I’m a big believer that you can learn a lot from the people you work with. When I was in graduate school I worked for a gentleman one summer that taught me a lot. Oddly enough, the important thing I learned from him had nothing to do with the actual job. It’s something he told me when we were talking about golf. It was that time of year and the big golf tournaments were well under way. I had heard him mention he played golf a lot during the summer, so I thought I would make some conversation about the big names in the game so I could get to know him a little bit. His response to that was really surprising. He really wasn’t interested in talking about the pro tournaments. He said to me, “you know, I don’t really follow other peoples games, I would rather participate.”
This conversation stuck with me over the years. The desire to be part of something is a very natural thing. The problem is that much of society focuses on the celebrity culture and diminishes the importance of the regular folks. I assumed since my boss liked golf that he would automatically want to talk about the pros. Nope, he wanted to play. He didn’t care that he wasn’t a pro caliber player or that he didn’t have a personal yes man carrying his bags. He loved golf because it enriched his life and made him happy. The exact same reason you love photography. You want to be part of the picture show.
The Photography Picture Show
Whether you’re capturing your moments as still images, video or some other way, you’re trying to be part of the growing picture show. Just because you are a professional, doesn’t mean that you have exclusive rights to be in that show. It actually means something very close to the opposite. If you are a professional photographer, your job is to get as many people involved in photography as possible. This isn’t necessarily true of every industry, but we’re not concerned with every industry, we’re talking about photography. People love photography and they want a piece of the action.
Most people view the photography profession as fun and exciting. It’s the kind of job someone will say they wanted at one time, but decided to be a lawyer instead. This means they’re going to live out their little dream through you. They want to taste a bit of that life they left behind before they go back to their grind. It’s very much in your interest to oblige their desires. If you succeed, you’ll be their gateway to that dream and they will return to you. If not, they will look elsewhere.
Elitism is Bad Business
Far too many industries succumb to the mistake of elitism as the solution for competition. If you look at professional licensing practices, they are primarily aimed at eliminating competition and increasing exclusivity within various industries. A professional license will usually require the applicant to verify formal accredited education, document a certain amount of work experience and pass an expensive written examination. After the license is issued, you’ll be required to pay renewal fees and probably do continuing education as long as your license is active. This acts as a deterrent and weeds less motivated people out of the industry.
Photography licensing is coming. You may roll your eyes and choose not to believe me, but it is. I can’t go a week on social media without seeing a venting thread about all the unskilled photographers polluting the industry. There’s a large enough constituency in every state to make licensing happen, it’s just a matter of time and it’s going to make matters worse, not better. It will be worse because you will be sending a message to your customers that you’re more concerned with having an exclusive club than you are with having a thriving community of enthusiasts.
Bring People Together
In the spirit of the recent valentines day holiday I would like to offer up a relationship analogy. If you’re in the dating scene and start a relationship it’s a great feeling. Some might be tempted to shun out other people from your new found adventure in fear of unwanted competition. You’re relationship is valuable to you and you don’t want to risk losing it. It’s a natural reaction, but will likely have the opposite of the intended effect. If you instead introduce new and interesting people into your activities, that will likely make your relationship stronger. Things may ultimately work out or not, but at least it will have been a fun ride.
Some photographers have an irrational obsession/fear associated with their customers. Unlike the dating example above the business relationship is not monogamous and doesn’t have to be. You shouldn’t feel threatened if your customers patronize other photographers for certain needs. Most people will need several different photographers throughout their lives and this is a good thing. If you’re a family photographer you should be eager to help that family find a great wedding photographer. You’ll be a hero to both your clients and the photographer you sent them to. Your ego is probably the only part of you that wanted to shoot that wedding anyway.
If you have a customer or know a photographer that needs help of any kind, you’re reflex should be to help. This doesn’t make you weak, it makes you strong. It’s easy to let folks fend for themselves and not be helpful, but that won’t endear others to you. Competition in business is intense and it can make you a little too guarded. This is one of the many things we must keep in check as we build our business. You have to care about more than yourself and it’s in your business interest to do so.
I remember getting a note from a stressed mother about a family picture I took of them. She wanted to reuse the image in a holiday card she was sending out, but needed a couple of adjustments to make the image more appropriate for that application. I was crazy busy and really thought that she was being a little nit-picky. I thought of responding with my hourly retouching fee and let that be that. I’m glad I didn’t.
I knew how enthusiastic she was about photography and that it was really important to her to have the picture she wanted regardless of what I thought. So I made the changes, sent it off to her and said Merry Christmas. She sent me a very kind thank you and it felt good that I had made her holiday a little easier. I’ll also say that the family has been a great benefit to my business in the years since.
Business is ultimately about helping people. You have to be smart and you have to have boundaries, but realize that cooperation is as essential in business as it is in life. Photography is not a zero sum game. As you help others and bring people together you will also benefit. You are going to spend a very large portion of your life in pursuit of your business goals. The people you engage with will make that time meaningful. I want you to care intensely about your business and take it seriously, but I also want you to remember that business is part of our humanity and it’s important to engage with our customers and our competition in a human way.
photo credit: Samuel Zeller