Negativity as a Virus and Four Ideas on How to Treat It

It has become a sad trend. Negativity is sweeping through the photography community at a growing and alarming rate, both online in forums and blogs, and on an interpersonal level at industry events and gatherings. More and more photographers are starting to drown in an ocean of self-loathing, scapegoating, fear, blame, and complacent laziness. It’s a self-propagating problem. Negativity spreads like a disease; to other photographers, to our clients, to our fans, and to the viewing public.

When I started out in this business I would occasionally run into people in the industry who would take one look at me, a student coming out of school and into the business, and would take me aside and attempt to discourage me from pursuing photography as a career. It was not a rare thing to hear “Don’t get into photography, it’s a dying business.”  I could never discern their individual motives. Were they taking turbulence in the industry hard, fearing the end of their career and livelihood and projecting it  on to others? Did they view new emerging photographers as a threat to their market? Had they stopped evolving as artists and creatives, blaming the changing wants and aesthetic needs of the industry for their own unwillingness to break set habits and move into new creative territories? Whatever the reason, some people are just not aware of how this can affect other people. I am sad to say that it affected me. After a few year of hearing this, I really started to doubt having any future in this business at all. I was convinced that the photography industry was on its last legs and that any attempt to move forward in it was hopeless. In fact, I even left the photography industry for some time to work for a manufacturing firm. It took years for me to realize just how strong my want to be a photographer  really was. Thankfully, I was able to make the move back into photography as a career. And while it is a tough and extremely competitive business, I find myself much happier, more excited about work, and generally more positive than I have been in years.

Rather than telling someone this, we should encourage emerging photographers more, both to excel in their work as well as to learn proper business acumen so that they can enter the world more prepared to work in this industry. Competition is a glorious thing, and while I can understand the motivations that create the fear of already small markets becoming more saturated that some photographers seem to exhibit, I do not agree with it. It’s a much more positive action to foster creativity in others, to push them to grow as artists. Their growing skill and success should push you to improve your own work and business skills to stay competitive. We can never become complacent or lazy. If we stagnate as artists (and indeed in this day and age we are artists and not merely technicians) then can we really blame an industry’s fickle tastes and rapidly evolving aesthetics for moving past us quickly?

Another common complaint I hear that saddens me is the claim that “The industry does not respect photographers anymore”. If you want people to respect what you do, give them something to respect you for. Complaining to others about the changes in the industry is pointless. Complaining accomplishes nothing at all. It’s a waste of energy that could be better spent creating new work to make clients respect you for the value you bring to their projects. Time better spent marketing to clients on a personal level, impressing them with the enthusiasm and energy that you can bring to their accounts, selling not just your work, but yourself to them. This seems to be an idea that has escaped a lot of photographers. Yes, the business has changed, and we must change with it. Not in terms of compromising our business ethics. One should always stick to their guns in terms of the policies that they have set forth to run their business, but rather we should find new ways to adapt these business practices to meet the needs of changing business climate. We must examine and experiment with new business and pricing models to work with clients and not for them or in some extremely negative scenarios, against them. We should be creating new bodies of intelligent work that reminds our clients of our talents, skills, and abilities, demonstrating value beyond mere technical skill or pricing. You cannot demand respect. It must be earned, and the best way to do this is by demonstrating consistent and ambitious value to the people you want to respect you.

It seems that so many resort to negativity because it is the path of least resistance. It is so much easier to spend our time focusing on the negative aspects of our life and business than it is to proactively do something positive to improve our work. It’s always easier to blame someone else for change than ourselves for our own difficulties in adapting. Sadly, I have even been witness to photographers, both experienced and inexperienced, complaining to potential clients on their blogs and even in person about the changes in the industry and about the difficulty of making a living in an extremely competitive climate. In many ways this is more harmful to our business than any industry-wide changes could ever be, It makes us appear as falsely entitled, spoiled, and bummed out children. Why would any client, anywhere, want to deal with someone who does nothing but bring a sense of doom to what they do? Negativity breeds more negativity, and it’s becoming a vicious cycle that is sucking more and more photographers in. Nothing bums me out more than seeing a group of photographers gathered at an industry event, spending their time complaining to each other, all the while oblivious to the fact that they were surrounded by potential clients whom they could be setting up meetings with.

Thankfully, there are some things that I have found that help me avoid falling into this trap, and even help others to combat it on occasion.

Encourage Others to Excel

Learning by teaching can be a fantastic tool. It can help us come to realizations about ourselves and our own work that we may not have arrived at independently. If you see someone exhibiting such negative behavior, do your best to help them overcome it. Be available to offer suggestions and answer questions. You might be surprised at how listening to someone else’s problems can help you find ways to solve your own. Listening is a lost skill, just be careful not to become a constant sounding board for the terminally negative. You’ll find yourself getting dragged down faster than you know.  Encouraging others to excel also fosters a wonderful sense of competition. The better the people around us, the harder we have to push ourselves to improve and succeed. It’s easy to walk to the top of a hill, but its much more rewarding and beneficial to summit a mountain.

