Inside Portfolio Reviews With Sports Illustrated Cover Photographer Alexis Cuarezma

Being a working commercial photographer requires consistent self-marketing and, according to award-winning commercial sports and portrait photographer Alexis Cuarezma — whose work can be seen on the cover of Sports Illustrated — portfolio reviews are a great way to do just that.

What exactly is a portfolio review? It’s a chance for a photographer to get their strongest work in front of someone experienced and objective who can give valuable feedback. This can take the form of in-person interviews with people a photographer has contacted themselves, such as the art directors of ad agencies or magazine editors, or paid reviews with companies like NYCFotoWorks who assemble a list of reviewers (art directors, creative producers, directors of photography, photo editors, etc.) from whom paying photographers can choose to receive reviews.   

Image shared with permission of Alexis Cuarezma

Having received reviews in the past and recently been a reviewer for the Academy of Art University Spring Fashion Photography Portfolio Review, Cuarezma, has strong insights into the review process that will help photographers understand why portfolio reviews can be such a great resource. In addition to this article, he shared his experience reviewing student portfolios — in particular, the portfolio of student Dawn Elizabeth — on his blog, along with a video of the process that serves as an outline to what photographers might expect when they schedule a review.

Image shared with permission of Dawn Johnsen

Some of the topics covered in the video review are:

  • What she wants to do for work/dream clients 1:34
  • How she found her team and put these shoots together 2:40
  • Where she found models and how her work can improve 3:54
  • How to work with modeling agencies 4:49
  • How she can improve her work part two 7:16
  • What she should do next? Editorial versus Advertising 8:13
  • Dawn’s Location Work 10:05
  • Marketing/Networking and how to get work 10:16
  • How to get contacts/database for marketing 11:13
  • What it’s like to get work as a photographer 11:36

When I asked Cuarezma what made portfolio reviews so important, he gave me three main benefits; feedback, networking, and top of mind marketing. Cuarezma was clear that the reviews of the work itself are valuable — they let you know the tastes of the reviewer and may give you a good idea of the strength and weaknesses of your portfolio — but that the chance to get your work — and yourself — directly in front of people who hire photographers is a much bigger incentive. Exposure to the people in charge is the kind of marketing that gets commercial photographers hired. McDonald's may be one of the best-known names in the food industry, but they still spend an enormous amount of money on advertising.

Finally, while most of us creatives would like to believe it’s purely the strength of our work that gets us in the door, Cuarezma pointed out the fact that people hire people, and networking is one of the most valuable activities in which a photographer can engage. While hopeful commercial photographers should be doing their best to get in front of the people they want to work for year-round, doing so takes a lot of consistent effort, and emails and phone calls may go ignored. Paid reviews are a guaranteed chance to pitch yourself and your work to your ideal clients. Cuarezma has firsthand experience with this, as well as with merit-based reviews from workshops, such as the Eddie Adams workshop where he gained a valuable relationship with reviewer Brad Smith.

Smith was the Senior Director of Sports Photography at the New York Times, and this connection led Cuarezma to a couple of gigs for the New York Times and then his first Sports Illustrated cover when Smith later relocated to the magazine.

Image shared with permission of Alexis Cuarezma

Convinced by this point that portfolio reviews had real value, I asked him how photographers should deal with negative reviews, and Cuarezma responded with his signature stoic optimism.

He said that it was important not to take the feedback personally. “You have to take their opinions with a grain of salt,” he said, pointing out that each reviewer will have their own preferences and styles, and that feedback should be weighed on how it applies to your personal goals for your career. “You might be seeing 15-16 reviewers and each of them will have different ideas,” he told me, so considering the advice in the context of your career goals will help to put the advice in perspective. The key, it appears, is to truly understand yourself as a photographer, and to stay true to your vision. “Not everyone should love your work,” he said, “because if everyone loves it, it’s not eliciting strong enough emotion.”

