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