Surround Yourself with Intelligent and Positive Influences

Not just in your personal life, but in your business life as well. A great attitude can go a long way and can improve the mood and outlook of others as well. One of the most helpful things I had ever done for my business was to put together an extremely skilled and supporting group of peers, crew, and mentors. People who gave intelligent and positive advice that pushed me to excel and make intelligent decisions. For instance, a few months ago I decided that I wanted to start working with an experienced and knowledgeable consultant that could offer an objective opinion of my body of work and help me develop a more cohesive marketing program. I eventually decided to work with Amanda Sosa Stone, not only because of her excellent track record and insight, but because her enthusiasm for what she does and for what I am doing is utterly infectious. In my early conversations with her I would find myself giddy with excitement to implement her ideas and advice, even more so when they began to have positive tangible effects.

Another great example is Nubby Twiglet, the designer who developed my visual identity. I have become a daily reader of Nubby’s blog since I started working with her. Her writings have become extremely influential to me and the way I think about my business, my work, and how I am a major part of my brand. Blog posts like this and this have stayed with me long after I originally read them and I have found myself revisiting them periodically. I had the pleasure of interviewing Nubby on this blog a few months back with the goal of helping photographers who were looking to work with a graphic designer for the first time and it was an insightful and stirring source of information.

Never Stop Learning

Stagnation is a terrible thing. We have to strive to never stop learning and gaining new knowledge to avoid it. This is a wide-reaching topic that can cover many areas of your life. In the arena of business, read blogs from forward thinkers in the subjects of marketing and sales. In photography, experiment more and push yourself beyond your comfort zone. Shoot more personal work without thought to end use, but rather because you enjoy the act and craft of it Take pictures and build projects around things that matter to you, that you connect with on a deep and personal level. Read more, you would be surprised at how much a good book can get your mind working. Watch films that inspire you and seek influence from your other creative outlets and passions to feed back into your photography. Read self-help books like Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art which can help you combat your own internal resistance and creative fears. Never be afraid to ask questions of others and to learn from people both more and less experienced from you.

Get Good — Really Good

There is no quicker road to negativity than mediocrity and the downward pull of inertia dragging your attitude down. An object at rest wants to stay at rest. Beat this by pushing yourself to grow. Just finished a project you are exceptionally proud of? That’s great, now get out there and try to create something even better. You will find yourself more excited to create new work when you challenge yourself. You will learn from the mistakes you made in the past and actively improve on them, rather than repeating them over and over. One of my favorite quotes on this subject, ever, comes from Steve Martin.

Be undeniably good. When people ask me how do you make it in show business or whatever, what I always tell them and nobody ever takes note of it ‘cuz it’s not the answer they wanted to hear — what they want to hear is here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script, here’s how you do this — but I always say, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” If somebody’s thinking, “How can I be really good?”, people are going to come to you. It’s much easier doing it that way than going to cocktail parties.

Take this to heart. Get better and better until you cannot be ignored anymore. Strive to be so undeniably good at what you do that people will have no choice other than to pay attention, Add value to this by being the type of person that others want to work with, one who makes the people around them more excited to create something wonderful. Bring enthusiasm to everything you do and strive to deliver more than what is asked of you. Don’t be afraid to put your work our there for others to see, whatever your own doubts or negative feelings might be. No one can notice you if you hide in the shadows. Do not ever be afraid to (as photography consultant Leslie Burns puts it in her book) “Tell The World you Don’t Suck

Quick Questions With Smart People – Sean Armenta: Photographer

Sean Armenta is a beauty and fashion photographer from the Los Angeles area. His formidable client list includes Paul Mitchell, Wet Seal, Arden B, and Paul Frank to name a few. He has also been featured in numerous publications including Flaunt, InStyle, Vibra, Elle Germany, Sphere, and Want. Sean has a wonderful reputation on the web amongst fellow photographers, especially for his willingness to help other shooters, share advice, and answer technical questions. In addition to his active shooting schedule,  Sean regularly teaches his Prep to Post beauty photography workshops all over the country.

LC: Sean, in terms of marketing ones work,  especially within the beauty and fashion markets, what have been some of the more effective marketing techniques for you in communicating your work and point of view to your clients? What is a good starting point for those emerging photographers who are taking their first steps in getting their work in front of potential clients?

SA: I think above all your work should speak for itself and about yourself. Your work should be relevant to the industry you are trying to work in, and current to our time without being gimmicky and overly trendy. You need to keep an eye on what’s going on out there by seeing who is shooting what and why. Who is shooting a lot of covers?  Who is shooting the top campaigns?  It is more often than not a small group of 5 or so photographers who are producing the bulk of the work. You have to be able to understand why they are the flavor of the week, month, or year. This will help you determine what the industry is looking for stylistically.

