As I see it, you get in bed with the client or you get in bed with the industry. Take your pick. But good luck having it both ways. In the old economy, it was all about the gatekeepers. Spread the word, make the money, cash out if you could. Everyone needed an exit strategy. But now, it’s the age of plenty. There’s another way, and we are wasting it, mired in the past. The leash is gone, but we don’t know we’re free. Don’t be fooled, though. There’s a new storm brewing, and the industry machine hasn’t gone away. It has just changed. So if you want to get in on it, make it big, and cruise down easy street, or let’s call it workshop way (and who doesn’t want to do that? Heck, I want to run workshops), you still have your chance. But it’s not about the gatekeepers anymore. It’s about reaching the audience. That’s the door that will let you slip out the back and do it your way.
Want to build an audience fast? You do it through the blogs. The blogs. Always, the bridal blogs. They are the modern gatekeepers. They control the flow of information. Respect their power. They reach the audience fast. But there’s a price to pay. It’s a hard ride to leave. Once you start, you work for them. The alternative? Trust your clients. Don’t underestimate your own audience. They are wily and strong-willed. They will look, and they will find. Even without the blogs. It’s the long tail – that part of the audience that cares beyond the hits, beyond the popular. The internet is liquid, and people seeking will find. You only need 40 couples a year, after all. Probably less. The long tail is durable, because it is about fans. True fans. Not the type you build up in a click or through a contest. Not the type you get from interrupting Facebook streams with a cheer and a shout-out. The type you get, because you amaze them. You inspire them. You become part of their lives. And the best part is that the better you become at being yourself, the more your fans will give back to you in return.
So you reach out and you grab the bull by the horns, you get yourself featured, followed, tweeted, and liked. You’re on the way. Good. But this is the question. Are you following the industry? Or is the industry following you? Sure, in principle, you can do both. But at heart, you’ve got to make the call. You either do it for yourself. That connection deep down and dark, where it’s about you, relationships, and the world around – where it is about constant challenge and every shot changes you, because it makes you see differently. Or you do it for them. Everyone else. Where it is about being impressive. Where the world will adore you. Where you can do the exact same thing, again and again, because the tricks don’t grow old when your audience is always fresh. Follow the industry, though, and you can never find yourself. You can only chase a wave after it’s crested, trying to catch the money before it crashes.
If you chase the wave, your client becomes your creative director. It goes from the companies to the media to the brides, and the brides fund the whole venture. So everyone is guessing what will make it all work for them. In other words, a bride – no imaging expert by any means – has just told you how to do your craft. There’s no longevity in that. That’s not progress. That’s purgatory.
Don’t believe it’s that way? Then tell me that in the absence of blogs and magazines that the wedding world would still be all about the detail shots. Tell me that style shoots would still be on the rampage, leaving people running for cover in their wake. Tell me that there would be the same fetish for that delicately perched inanimate object in exquisite natural light. Tell me that you can tell a bride that when she wants a shot just like the one she saw featured from a concept shoot done last week of the couple having the Mad Men-style picnic that it really isn’t all that creative. The people who created Mad Men were that creative. The rest of us are taking a ride on their coattails.
We are photographers. We are visualists. We are creators. We don’t capture memories. We make them. We don’t capture the world. We create our own. That’s the power of vision. The work we do can be more than a blot on the unending road of popular culture. Make a dent in the universe. Wedding photography can matter now. It can influence. It’s the only place for photographers to take shelter. It used to be wars and community. Politics, art, and fashion. But the wells are drying up in front of our eyes. Photography budgets are dead. It is weddings, for better or for worse. We do it for us, or we do it for them. If we do it for us, the curve doesn’t matter. We matter. And by doing it that way, our clients matter. Truly matter, because there is nothing better you can give than the truest, innermost part of yourself. The industry doesn’t care about that part of you. If you start to second guess and shoot for the crowd-pleasers, the sure-things, the magazines, and the blogs, then you’re lost. You can never lead. In the end, either you chase your clients or your clients chase you.
Find yourself in 13 steps
1. Be true to the art. The art powers it. It’s not a flash to the side, a quilt on a couple, or a texture on an image. Those are just techniques. Techniques have no soul. You do. Art does.
2. Don’t rush it. Faster isn’t always better. You start on a path, and it’s hard to get off, so if you push too hard, you get lost before you know it. Build the word by letting people in on what you do. Be true to it. Make them need you.
3. Do something for people who follow you. Find ways to reach out and make yourself and not just your art part of their lives. You are only successful because of the people who believe in you.
4. Learn. See how you can make photography your own. See what ways other photographers have used the craft to connect with people. We’re talking about the history books – great photographers have meant so much to so many, they’re part of the history books. There’s way more than just impressing people. Get under their skin and in their head, and you’ll always have a following.
5. Take a stand. If you have no position, you’re not digging in enough. Everyone has a viewpoint. Every has something to say. Find your voice.
6. Forget about pretty. You want beautiful. And beautiful can be ugly.
7. Learn technique, copy inspiration. If you do it the other way around, you’re back on the wave.
8. Get people to hate you. Nothing can be that great if no one hates it.
9. Make things that shouldn’t work, work. Every great idea was something most people thought wouldn’t work at one point. Salt on caramel? Who does that? Until someone does. Flare? That’s a lens defect, right? You learn about yourself when you walk to the edge, and jump off to see what happens. Otherwise, you discover nothing new.
10. Believe in people, believe in yourself. Belief powers everything in the world. It gives you the stamina to make it through. It lets people see the best you there is. It lets you become what you’re not quite yet. Trust that if you put it out there, people will get it. Some will. Many won’t. Don’t worry about the many. They’ll come around if you stay focused on the some who do.
11. Forget about money. We’ve all got bills to pay. Pay them. But you’re more important than the money. You, your time, your self is everything. Protect it by any means necessary.
12. Rest. There’s enough pressure as it is. Give yourself the time to digest.
13. Don’t be a chicken shit. OK, this one is just a reminder for myself. But it works, right?