Today, I worked with a relatively new photographer looking for advice on how to move forward with his business. After discussing a pretty wide range of topics – from his website to building his portfolio to what gear to use – he shared with me his feelings of being overwhelmed by all the work and uncertainty that lay ahead of him. That and my critique of his presentation left him a little down. Depressed even.
I can understand that. We didn’t have much time together so I just cut to the chase and didn’t smooth out the edges of my feedback and advice. It’s tough to hear harsh words that reinforce our fears about the future and insecurities in our work. Believe me, I feel the pain of rejection and failure as deeply as anyone. There’s definitely days when I just feel like a hack photographer who should just give it all up.
But then I remember something an old friend told me back in our rock climbing days: “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” We’re all going to get knocked down, but as long as we keep getting up, we’ll eventually succeed. It’s a simple formula but not one without pain.
Pain however is essential to achieve success. When I think about the work that it takes to succeed, I take comfort in the J Curve. Yes, call me a geek, but this little graphical illustration often helps me to keep pushing when I question whether I’m moving in the right direction.
Basically, what it shows is that in the beginning, profit – be that profit of money, pleasure, results etc – always dips in the beginning. Always. At the beginning of any endeavor, that’s where the hard work comes in. The blood, sweat and tears. Keep at it though and then the curve begins to head upward as all that effort pays off.
The opposite of the J Curve, an inverted J Curve, is what’s sometimes referred to as the Curve of Addiction. This is where the individual seeks pleasure from the beginning without doing the hard work. The pleasure is always short-lived however and then negative consequences result. Drug use is a classic example. So too is squandering an inheritance or other asset. (Ignore the labels on the illustration below.)
The key here is that once we realize that hard work and sacrifice are always necessary, then we can plan for it, accept it and even welcome it. The pain of failure is necessary to enjoy the fruits of success.
This brings up another point. If we know the challenges that we must overcome in our quest for success, we can plan for them. For example, if we know that we must overcome ten mountains on our quest to climb Mt. Everest, we won’t feel so discouraged when we hit that first mountain. It’s just part of the plan. To put this in the context of your photography business, if you know that you need to call ten clients to get a meeting with one, you know that every rejection is bringing you closer to your goal.
Never judge someone’s insides by what they show on the outside.
When it comes to photography, truer words have never been spoken. It’s so easy for us to look at “successful” photographers and judge them based upon what they show on the outside. Some just make it look so easy. Their Facebook page always shows them having fun with fellow hipster photographers. Their website is filled with wonderful images of beautiful people. If only we could be more like them.
But we don’t know what’s going on inside. We don’t know the hard work, sacrifice and self-doubt that this person is experiencing. Yet we judge ourselves according to this often unattainable facade that they show. Depression and futility often follow. Just know that every photographer working today is dealing with the exact same issues that you are.
That “rock star photographer” is offering workshops not necessarily because of their love of teaching, but most likely because their actual photography business isn’t doing as well as they’d prefer. Believe me, if many of those hotshot photographers were as successful as they lead us to believe, they wouldn’t be doing workshops. Just something to consider as you compare your insides to their outsides. (One day, when I get around to doing another workshop, this statement will come back to bite me in the ass.)
Persistence and Determination Alone Are Omnipotent
To close out my consultation with my budding photographer client, I shared a story from early in my career. Not long after I began doing paid work, I learned of a portfolio review with photographer’s representatives put on by the American Photographic Artists in LA. After signing up, I spent the last of my meager cash putting together what I thought would be a can’t-miss portfolio for the event. I figured that some rep would love my work and then I’d be shooting big-budget ad campaigns before I knew it.
That didn’t happen. They just smiled and passed on me. So I returned the next year with a better portfolio. Nothing. I skipped a year but the next year produced no better results. Determined, I poured my heart, soul, money and creativity into shooting the most amazing body of work that I could think of. I’d been fortunate enough to win one of the most prestigious awards in commercial photography (Communication Arts Photo Annual) so my confidence was high as I created what I was sure was a fantastic portfolio that was sure to make them all swoon with rapturous love for my work.
The results however were not what I’d hoped for. My work was ripped apart. My award winning image was pretty much insulted. Through it all I fumed. Driving back home that evening, I damn near cried. I’d given that book my all. A year’s worth of work and nothing to show for it. I felt so helpless since I didn’t know where to go from there. I wondered, how could I improve on my best work? I received no consoling words or thoughts in response. Depressed thoughts took hold.
Funny thing happened though… after a month or so, I began to look at my work differently. I began to appreciate the rough critique of the portfolio reviewers. Out I kicked the mediocre work. In went new, more interesting work. My spirits returned and I worked harder than ever to prepare my portfolio for the next year (by this time I was a working pro so there were plenty of clients along the way).
When that review came along, I was ready and they were ready for me. Gone were the negative comments. “You’re there” was the feedback. And yes, I landed a rep from that, my final review with APA/LA. Took me years of determined hard work and constantly getting up from rejection, but I did it.
And of course, you can too.