Welcome to our 7th series of posts where we share the results from our conversations held directly with community leaders about top of mind photo-industry issues. Community Table was formed from the collective efforts of Matt Nycz and Kate Chase of Brite Productions and Heather Elder and Lauranne Lospalluto of Heather Elder Represents with the idea that there is nothing more powerful in our industry than education.
This particular roundtable was a series of exciting firsts for The Community Table. It was the first time we invited photographers and it was the first time we included a partner. So, it is with excitement that The Community Table, along with our partner, The Workbook, welcome 11 photographers from our community to the table.
Suzanne Semnacher, the Workbook’s Director of Marketing, has interacted with countless photographers over the years and because of that has had such varied conversations with them all that she was the perfect person to write our introduction.
“As I listened to the discussion and the individual experiences of the participants I was reminded of what it really takes to be an entrepreneur in a demanding business that has seen such change over the last 20 years. This group of photographers has not only survived but continues to thrive doing something they clearly love, while at the same time, many were buying homes, having babies, sending children to college and living full and busy lives.
Having worked with literally thousands of photographers throughout my 34 years in this business, I have seen a lot of evidence that this is not as easy as it looks. It takes a fine balance of creative thinking, the soft skills required to manage people, and the business acumen to make a profit while doing it. I want to thank each of the photographers who participated in the Roundtable for sharing their unique experiences and perspectives.
There was a fair amount of discussion about the challenges of staying relevant in a career, which to outsiders might look easy. But the level of experience it takes to stay focused on the idea or a concept while managing a crew of assistants, digital tech, hair, makeup artist and stylist, location, props, wardrobe, and all the pre and post and yet make it all look authentic and effortless is no easy task.
It is our hope that the Photographers Roundtable will provide insight on what it takes to excel in the business as well as reinforce the power and the value of great photography.”
As a reminder, each Conversation Starter was directed to one person with a general discussion ensuing. Rather than sharing the entire conversation, we included the original question and then the quotes and notes that were most relevant. Please note, often times the person leading the conversation spoke most often.
Please note, there will be 5 posts shared over the next few weeks. Tune in every Tuesday and Thursday for the latest installments.
And with that, we welcome you back to the table.
What is the most challenging aspect of being a photographer, running a business that you were unprepared for?
Paul Aresu: I think the most challenging thing is to find new and interesting clients to work with.
Was I unprepared? Well, I came from a long line of photographers, my grandfather and father, so that question is unfair for me to answer. I grew into this job because I was surrounded by it all the time. And, because of my teaching experience, I see how unprepared many students are for being an entrepreneur, being social and being friendly. That’s so innate to me to be that kind of person.
You have to sell yourself and not depend on your rep. The call, the treatment, on set, at an event, you are constantly selling yourself. I knew that going in so I wouldn’t say I wasn’t prepared.
But the challenge is getting new clients for me and I think for everybody here. You want really terrific clients. You want to do some great work. You want to go on vacation, to go to Hawaii to shoot that stuff you want to shoot.
Kate Chase/Agent: I heard that The Academy of Art is now having their students play on intramural teams so that they can learn how to be team players. They didn’t know how to do this before.
Paul Aresu: To help prepare my students, I set up role-playing in the studio. I play a photographer and an art director. They face back to back. Make a call to this art director you want to get art from. We go through the motions. By the end of the semester they all know how to make a phone call. It’s not obvious to young photographers.
Kevin Arnold: I wasn’t prepared for the fact that as I got busier, I would struggle to find the balance between the business side and finding time to shoot. So much time is eaten up by estimating jobs and marketing. All of a sudden a few days have gone just working on a treatment for a job you may or may not get. When you’re young, you have tons of time to shoot because you’re not working as much. I really thought I’d get to a point where I’d be shooting all the time and somebody else would be doing the marketing. It doesn’t work that way. But I really believe that you have to remind yourself: I don’t make money and I don’t do well if I’m not shooting.
Heather Elder/Agent: A lot of photographers are surprised by how long their to-do list has grown. Your path to that job is no longer. There’s so much more required of you. You don’t have the time to do it. You get bogged down and restricted. It’s a real challenge that you all have. As agents, we aren’t that helpful either because we need that new work from you. I also need you to do treatments and sign your contracts and help with the estimate. I need your ads and your next mailers too. Oh, and that blog post. Yes, I need that too. It’s a flawed, challenging model. You can never cross it all off of your list. The items never go away.
I just want to point out that every question we are answering comes back to creating new work. You define your success by it, you win new clients with it and you use it to market. I hope that we can all walk away from this today remembering that you NEED to set boundaries for your self and carve out time to be able to create that new work. It is what keeps you happy, gives you that pocket full of cash, the work we need to advertise, your inventory. ‘
Kevin Arnold: I think another challenge is hiring good people. It is really hard to do that. And once you do, they are hard to keep.
Stewart Cohen: The whole idea of running a business is what you’re unprepared for at first. We all started with a dream and all of a sudden it is ten years later and we have achieved that dream because we have relevant photography. But now what? It’s you do next that is important. It is how you make it into a career.
We were in Mexico and this guy had all these old Workbooks on a shelf going way back to the 90’s. I was looking at all the names. Those people around this table are still here. But 90% of the others in those books are gone. We prepare to get to a certain level and after that, how does one figure out what’s next.
Kate Chase/Agent: Mentorship is so important. I have a business coach to keep me motivated. Making sure you have somebody who keeps you accountable and driving forward. There is so much that you are unprepared for that when it hits you it is hard.