In producing your portfolio, quality over quantity is the best rule to go by.  You must be able to edit your work without any personal or emotional connection to it. Needless to say much thought needs to go into your final portfolio that you will be showing potential clients, everything from layout to packaging must be considered. You must also do research on the clientele you are targeting. Is the work you are presenting relevant to their product and something their Art Buyers are looking to use?  If I am meeting with a new client, I will specifically create a customized portfolio just for them. Why would I show 20 fashion images to a cosmetics company?

When it comes to your online presence, simple really is best. You want YOUR work to stand out, not the design of your website.  It must be easy to navigate, clean and straightforward. People don’t want to spend half an hour trying to figure out how to get to your images. It does help to categorize your images into, say, Fashion, Beauty, Lifestyle, Still Life, etc.  It does not help you however, to be a jack of all trades. Having one website that encompasses everything from Weddings to Fashion to Automotive to Table Top photography only shows your client that you do not know what it is you really want to shoot. Clients want to know you are great at what they specifically need, not decent at all types of photography.

Blogs are a great way to show clients your personality and to keep them updated about your growth as an artist. Keep it professional but allow your personality to shine through. Post something about all your shoots, meetings, etc. People like to know what you are doing to advance your career.

I’m no marketing genius by any means – in fact most of my clients were acquired through word of mouth; clients referring me to other clients. The most important thing I have learned is this: Someone else talking about you is always better than you talking about yourself because it gives you validity.

LC: So many emerging photographers fall into the trap of letting their clients undervalue their work, or even worse, undervaluing their own work. How important is it for them to present their work as worthwhile and valuable to their clients? How can they not fall into the trap of letting their fears of success or failure stop them from even trying?

SA: I
just had a meeting last week with a global cosmetics company. After doing my presentation they asked what my rate would be for the campaign, so I handed them a written estimate. The long awkward silence that followed told me that my quote was above what they were prepared to pay. The VP of marketing said something I have never heard a client say, and is usually what we say to clients. She said, “This quote is outside of what our budget is, but seeing your work I understand why it is this rate. You get what you pay for, and we must be doing something wrong because we have been dissatisfied with our marketing materials.”

Never ever sell yourself short. Lowballing only shows desperation and undervalues your work. Show clients a quality of work that will elevate their brand.  Present yourself in a confident and professional manner. Show passion for what it is you do. Do research on the clients you are trying to reach out to, find out what their marketing needs are, and see what you can do to meet their needs. Photographs are the most important aspect of marketing.  It is what consumers see first and what they relate to. Photographs make people buy products.

LC: You are known for working with a reliable core support team, how important is it for photographers just  starting out to build the kind of relationships with stylists, producers, and assistants that will surround them with a team that cares as much about the final outcome of the production as a whole? What are good places from these photographers to start finding talented team members to work with.

SA: Building a core team of artists (Hair, Makeup, Styling, etc) is all important in our industry, especially during your developmental stage as a photographer. I believe that fashion and beauty photography is very much a collaborative environment. You are only as good as the people you work with. One of the most important things I learned early on was to seek out artists that were at a level above my own, and through working with those people I learned so much about the industry, and their experience elevated my work. I think we should always be in a constant state of learning, as this is the only way to grow as an artist. Team building is a huge part of what I teach at my workshops because casting the right crew is what makes or breaks the success of a shoot. I think we need to return to a sense of community with each other, and this is really the best way to seek out people to work with. Ask your peers for referrals of who they like to work with. Strive to produce the kind of work that will make other artists want to work with you.

LC: Looking back on your own career, do you remember any mistakes or lessons that you had to learn early on? If you had to guide another photographer though them in the simplest terms; what would be your top three do’s and dont’s you have learned throughout your career?

SA: I think it’s so important to be genuinely nice to everyone. No one wants to work with an asshole no matter how great their work may be. Be the person people want to work with and be around and treat people the way you would like to be treated.

DO
Take a business and marketing class
Save your money and do not rack up debt
Keep your overhead as low as possible


DON’T
Don’t sell yourself short
Don’t be afraid to take risks with your work
Don’t get comfortable with your current situation

LC: How important is it to strike a balance between ones own vision and taste and between creating a consistent and marketable visual style? should photographers be letting editors and buyers dictate their style to a great degree, or should they actively be going after the clients who they think are right for them and their preexisting look?

SA: While it is very important to be able to show your own vision while staying marketable, during the beginning of your career it is not as important as showing you are able to deliver what the client wants. I think too much emphasis is put on developing one’s own “signature style” too early in their career and they become a one-trick pony. Your work will eventually be identifiable to you because of your approach to your subject, not because of a specific “look” created by a certain lighting setup or post production effect. That, to me, is gimmicky and trendy. Don’t fall into the trap of forcing yourself to create your style which will only limit your growth as an artist and show clients your lack of versatility and flexibility.

I don’t think we should be letting editors or buyers dictate our style per se, but what you have to understand is that talent and skill only gets our foot in the door. At the end of the day we still need to deliver the needs of the client. With that said, of course we ought to seek those clients whose image matches the style of work we produce and whom we are most passionate about working with.