Looking at the news in the photography industry over the past few months, it seems some folks got lost along the way. Branding vs being is my way of describing the question of whether you want to be a celebrity or a photographer.
Celebrity Is Overrated
Hi. My name is William and I'm a photographer.
All I have to do is take photos because I enjoy taking photos. There were times when I flirted with the idea of earning my full time income from photography. In fact, I did it for about a year and a half without taking on any clients. My photography paid my bills. I was my own boss. I didn't suffer or sweat about how I was going to pay my mortgage during that period, either. Sounds like a dream to some people.
By no means did I ever get close to being a rockstar photographer, but I spent a lot of time watching those who inhabit that space. If there is one very clear lesson that I learned, it's that I want no part of that world. When an opportunity came up to go back to work as an IT Director, I quite happily took it and I'm very pleased with my employer.
Some people have a fascinating misconception of what it means to be a professional photographer. You don't get to sleep in late, show up at a studio, call everyone “Baby”, bark at some gorgeous models and then toss your camera over your shoulder while saying “I'm spent” after 30 seconds. The odds are much more likely that you're going to be up before the sun and working until it's dark again.
I'm tempted to say that the biggest jerk I ever worked for was myself, but I actually worked for some bigger jerks at Lockheed Martin. Nevertheless, I was tough on myself and sometimes stopped speaking to myself for a day or two. Being the person in charge seems like a constant worry of what isn't getting done.
That's just self-employment. Now add on the burden of being a rockstar photographer.
Being a Rockstar Photographer
Most of these folks – not all, but most – have all the burdens of being a small business owner. On top of that, now they also have to manage their public image in front of a group of potential and existing customers. People who adore them. People who wants wait for them to fail. Even people who go out of their way to trip them. Here's what I've observed of most of the people who elected to put themselves out there in the photography industry.
They Bust Their Ass
These people are working hard. They are constantly doing something. That's their job and also part of their brand. Sometimes I wonder if they give themselves a day off, much less a weekend. It's not like they're just doing one thing at a time, either.
- They're working on jobs.
- They're working on books.
- They may also do workshops.
- They appear at conferences.
- They talk to photography groups.
- They lead photo walks.
- They're writing blog posts.
- They're making videos.
In short, it seems like they are working all the time. No doubt they enjoy an occasional getaway, but the general rule of life seems to be an endless commitment to their work. A lot of people talk about how passionate they are about their photography, but that's not enough to succeed in business or become a rockstar photographer. It takes time to manage a business, create content for books, videos and blogs, as well as making all of the social media announcements that the audience seems to expect.
They Travel A Lot
Once again, I bet a lot of you envy this lifestyle. Go out, see the world. Travel so much that you always have a first class seat. Visit beautiful locations and take photos of beautiful people doing crazy stuff, like skydiving with scissors.
You forget about all the times that they just had to fly to Cleveland to spend a day with a few hundred people in a convention center, and then fly home to be with their family. The first class seats aren't always guaranteed, either. I got to watch a bit of that when leaving St. Lucia from Joe McNally's workshop. It seems that almost everyone in the workshop – participants and instructors alike – were trying to get that upgrade before we left. I'm not sure how it worked out. They were all on Delta and only so many prime seats are available on a flight. Besides, I was the only one on American Airlines and I already had my seat confirmed.
That's because this was a vacation and I decided to treat myself to a nice seat by paying in advance. The working folks are also looking at their budget. It's great when they get an upgrade, but some of the time they're slogging along in the standard cattle-call seats as most airline flyers.
A couple of weeks ago, I saw a post by Trey Ratcliff that he made three trans-Pacific flights within a week. That's a lot of time to spend in a metal tube screaming across the sky. Travel doesn't always mean you get to linger in a place to enjoy the local ambiance. Sometimes you're in, do what you have to do and then you're off to the next trip.
If I did that, my dogs would die in a kennel cage wondering why I abandoned them.
