journey from cubicle to pitch meetings, it is that step one to running a successful business is knowing what goal it is that you wish to accomplish. You can’t hit a target if you don’t know what the target is. And knowing your target requires knowing yourself.
As my proposed ten minute meeting with the photo editor wound down after what turned out to be nearly an hour long chat, she casually asked me a question that is common to anyone who has ever had a portfolio review. She asked simply, “What is it you’d like to do?” By that, she was asking what area and direction of photography I wanted to pursue in the future.
I was caught off guard. Not because I hadn’t heard the question before, but because for the first time in my life, in that very moment, I realized that I was already doing what it was that I wanted to do with my life.
First the very first time, I wasn’t just going through the motions because I thought that’s what society, my parents, or the market said I should be doing. I wasn’t shape shifting to present different views of myself for different audiences based on what I thought they might expect. Instead, I was pursuing exactly what I wanted to do and living the exact life I wished to lead. For once, it wasn’t a matter of where I wanted to go, but how could I continue to grow in the place where I stood.
And while all those years of trying to be all things to all people afforded me the opportunity to master mediocrity, it wasn’t until I committed myself to a focus, and accepted that not everyone is going to want what I have to offer, that I began to improve as an artist and those clients that did want what I had to offer began to find me.
I didn’t write this article as a form of self congratulation. While I have achieved a handful of my dreams, I still have a long way to go both creatively and professionally. And, as you know, an artistic career is never about job security. It could all end tomorrow if I fail to continue to do my part and put in the work to get better.
But, I did write this story because I imagine that there may be a lot of you out there, reading this article from uneasy comfort of an ergonomically designed cubicle chair. Sitting reading this in between the duties of your “real job.” Wishing you could be doing something else, but still in the early phases of trying to figure out how.
Like me ten years ago, you’re probably staring at your computer monitor, sleepwalking at your desk. Hoping your boss doesn’t come around. Doing just enough to not get fired and getting paid just enough not to quit. You’re not only wondering how you are going to get out of this particular situation, but also still trying to figure out where you want to go.
Well, I can tell you a couple things. One, no matter where you want to go, it won’t be easy to get there. No place worth going ever is. But, two, if you stay true to yourself, impose your passion on the world rather than expecting the world to provide the passion for you, and put in the hard work to turn that dream into a reality, you too will find yourself sitting in a chair one day and being asked a question about where you want to go. Without thought, a smile will slowly creep across your face. And you will suddenly realize that you are already there.