Thursday, July 22, 2010

Managing divas

Since Tommy asked for some stories about managing shoots, I figured I'd tell this one. The memories from this shoot have mostly faded from time but there are important lessons to be learned.

I once worked with a wardrobe stylist that had an abrasive personality. Over the phone the stylist bragged about different shoots and the big players he/she knew in the industry and really just rubbed me the wrong way. I was a little stunned but I thought that maybe I misunderstood the stylist because I couldn't see his/her facial expressions over the phone. Maybe it was my fault?

When I finally met the stylist in person, the stylist asked me why there was no food at the studio because at other shoots there was always food. Now I suddenly realized who I was dealing with. The stylist was my first real diva!

The abrasiveness didn't stop there. This stylist constantly talked down to the assistant stylist. Throughout the shoot the stylist insisted he/she was the most important piece of the puzzle there and literally gave me 8 minutes to shoot the first set before asking me if I was "done" so he/she could start styling the next set. The irony is that makeup and wardrobe took close to 2 hours yet I only had 8 minutes to shoot the set. For the record, I shot the first set in just 10 minutes.

Now I'm a nice guy, but I'm not without a personality of my own. If you come to my studio on an invitation and then act like the whole world revolves around you, you better believe that you're going to evoke a response.

But what's the proper response?

I analyzed the situation as follows: The stylist had a big ego and needed me to feed that ego like a 9 month-old baby. Getting upset and talking back was going to ruin the mood of the shoot and potentially "screw the pooch". At the same time, I needed to pull some slack in the reins and ensure that the stylist knew that I would not lay down and be walked over.

So I did both. I complimented the stylist where/when I could and provided as much validation to that ego as I could. I gave the stylist the impression that this was his/her show. At the same time, when push came to shove I made sure that the stylist was well aware that there were certain boundaries one should not cross. I postured and retorted playfully but firmly in a non-threatening manner when the stylist would say something condescending. I wanted the stylist to see that I was a hibernating bear because we all know not to wake a hibernating bear when he's sleeping.

Things worked out the way I figured. The diva operated within the boundaries that I had provided and did not do anything excessively outrageous. The shoot went on as planned and the pictures turned out well.

The lesson of the story? Sometimes you gotta suck it up and just roll with the punches in order to achieve the collective goal. After all, what would be the point of getting upset and ruining the festive mood of the shoot? As they say, "the show must go on". At the same time, you still have to manage big personalities. I hate posturing, but it's sometimes necessary to show people that you're not a dummy. You have to set hard lines for what can and can not be tolerated at the shoot... but you have to do so tactfully without offending anyone.

Since that experience I'm very leery about working with divas. I can smell a diva from a mile away. Unfortunately there are way too many divas in this industry and IMHO you don't need to be like that. You don't have to be abrasive to be successful.

But I guess the stylist didn't get that memo :)


  1. Howdy Charles!

    Now that's navigating through treacherous waters :)

    It is a tricky thing, establishing boundaries in working relationships without mashing on a few toes. I'm glad you got through that shoot with diplomatic flair. I know more than a few people who would have a hard time just getting through that shoot with the necessary shots-- complimenting him/her certainly would've been out of the question.

    I work in a sizable fashion company, so I've seen quite a few divas in my time as well. It's not a company that does "high fashion" but it's fashionable enough to fashion gurus to be omni-present. Think "The Devil Wears Prada" combined with high hysterics, tone down the supercilious editor-in-chief Meryl Streep character, and that should give you a pretty good idea of some of the people at my company.

    But as you say, "the show must go on!" A person doesn't have to be a diva to be successful in this industry. In fact, I think it would be a detriment to it in the long haul, since your reputation will precede you at any potential job.

    That reminds me of a quote I heard a few times about the concept of "manners". One person defined manners as, "the ability to get what you want without being an absolute swine." I find that giving manners will get the job done much more effectively than a bunch of hair pulling and stomping about, don't you agree? :)

  2. LOL :) I can't imaging working with people like that on a daily basis. I don't plan on working with the above mentioned person anytime soon!

