I’m going to start off this article with a disclaimer. It’s entirely possible that I have no idea what I’m talking about when it comes to your personal direction within the photo industry. I’ll explain why in a bit.
Over the last year, my exposure within the photojournalism community has been somewhat elevated for probably a couple of different reasons. Our recent expansion to San Francisco with Scott Strazzante, and my work with the National Press Photographers Association. I guess in some people’s minds this equates to “I don’t know who he is, and I’m not familiar with his work, but he must be doing something right.”
Wrong…but more on that in a moment.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a pretty straightforward guy. What you see is what you get. While I do have SOME type of filter on me, I’m never been afraid to speak my mind. Some people confuse my straightforward honesty with being a know-it-all asshole, and while I’d like to think I know a lot about a lot, I really don’t. It’s more like, I know a little about a lot of different things because I’ve lived a very interesting and varied life until now. I’ve seen a lot of things, and have a keen sense of what works and what doesn’t.
My friends, people who have known me for years…know my style. They say things like, “The one thing you never have to worry about is Brian telling you exactly how he feels,” or “Don’t ever worry about where you stand with him…if he doesn’t like you, he has no problem telling you.” And my personal favorite, “He’s a dick, but he’s a dick with a heart of gold…he means well, but his delivery needs work.”
All true. It’s a trait I inherited from my mother, and I’m guessing she got it from her mother, and so on. That side of the family was always outspoken and unafraid to tell you anything. Granted, it might not be the best trait, but it’s what was given to me.
However, for people who seek my counsel on all things photography, this can rub them the wrong way. We’re an industry of egotists, ESPECIALLY those just starting out who have been told by their friends how great they are, and how “P” is the best setting on the camera EVER.
We all start out bad, and after the first two or three “accidentally” awesome pictures we make…the bug doesn’t go away. Some people are born with the eye, and some aren’t. As Judge Smails from Caddyshack put it so succinctly all those years ago, “the world needs ditchdiggers too…”
It’s not a bad thing, it’s just the truth.
Ok, so with that being said…back to why I don’t really know anything, I just know what works for me.
While doing portfolio reviews at the 2017 Northern Short Course in Photojournalism, a burgeoning photojournalist who happens to be from my neck of the woods signed up to sit with me. They’re in their late 30s and want nothing more than to be a working photojournalist. They have a good eye, and I have no doubt they’d be good with some additional training. They asked if I’d be willing to meet with them locally and talk more. I agreed, and did so last week.
I approached the meeting the same way I used to do my show prep when I was working in radio. Did a bit of research, mentally prepared questions to ask them in order to gauge their skill level, not only with a camera, but also to see how capable they are to pull stories out of people without being overt about it.
Anytime I sit with someone…be it a portfolio review, or a one on one about direction…my first question is always the same. “So, before we even talk about your photos, why don’t you tell me a little about yourself…” which loosely translates to, “Let me see how well you can tell the story of you…”
This an old radio trick. I get them to tell me some of their backstory, and then I know where to prod and probe during the interview itself. It gives me great insight into the person across from me, so I’ve adapted it for photography. I look for the tells in their face. Smirks, smiles, and worry lines. This has always been my one superpower as a photographer. I can see a moment coming on someone’s face before it happens.
Over the next hour, I laid out the dismal landscape of what they’d be getting into. Late in life, wrong equipment, little to no experience. How it would be hard to find someone to take them on as an intern because they were WELL past those days. Explained that if you’re going to be freelancing you have to do stupid things like incorporate, get insurance, pay quarterly taxes so you don’t get nailed at tax time. I gave the doomsday speech I always give. There was no bullshit. I spoke about uncles, friends, and bloggers with point and shoots that would undercut them at every turn. I spoke plainly about how much the next few years will hurt as you start to establish yourself in an industry that is constantly changing and evolving, and not always for the better. I gave it my dystopian best and watched their face the entire time. The frowns, the worry lines…I watched it all.
I then handed them my camera, messed up all the settings and said, “You have 10 shots to make a halfway decent portrait of me…go!”
They did all the right things technically…honed in on the lighting, moved around a little bit…messed with the settings and handed the camera back to me.
Guess the one thing they never did?
They never talked to me, never engaged me, never even asked me to move.
I asked them, how can they get the story if they never ask a question, never engage the person. Photojournalism isn’t just about getting the base story of a protest, or a march, or a parade. Just like photography isn’t just about taking a picture of someone. You need to be able to bring their personality out…ask them questions, put them at ease…you need to find out their story.
In my own honest way, I said as much. I wasn’t sure how they took it, but as the song says, “I gotta be me!”
A few days later, I got this email…and in part it said:
“Many thanks for giving up your time to meet with me. Your no-BS style of giving advice is quite rare, definitely motivation-inducing and greatly appreciated.”
“I'm working towards upping my gear and will make a serious effort to improve my people skills/confidence level. I'll be in touch along the way.”
“Thanks again for your support and guidance.”
Here’s the takeaway. I don’t know a lot about a lot. I do know that once upon a time, I was them. I was the one on the other side of the table with minimal photography experience, looking to make a monumental shift in my professional life. I know I went to a friend and mentor who had done nothing in their professional life BUT photography. A man who took the time to sit with me and say, "This business isn't for everyone, but for the ones it shines on, even the bad days are good when you're doing what you love."
I know that for 11 years, I’ve managed to go from just starting out without a single client, much less a way to recruit some, to who I am now. I pass on the wisdoms that have been passed on to me, as well as those I’ve discovered along the way.
If you’re looking to have smoke blown up your ass on how awesome it all is, and how you have what it takes to be a photographer, you need to talk to someone else. But for those precious few who hear the truth and still want to move into the unknown…you’re welcome to reach out to me at any time!
And to those few: Come on in. Welcome to the club. We meet every fifth Wednesday, have really cool club jackets with your nickname embroidered on it (mine’s Flounder), and occasionally give awards to each other for a job well done.