The art and business of photography has had no trouble in inspiring millennials into finding a path to success within the field. Twenty-somethings have embraced the use of new technologies in their workflow, marketing, and creativity, but there is one lesson on reaching your goals that has not changed since the dawn of commercial photography.
Cost of entry into a career in photography is lower than ever, which has naturally led to a saturation in the market of working photographers. This has led to large numbers photographers willing to work for less than ever. So deciding on photography as a career is a daunting prospect for any aspiring youngster in 2018, yet there is a wave of talented and driven photographers out there who are defying these facts, and securing commissions on top projects. So what are these guys doing differently?
I’m talking about breaking down those big, long-term goals into small, achievable ones. This is a tactic that can be tailored to all manor of walks of life, but it is something worth re-iterating in an era of “the overnight success.”
The inspiration for writing this article came from reaching out to uber-talented Music and Portrait Photographer Jennifer McCord. The 22-year-old Londoner has experienced levels of access and success beyond her years. While she might attribute some of this to luck, it has been her commitment to achieving incremental goals that has been the key driver.
Self taught, McCord caught the photography bug young. “At 16 I met Susan Morton who’s one of the founders of a local exhibition,” she said. “She asked me to photograph the exhibition opening, then that summer I assisted photojournalist John Cole while he taught students that were based around the London 2012 Olympics. That gave me my first real taste of documentary photography.” This early foray stoked the fire in McCord to document people, then made an opening for herself at the tender age of 18 by tweeting a band to offer her services as a tour photographer.
“I loved music and went to concerts a lot but wasn’t involved at a grass roots level,” said McCord. “That tour honestly changed everything. It was the first time I felt like I was doing exactly what I was meant to be doing and that I was surrounded by people that really got the way I felt about music and art.” Once she came home from tour, she dedicated herself to her craft, learning her tools and putting in the hard yards by shooting four to five local shows a week for little to no money.
By 18, McCord had seen an opening to a career path that inspired her to get out of bed every morning, and had the foresight to realize that one needs to work at it, day in, day out, to turn this into a reality. By grafting at local gigs, she honed in on a personal style that is hard to ignore within the saturated market of music and gig photographers.
Her ability to capture natural or artificial light on her subject, while keeping her edits consistently deep, dark, and moody, shows high levels of maturity and respect in her art. “I love renaissance art, especially Da Vinci and Caravaggio. These deep dark colors and the chiaroscuro light I think impact my work a lot,” she said. McCord is clearly a natural talent, but also understands the perception of her work in keeping on brand, something I only learned in my thirties.
She separates the various genres of her photography so to not make her portfolio feel cluttered, then has an overarching brand to grow into. “I wanted my music website to show the core of what I do; documenting artists, but I wanted to have the freedom to show more varied work across my lifestyle site,” said McCord. “So I split it up in to separate sites, and then listed them under Run Deep Co. I wanted to keep Run Deep pretty open and vague so that I could potentially do something more collaborative with it one day.”
McCord now tours Europe on commissions for a multitude of successful artists. Securing these lucrative and exciting commissions was one of her ultimate goals, but she knew Bono wasn’t going to ring her after seeing three photos of hers on Tumblr. Instead, she pictured the path backwards from her goal and went out to achieve each mini-goal with narrow focus.
The fact McCord is only 22 is ultimately irrelevant in that the pathway to success in photography can start at any age. And if any of this article has come across as condescending then I apologize, it certainly isn't the intention. But McCord’s story to success struck me as one that could be held up to other young, self-taught photographers to get out there and make your chances for yourself.
McCord’s not done here either. “Over the last couple of weeks I’ve made a point of listing my goals clearly. I drew them out on a big sheet of A3 with little steps of how I can get towards them,” she said. And what about her goals? Well they’re right up there, but I have no doubt that a talent like this won’t go unnoticed by global editorials for long. “Long term, I want to progress as an artist, I never want to feel like I’ve stagnated. I’d love to eventually shoot some portrait or lifestyle pieces for TIME, FT, or Rolling Stone Magazine, but mostly I just want to create work that makes people feel something. That’s always been my goal.”
Ambition grows in people at different stages in life. For me, it wasn’t until my late twenties that I understood my ultimate goal of a full-time freelance career behind a camera wouldn’t be handed to me on a silver platter. The next generation of photographers are now growing up in a society of instant and short lived gratification, so the most important piece of advice I would give is to play the long game. Get an A3 piece of paper, just like McCord, put the big goal and the top, then fill in the ladder to get there.
All images used with permission of Jennifer McCord.