Perhaps this article is a risk to my career by virtue of being too honest, but it's a subject I have wanted to discuss publicly for some time. In the era where social media is the backbone of perception, it's all too easy to feel you can never measure up. This isn't new information and in fact, it's a rather well-trodden path. Even armed with the knowledge, however, I still feel I walk in to the trap of taking the world that is presented to me as the only facts worth knowing. I want to sacrifice my self-consciousness to do my bit to rectify this.
A person I see a couple of times a month, who oscillates between good friend and acquaintance, said to me recently how amazing my career is and how I seem to go from strength to strength. He went on to ask questions which happened to have answers that were very favorable towards me: he asked if I was working with an affluent client that I was, whether I was an ambassador of a brand that I was, and if I was still an editor at Fstoppers, which I was (and hopefully, at the time of publishing this, I still am!). These questions were borne of my social media posts showing recent work and collaborations with brands. Similarly, I've had close friends say how proud they are of my accomplishments and how well I'm doing. I like a belly rub as much as the next, but my unspoken response to praise is always "yeah but...". Yes, I am working with that great brand, but it took months to make it happen and a great many rejections or near misses, not to mention my own shortcomings and mistakes. It then occurred to me that for the most part, professionals' presentation of themselves on social media (where social media is important to their profession) is tantamount to a gambler's bets. That is, you only hear about the wins and never the losses.
I vividly remember how I felt before I dove head first in to a career as a photographer and writer. I looked at those I knew or knew of whom were already in the industry and thriving and I thought how there's no way I could ever measure up to that. Then you take the plunge and realize that success is even farther away than you thought. It's sometimes desperately difficult to stave off negativity and jealousy when you see your peers rampantly charging from one victory to the next. Until, that is, you speak with them about it (I mean "them" in the broadest possible sense because it truly is universal) and learn about their failures. In fact, as far as I can tell, the more successful someone is, the larger the mountain of failures they are perched atop. There are some great examples of this, but they aren't my examples to give. So, here are some of my unfiltered failures of the last 18 months.
The Misjudged Quote
I can't decide which of these two mistakes haunts me more, but it's a close race. I had been doing quite well with getting new clients yet I was lacking confidence in my portfolio. However, through some relentless networking I managed to get a meeting with a client I would regard as the "end game." That is, the sort of client you dream of working with. They were keen on my work and were interested to hear what I wanted to do with them and listened to my ideas. They were still interested after that discussion and asked me to quote them.
Misjudged quotes for jobs go one of two ways. The first is you over-quote and the client are either instantly put off because their notion of your cost and your quoted cost are far too far apart. Or, they begin to negotiate you down which in my mind is the best case scenario. Over-quoting is salvageable, however, under-quoting is terminal. If you under quote the client either takes you up on it and you realize your mistake and have to take the hit, or, and this is the worst case scenario, they lose all respect and value for your work and decide you're not worth the bother. Well, with this dream client, the worst case scenario happened.
I was acutely aware that I hadn't worked with any clients of their stature and so I wanted to secure the job I was willing to take a bit of a hit on price to do so. I had no idea how big a mistake that was and what happened was unexpected to the me of 18 months ago: they didn't realize I was so cheap and decided it isn't worth the effort to make the job happen. There was nothing I could do. I couldn't increase my prices and I couldn't retrieve the value of my product that I had just lost; the mistake was terminal.
(Since this mistake I have read a lot on price and I recommend "The Psychology of Price" by Leigh Caldwell for those interested in learning more.)
This failure stings in a different way and is much more recent than the last mistake. I was approached by another affluent company which is rare; usually I do the approaching. They were interested in reworking their image on social media and through digital marketing and they wanted to create a library of images to do so. They enquired as to whether they could book me for three months with a sizeable work load every week for that time period and then a discussion afterwards about how to move forward. I came up with a fair quote that made me money, but rewarded the fact that they were hiring me for a large job and the security that it brought. They negotiated over the price and we agreed on a rate that left both parties happy. We then began the planning phase. I spent hours and hours crafting shoot ideas, making mood boards, and having Skype meetings with the client to discuss all of the above. Not to mention the many hours of thought I was putting in to the job while living my daily life. Given this article's title, you can guess a twist is coming. Right as we were due to move forward, my contact went missing. Not "milk carton" missing, more "celeb after a scandal" missing. I rang, I Skyped, I emailed, but to no avail. After weeks of contact attempts and more time dropped, the client called me to say the director had pulled the plug and decided they want to continue as they are for now.
This sort of thing happens to everyone in business, but I hadn't approached the job intelligently. Before I had even sent the invoice, I went on their word that the job was going ahead and dropped tens of hours in to planning and preparation. I don't want to work out how much this cost me by prioritizing the planning of this job over making new contacts and meeting new companies, as well as the usual duties of a business owner.
These two failures are the more prominent in my mind, but they're not short of company. I took on a big job at a fair rate per image that I offer for smaller jobs. It didn't occur to me until I was in the middle of this task, however, that I hadn't factored in the creativity required to create a large quantity of unique images and as a result I'm quite sure I under-quoted for this. I've taken work I wanted to do for such a low rate that I've actually lost money. I've trusted companies to pay me when working with them for the first time, and then spent hours chasing invoices, including one invoice that is now a year over-due. I spent hours researching and writing an article on a photography-related murder mystery, only for it to not garner the views required to make it remotely worth my while (I earn nothing from people reading this now, so this isn't some cheap ploy to claw back time!). To paraphrase philosopher and meme Michael Jordan, I've failed over and over again and that is why I (will) succeed.
Social media is a relentless procession of achievements and accolades to nobody in particular. And I, as I suspect is the case with most, am guilty of this without any intentions of creating a disingenuous persona; I'm merely sharing what I'm proud of. Conversely, I choose not to share my shortcomings through fear of appearing as if I am seeking attention as opposed to an aversion to presenting balance and the ups and down of self-employment. It is also the result of some embarrassing and juvenile self-consciousness where I wish to be seen as successful. I hope that this article will remind people to see through the guise; social media isn't a measuring tool.
This article might get torn apart in the comments, or fall instantly in to obscurity and never be read. Should that be the case, I'll just add it to the list of failures, so it's win-win for me really. In the most depressing way possible.