Image shared with permission of Alexis Cuarezma

Given that a photographer has chosen to attend a portfolio review, I asked Cuarezma what a photographer should do to prepare so they get the most out of the experience. The first — and most obvious — answer, was to put together your strongest work into a printed portfolio. He emphasized that while tear sheets and client work is nice to have, reviewers are interested in seeing personal work because it’s the unique vision of the photographer they want to see, not the focus-grouped opinion of an art director. Cuarezma also mentioned having a digital device, such as an iPad or a laptop handy so that if a reviewer is interested in a specific shot that belongs to a set of images, you have the rest of the work handy to share.

Another important but less obvious aspect of prepping for a portfolio review, Cuarezma said, is researching the reviewers you’ve chosen to look at your work. “You want to make a personal connection with someone if you can,” he said, mentioning that people are more likely to remember you if you’ve taken the time to get to know who they are and what they’ve done. This research will also help photographers decide who to choose from the roster of possible reviewers. One of the questions he said photographers should consider when researching and choosing reviewers is, “does this person make hiring decisions?”

The final key to making the most of a portfolio review is to have a “leave behind,” or something that you can leave with your reviewer as a contact follow-up, and then to take the hint yourself and follow up with your reviewers continually. This was one of the takeaways Cuarezma says really stuck with him after reviewing student’s portfolios. He mentioned that only one student followed up after the reviews, and told me how willing he would have been to help these young photographers if they would have taken the initiative to contact him.

Image shared with permission of Alexis Cuarezma

When all was said and done, I was struck with one aspect of our conversation that Cuarezma returned to several times, and that was, for lack of a better word, personality. He said chances are that most of the people these reviewers will see will have a strong body of work, but not everyone will sit down with confidence and charisma. After all, people work with people, not robots. Cuarezma said that the chances of a photographer leaving a strong, positive impression on their reviewers are the best if they are friendly, talk about their work with passion, and are truly interested in connecting with the reviewer. He was quick to qualify that, however. “Don’t be like a bad used car salesman,” he said, laughing, “and try to tell me all the technical crap behind how you got the photo unless it’s something really unique or you saved the client $50,000 or something.” He said that the story behind an image, particularly if it has a deep connection to how you work or to your vision, is the best way to make an emotional connection between the reviewer and the work. “Facts don’t sell,” he said, “emotion sells. People buy on emotion and then justify with logic.”

Finally, and possibly the most important thing readers should take away from this interview is to be consistent in marketing themselves. Paid portfolio reviews can be incredibly useful, but they should only one aspect of a comprehensive marketing plan. Even if a portfolio review is finished and everything went well, you cannot rest on that small achievement. “No one cares about what you did in the past, they want to know what you’re doing now,” he said. There is no such thing as “made it,” which is why even well-known photographers still consistently market themselves to potential clients. Use a portfolio review as a tool, and then get back to work.

If you’re interested in participating in a paid portfolio review, two great places to look are NYCFotoWorks who runs reviews two times a year in New York and LA, and Palm Springs Photo Festival.

Nicole York's picture

Nicole York is a professional photographer and educator based out of Albuquerque, New Mexico. When she's not shooting extraordinary people or mentoring growing photographers, she's out climbing in the New Mexico back country or writing and reading novels.

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This was such a fun and amazing event! Thank you to Alexis and to the Academy of Art University!

It was an amazing event. I'm so thankful the Academy of Art had me. Stay kicking ass Dawn! You freaking rock :)

Dawn Johnsen great work!

You should have seen in print, the magazine was amazing. So much is lost when only viewing things online.

This was a great read and so glad I was "prompted" by a friend very close to this article to read it (inside jokes) . One thing about Alexis that rings true is his sincerity and genuine nature. The one quote that I will walk away with is “Not everyone should love your work,...because if everyone loves it, it’s not eliciting strong enough emotion.” That speaks so loudly to me as a photographer/ artist. Another mantra that i'm gonna keep is to alway be closing new deals, creating new work and be in the moment. Be a real person. The work doesn't sell you. You sell you.. Thank you Nichole.

yo!! Glad you liked that quoted bro. Photography/art is super subjective and to taste... so I learned to not things personally. Only take things personally if you need motivations, ha!