Paul Aresu: It takes a certain personality – you need a right brain and a left-brain to succeed. I see so many better photographers than me all the time. But people like to work with me because they like me, I can get the job done. I am easy to shoot with and fun to be around.
What is something surprising about your expenses and cost of doing business that you would want people who hire you to understand?
Walter Smith: There are really no surprises. When it comes to doing business, I realize when we approach these projects – I get whatever information I get, talk it through with everybody and move on. I keep the whole estimating process as friendly as possible. If something comes up, we just put it on the table from the get-go so there’s nothing to worry about later. We’re usually on budget. I like to keep it a friendly process. There are no surprises to it.
Do certain line items ever get pushed back to you?
A cost consultant will question prices all the time. Rentals always throw up a red flag. Insurance too. Even model fees. Oddly though, they won’t question $500 catering. When we get pushed back, we don’t push it right back to them. We educate them a little bit. A large part of the estimating process is education.
I actually love the estimating process. I taught for a semester at Drexel and learned a lot about this. The younger photographers don’t know how to handle or recover from rejection. When you are a veteran, you have experienced something going sour somewhere along the line, and you end up with an experience you can learn from. The younger generation doesn’t have the experience or the tools to move past that though. From any kind of failure, you have to find some nugget in there to grow from.
Vincent Dixon: Ultimately they don’t tend to last terribly long though. I assisted photographers who didn’t deal with well rejection 20 and 30 years ago. They didn’t survive because of that. When you consider the amount of marketing we do, you don’t often get great results but that’s the way it is for everyone at some point. So if you take it personally, it doesn’t do any good – it’s only important if it’s important to you.
Walter Smith: You have to do marketing. I gave up the idea I’m going to get anything out of it other than educating them. I used to love to get phone calls and have the 5 minutes conversation. Now I go to Google analytics. It can be really lonely sometimes, sitting there looking at the computer. It’s awful.
We are all here because we’ve done it for a long time. We re-invented it a little when we needed to. I always know when I have an up-year there’s going to be that downturn. Success, money, you have to take care of your financial responsibility. But I look at what did I hang up on my wall, what’s living in my kitchen. Those are the kind of successes I measure. If I spend any more time trying to measure business success, I’d never leave the house. No one ever talks about rejection or that job that goes bad. Everybody’s had some form of it but no one ever talks about it. We have to own that rejection.
Kate Chase/Agent: Speaking of rejection, do you want your bad news filtered?
Walter Smith: You have to be able to handle the truth whether it is email or face-to-face. You have to look at the big picture and ask what went wrong? What is happening behind the scenes?
Kate Chase/Agent: How do you process it?
Walter Smith: I think about it. I talk to other folks about it. Susan, my wife and I will go for a walk and talk about it. I love my career and have been making pictures since I was 12 so I know that what’s really important is who you surround yourself with; family, kids, animals, crew, home environment, whatever works. Photography is my life but if you don’t have a life outside of your work then you will be lost.
Heather Elder/Agent: I represent 8 photographers and we bid a lot of jobs, so I am used to the emails coming through with bad news.
Most times, the email is just, “Thanks for your time, we went in another direction,” or something similar. It is rare when we get a phone call and it is rare when there is real insight as to why. Even if they would just add one or two more sentences as to why, it would go a long way. People avoid that conversation. I wish they wouldn’t.
Stewart Cohen: It’s either style, money, or you blew the call.
Heather Elder/Agent: Sometimes it’s deeper than that. Sometimes they can offer more information.
Kevin Arnold: Often time there is someone who wanted you on that job, so we might hear from them on how we could have done better.
Paul Aresu: It’s really uncomfortable for them to call a photographer and say they didn’t get the job. It may be different when they call agents. From a photographer point of view, when an art buyer says you didn’t get it, you can’t really ask any more questions without running the risk of being seen as needy.
Heather Elder/Agent: As a photographer or a rep, we have to learn how to take rejection (although I don’t really think that word is accurate). The why is incredibly valuable information.
But times have evolved and email protects you from having the hard conversations. Even when I ask for more insight, I often do not hear back. They have either moved on or don’t want to answer.
Hunter Freeman: Before email, there would be phone call opportunities. I would think the conversation would be harder on the phone. Email should make it easier to let someone one and to elaborate a bit as to why. We were invited to the party – let us know how it went.
Heather Elder: I think many just don’t know how to write that email or offer the most helpful feedback.
Hunter Freeman: Some art buyers feel badly. They avoid it.
Lisa Adams: Do you think they always know?
Unattributed: Yes, they always know something.
Stewart Cohen: Yes. There’s always a discussion.
Matt Nycz/Agent: Everyone now has to put a lot more effort into any bidding. Sometimes it’s multiple phones calls different versions of a treatment. If you spend 5-6 hours working on the treatment and estimate, it is a little harder to get that no. You know that going in, there’s a chance you’re not going to get that job.
Heather Elder/Agent: Maybe if you don’t have a solid reason, maybe just the acknowledgement that you worked really hard?
Hunter Freeman: Our time is our inventory and it is always nice to have that be acknowledged in a meaningful way.
Thanks for reading. We hope this has been of value. Tune in on Thursday, April 30th for our 4th installment where we’ll discuss TREATMENTS and USAGE as well what modern-day problems they are working to solve.
And to see previous Community Tables posts from Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City, Chicago and Minneapolis, go here: