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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Self-promotion


Last month I mentioned toward the end of an article entitled ‘The Future of the Profession’ that, “If you are good at what you do, communicate effectively with your clients and advertise your services sufficiently, work will come to you.” The phrase ‘advertise your services sufficiently’ raised an interesting point regarding the murky territory of self-promotion and what I see as a necessary evil in the modern industry of image creation (At the end of this article is also a response to last month’s article written by Denis Hocking). Self-promotion tends to leave a slightly distasteful odour. It conjures up dreadful images of telemarketers and self-promoting television narcissists. Yuck. Done more subtly and with a modicum of humility though, it can be a tentative step into the world of professional photography.

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Photography Today (or the industry as I see it from a very small ledge not particularly far off the ground)

As I wrote last month, there a vast number of photographers out there all scrambling to get as much of the pie as possible. Some only manage to gather up a few crumbs while a very small select few are able to have a mouthful, let alone a whole slice (the Annie Liebowitzes of the world are like the British Monarchy, remarkably few with an extraordinarily overinflated press presence for their number).

A good salesperson is able to walk into a room and sell not only the product but themselves. Now, given two products of equal ability, the buyer is likely to go for the one with the better sell. Particularly if the buyer is unversed in the merits of the product. The better sell could be that there is inferred ‘better deal’ in the one product, call it an extra doodat that comes free or access to free online thingamajigs. Still, sidle into a store and listen to a good salesperson and the buyer doesn’t go for the deal with the most ‘things’, she goes for the product that the good salesperson endorses. It’s shifty admittedly, but often this comes down to which product the salesperson has been asked to clear from the shelves that morning. I speak with a certain amount of unrelated industry experience... as a waiter. In the morning we would be told that we had to sell x dish as we needed to clear inventory. So we sold x dish as if it were the best thing on the menu, despite the fact that it often wasn’t. Oh it wasn’t bad by any means. It was still a good dish, just not necessarily the best. It’s this that gives the whole concept of self-promotion its distastefulness. There’s a rub to the restaurant analogy though. You can bet your bottom dollar that if we had indeed sold the worst dish, our patrons would not have returned. So salesmanship needs to be backed by a good product to start with.

Photography is a business. Selling imagery or the ability to create imagery is a product in as much as a porcelain china tea-set, or a electronic tablet are products. We can get nostalgic and reminisce about the artistic merits of photography and the long line of artists starting with those who first practiced the art - as well as argued that photography was art - as heliographers in the 1830s. The harsh reality though is that the majority of photographers out there make a living, not by being artists, but by being image creating technicians. A friend recently pointed out that he was concerned that I was too busy making a living to have time to be an artist. As the Scots so eloquently put it, “you can’t eat a landscape”. I ruefully admit that my friend was right, but I hope to ultimately prove him wrong. I certainly want to be known as an artist, not a technician.

The thing is unless you are extraordinarily lucky, it is unlikely that some benevolent patron is going to bestow you with a fortune in order to pursue ‘your art’. So we turn back to being image creating technicians striving to be artists. And yes, we can succeed when we use our repressed creativity in creating more than just technical images.

But how do we get someone to notice these artistic images that also work as commercially viable image material?

Tell It To the World!

The imaging world gives the impression of being saturated with practitioners at the moment. It’s on the lips of many photographers that there are simply too many photographers out there. Somehow, as an individual, you have to be noticed amongst the many in order to get some work. Then, once you’ve got that work you need to impress the client enough that they’ll use you again. Problem is that there is very little special about the average photographer who is starting out.

30 years ago most photographers got their start working for the press, or as an assistant to another better known photographer. A very small, tiny minority actually emerged out of nowhere. Today, that’s almost reversed. A lot more - I’d say the majority - of young photographers are starting out solo with their businesses. This means that they have to get their images out there in the wide world so that people can actually see them.

To this effect I see self-promotion as any endeavour where you are essentially self-publishing your work. It’s an attempt to build recognition of your imagery by the public at large. There isn’t a single approach that can be followed to the letter and which guarantees success either. Rather, each photographer’s approach needs to be fine-tuned not only to their own personality, but to the market that they are trying to get into.

Don Giannati’s ‘Lighting-Essentials’ is a great place to look at ideas on how to market yourself as a photographer. A lot of the marketing doesn’t necessarily work for me as I find it can be quite aggressive (self-assertive is another way of looking at it), but I know that if I tried harder, I would have more commercial work.

