I'm in the process of putting together some new folios for the spring marketing push and as chance has it there has been some interesting talk lately about promotion on the interwebs. I was reading how one photog mentioned that he annually spends enough promoting himself to buy "a nice German luxury car". Zounds! I think to myself, "Self! If you had $50,000 to spend every year just to let people know that you exist and do good work I'd think that you already have loads of people who are paying you good money to do what you do." I mean I'm talking about photographers here not companies with production lines and distribution networks and dozens of people on the payroll. The big car companies spend 3-5% of their annual budget on advertising and it's thought that 10% is a big amount for marketing your biz. So even if this guy and his buddies are spending 10% to keep their rep going they are still billing a half million dollars a year. Excuse me buy my head is swimming here. (Deep breath!)
So the whole idea is to reach out to potential new clients to let them know that 1) you exist and that 2) your work is good and 3) they should hire you because you are better and more interesting than the guy that they currently use. Something like that. Also to keep you freshly in the mind of the folks who already adore you. That's important too ya know!
But that is where things get funky. The people who hire photographers seem to have a funny way of seeing us creative types. They want to hire the guy who does that thing. Ok, cool. But if said guy decides that "that thing" is now kinda boring and starts changing up his style it can freak out the guys who hire him because he's not doing that thing anymore. Or the hiring guys get bored of "that thing" and stop hiring the guy who does it because, well we've seen it already! Can a brother get a break?
So this one shooter who mostly shoots lit location portraits gets the idea that it would be funny to shoot some farm animals in the same style as his people and does it as a lark for a promo piece. In one he shoots a cow and up to that point was the only cow he's ever photographed. Well low and behold that little post card gets him a job because to the art director at the ad agency he obviously knows his cows! (giggle)
He hires the same animal wrangler as the promo shoot and even uses the same cow for the big job. All goes well. Then the ad person moves to a different company and he sends a note to say something like "congrats on your move". He gets a reply that says "If I need any cows photographed while I'm at this agency I'll be sure to call you." Wha? Right. Check the guys folio, website and all his promo material and except for that one cow there are no animals to be found. He shot one cow twice and now he's pegged as The Cow Specialist. (Are you on dope?)
Right. A folio full of portraits of people and all he's know for at that agency is a guy who photographs cows.
They want specialists because it's easy to figure out. Need a cow shot? I know the dude to call! Need the guy who does that thing? I've got his number. Easy as eating pie. Or not. It's a bit of a catch 22: if you shoot cows, or any one kind of subject matter usually in a particular way, you can get work for doing that one thing but if you don't shoot that subject matter in a particular way you won't get that work even though you can shoot it and well. The blinders are on it seems.
But where does that leave guys like me who have to be able to shoot just about anything at any time? How do we fit into the ultra narrow vision of the people who hire us without becoming artistically leaden?
It all reminds me of this quote:
"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion,
butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance
accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give
orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem,
pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently,
die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."
-Robert A. Heinlein
That sums it up for me as I sit here writing, sipping one of my fine home brewed beers (a Belgian golden), having finished a nice dinner that I made for the wife and yes my gravy is that good, and am putting together a set of fashion images for the a few lifestyle magazines that I'm targeting. Tomorrow I'm shooting a video in the morning and then in the afternoon doing a portrait of a guy who in an inventor. If I can do all these things, and if you can too, why is that not an asset but instead a hindrance to getting a broader client base?
I think that it come down to risk. We as artists risk all the time. We risk emotionally with each piece of work we take on. We risk financially with every project we do because we believe in it. We risk creatively to push ourselves as artists. But the ones on the other side don't want to risk. They want a sure thing. If they hire the guy who does the thing they get exactly that and it's comforting.
The only ones who don't seem to have this problem are the newspapers. They expect their photographers to be able to do anything they throw at them and at any time. If you are, say, a large format portrait photog who only works with available light you will never get work from the newspapers because you can't shoot sports, news, features, food/product or any of the other things that will come you way on any given day. But if you are a news guy and are therefor not a specialist you are locked out of work that you surely can do because you don't have a book that is essentially the same shot over and over. Gad!
So I will be stubbornly me. I will show what I do and what I can do and if they don't get it – fine. In that spirit I the guy who photographs people will submit another of my still life camera-phone-o-roids.
Freedom! (or cookies. That's good too.)