You Have To Turn On The Charm
I admit it. I'm charming. For about thirty seconds, and then I'm either boring or an asshole. I just can't be “on” all the time. That isn't to say that folks who can thrive in the spotlight are disingenuous. Some of them have very engaging and outgoing personalities. I don't. I'm an introvert and often like to observe rather than entertain. Some people are born with a natural ability to be engaging and they feed off the attention. It just creeps me out if I have a group staring at me. I prefer to be charming in smaller, intimate environments for a brief and well-timed moment.
Most of the rockstar photographers I've observed really do get a charge out of their audience, and I think that's cool. Every once in a while, though, the magic just isn't there. They don't get to say “Well, today's going to suck, but thanks for coming to my workshop, anyway.” It's not enough that they have to be an outstanding photographer and successful entrepreneur, they also have to be a bit of an entertainer and even emotional counselor for some of their students or attendees. You see, we go to them with problems, insecurities and general confusion. Some of us are stubborn and just want them to find a way to say “You know, you're right. I've been teaching this method for a while, but you have a better way. From here on out, I'm going to tell everyone to organize their photos by date!”
You Need A Thick Skin
More than anything else, this is something that truly bothers me. I've seen people come up with some absolutely disturbing, angry and hateful messages to folks who are out there sharing their knowledge and experience. It seems that some folks forget that having a well-known name doesn't mean that you're any less human, feeling or emotional than the rest of us.
It's particularly prevalent online. I'm impressed that so many of the rockstar photographers can tolerate some of the crap that comes their way. Every once in a while, they don't tolerate it. I can't blame them. Yet there may occasionally be a concern about seeming negative, or if showing a reaction is encouragement for the next fools who wants to provoke another reaction.
Branding vs Being
I think the folks who most of us follow generally enjoy what they do. It's a business and a lifestyle that comes with its share of rewards and difficulties.
So who are the ones who got lost along the way? In my view, they're the people who got confused about the difference between branding vs being. They want more, so they brand more. Marketing is important to most businesses. You have to let the potential customers know you exist. Your brand lets them know what to expect from you.
However, you still have to be a photographer, an educator, an entrepreneur and even an entertainer. When you start putting more emphasis on your brand than your work, then you've lost your way. What matters most isn't the latest clever quip that you posted.
A few big names in the photography industry were called out over the summer for plagiarism. That's an ugly and embarrassing concept for someone who is supposed to be in the business of creating content, not stealing it. Just the accusation can destroy the trust of your audience and customer base.
So why did a few folks get caught using someone else's material? Branding vs being. Maybe they felt the pressure to “always be on” and realized that they didn't have enough original material. Maybe it was easier to take than to create. I honestly don't know their reasons.
Some of the complaints seem a bit overhyped to me. One photographer was taken to task for sending out quotes on Twitter that originally came from other sources. Well, big deal. I know models and photographers who are endlessly clogging my Facebook page with inane quotes and platitudes. I know full well they aren't the original author of those quotes, even if they weren't attributed to anyone else. It's just what they do. Not sure why, but every day comes with some insipid text that's supposed to be uplifting, inspiring or…anything positive. I don't see it as plagiarism. I see it as sharing.
Then there were other complaints of blog or Facebook posts using articles that clearly were lifted from someone else. Sharing a quote or a soundbite is pretty innocuous in my mind – and I appreciate the breviloquence – but stealing long-form text and posting it on your own site without any attribution is a bit more egregious. It violates trust. Had the person simply posted a quick note and referred his audience to something that resonated with him, it would be entirely acceptable. Presenting someone else's work as your own would get you a failing grade in school and does much the same later in life.
Compounding the problem with anything other than an admission and apology just further erodes trust. It reveals a character that most of us cannot respect.
Given the implications of getting caught, why bother using someone else's material and presenting it as your own? I can only imagine it's due to insecurity. Chasing after celebrity is one thing, but keeping it must be even tougher. That's the problem with branding vs being. You think that celebrity is the key to your success, and it isn't.
Success is earning your own way in the world. The brands that I trust the most in this industry are the ones who concentrate on being the best they can be, and then sharing it with the rest of us.
I think we all have something to say. We all have something original to share. Sometimes you don't have to say a thing to share. Just be the best you can be and you'll share by your example. After all, your brand is ultimately who you decide to be.