So these are the things that have worked for me:

Website. Today, if you don’t have a website you don’t exist. If you have been in the industry for 30 years there’s a good chance you have a fairly strong client base. Unless you are one of the top photographers though, you still need to be thinking about growing that base. The website is the first step there. That website also needs to properly SEO’d (Search Engine Optimised) with plenty of text. Text is needed by search engines to actually scan your page for content. Google struggles with images, so your site needs as much textual html coding as possible. 
Blogging. You don’t need to be a website genius in order to blog. It’s a great way to get information on your work out to the public. Because I do a lot of teaching I am regularly putting teaching tips onto my blog. As a result someone landing on the blog may potentially want to take part in a workshop. The commercial examples that I post tell a potential client that I am good enough to have clients and therefore they are not taking a risk by hiring me. So I blog about my work and teaching. A potential client does not want to see a blog about your personal life.
Portfolio. Every opportunity you get you should be trying to show people your portfolio. If you have an interview for a job it’s obvious you should have your portfolio with you. I’ve fast discovered though that an informal discussion at a barbecue is as much an interview as a call to a publishing house. I’ve gotten jobs before because I chatted to somebody at a restaurant. I’m not particularly good at this, but if you have a smart phone or pad, keep a portfolio on it. However, nothing beats print. Make sure that you have a printed portfolio as well.  I landed a recent gig with an advertising firm almost entirely on this point. The art director even commented on the fact that they didn’t see printed portfolios anymore and that it made my work stand out. So print that portfolio. Get a book made. Blurb is really well priced (in South Africa Burblepix is also a good option).
Talk. Early on when I started as a pro I took any opportunity I was given to talk about photography to interest groups and clubs. As a member of a mountain club I gave free talks on how to improve the club members images. This led to more talks at other venues, which led to picking up students and also led to club members referring me for commercial shoots.

What I’ve done is figuratively dip my toe in the ocean when it comes to self-promotion. An article by Jacqueline Tobin (Deputy Editor of PDN) published in Photography Talk is a far more comprehensive look at how to get your work out there and as a result get more work. There are three critical things to realise though: 1) ‘Self-promotion’ is not a dirty word. It is however a necessary evil in todays photographic industry. 2) One approach does not suit all. Every photographer has to work this out for themselves. They actually have to do something, which brings on to; 3) Work does not come to you on it’s own accord. If you don’t get off your proverbial cushion and do something to find work, you will not survive as a photographer. I have been relatively lazy admittedly as I felt for a long time that self-promotion was distasteful. This means that the few things that I have done have taken longer to achieve any kind of promotional affect. That they ultimately have is undeniable though. Today, although there are rough months as any business has, I can comfortably say that I am surviving as a photographer. Flourishing, might be more accurate.

A Response to ‘The Future of the Profession’ - Denis Hocking

I have a very simple view of “photography” which is informed by my previous life i.e. the photographic industry, in its broadest sense, will reinvent itself continually and, in so doing, will offer opportunity to the creative, the flexible and the adaptive. The die-hard sentimentalists will, unfortunately, die-hard.

This applies equally to the manufacturers of equipment, the suppliers of products, the distributors of equipment, the professional/semi-professional/hobbyist photographer, the users of images (media, corporates, homes, agencies) etc etc.

Each of the groups mentioned, and others I haven’t mentioned, are interdependent i.e. the needs of one group will inform and drive the output from another.

From vision (image, product, technology, process etc) to final product, there are a few maxims which, in my book, hold true.

Complacency is no driver of innovation.

Success does not come easy nor guarantee future success.

Ambition without drive and a plan is no more than a dream.

No one person or business, small or large, can be equally good at all of the three Value Principles i.e. Operational Excellence (If you are mining coal, be the best damn coal miner you can be), Product/Process Development ( Innovate to create new standards/push boundaries) and Customer Intimacy (Knowing and understanding the needs of the customer and how you can satisfy them). Know where your strengths are and focus on developing the value in that area whilst neutralising the weakness in the other areas.

And, to plagiarise a superb article in the Harvard Business Review of many years ago, the best way to retain focus and drive to bigger, better, different etc, no matter how good or successful you are, is to create a “mythical competitor”.

Photography, the art, the techniques/processes, the technology etc etc is not dead. It is following the natural life cycle of all businesses and continually reinventing itself. A a result, there will be winners and losers. I know which side I want to be on!

Denis  is a passionate fine art and landscape photographer living in England. He is also a former CEO of Dimension Data. More of his work and writing can seen on his website and blog.
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