    There was another mini-diva that I worked with once and I promised myself I wouldn't work with her a second time... I broke my promise because I was desperate for wardrobe (another stylist... starting to see a trend here...) and regretted it... totally regretted it!

    I agree that you don't have to be a diva to be successful, yet it seems that so many of the successful people are total divas/characters. I wonder if there's a "persona" that the public associates with those people and perhaps almost expect them to act that way? Or enable them to act that way without detriment??? Perhaps these divas wouldn't be as famous without being totally outrageous?

    I agree about manners. Someone once suggested to me that those who are truly gifted in their art, be it modeling, styling, etc. are a little crazy. Sometimes we have to put up with the crazy to get that "brilliance/genius".

    What do you think? I hate divas. :)

  3. Hello Charles,

    I don't much care for divas myself, but this is a business chocked full of them :)

    Some "divas" I've known were divas precisely because people are always trying to use them for their own personal agenda. Others I've known were divas because... well, because of rank egotism (I tried to think of a better way of saying it, but nothing comes to mind at the moment :)

    One thing is certain about divas in general. You don't tend to forget them once you've met them. Perhaps in an industry as competitive as this one, where everyone is trying to stand out in the crowd, being noticed may perhaps supersede ability. To be fair though, I haven't been around your end of the industry (i.e. high fashion photography) long enough to know if this is generally the case though.

    I'm not sure I buy into equating gifted artists with being "a little crazy" though. It may be true. It is certainly true that artists in general see things at maybe a 2 degree shift from the norm because good artists, whether model, stylists, photographer, or painter, etc. show you another way of seeing things.

    Does that mean that the artist have to be insufferable to those around them? I don't know. I personally don't think so, but it's sometimes hard to separate the person from the work they do. I'd rather not deal with divas because I'd rather not go through the headaches, but, as in your experience in this post, it's manageable up to a point. :P

  4. In your response, I suddenly realize why we can have such conversations... we think very similarly. You're also very analytical but more importantly you present your ideas very clearly and effectively.

    I totally agree. I never thought about it but the personality could indeed differentiate a person immediately... and yes, being noticed may perhaps supersede ability (I love that line!). Though coming from a corporate world in business/finance it's hard to adjust my "merit-driven mindset" to a "network-driven mindset". I think there are as many if not more divas in high fashion.

    I also love that you said "artists in general see things at maybe a 2 degree shift from the norm..." that's great imagery and flawlessly accurate. They're forerunners in the industry and though they are often considered visioneers, they're sometimes also autistic geniuses and potentially a little "off".

    I don't know if divas are truly "manageable" :)

  5. Howdy Charles,

    Yes, I do believe we think similarly :)

    You know, one of the main reasons why I return to your blog again and again is because you are able to do something most photographers aren't able to do, and that is the ability to articulate what you are doing photographically, or as a friend mine is fond of saying, "You have a certain felicity of expression." :)

    Visual artists are not apt to express themselves in a clear, logical manner. I've visited blogs by other photographers who weren't able to communicate what they're doing well BUT who are nonetheless incredible at what they do. Besides, they're being paid for the images they create, not their ability with wield the almighty pen.

    Being that I came from a literary background (I was an English Lit major in college, and I fancied myself a writer at one point... :), I sure do appreciate the combination of excellent photography with great wordsmithing. ;P

    BTW, on second thought, I'm not sure divas are "manageable" either. I've always gotten though with a series of verbal ripostes, careful dodges and figuring out what exactly they want done. Exactly. And then, I'll assess whether or not I can deliver it to them... and that's usually in exchange for their cooperation on what I want done.

    Doesn't work all the time but enough times to be getting along with :p

  6. If I had to guess I would have said you probably had a history background. Dunno why, but I suppose great writing has a lot to do with reading a lot of nerdy and boring accounts of what happened in the past. :)

    Thanks for noticing! I pride myself on good writing although truth be told it's probably not nearly as entertaining to read it as it is for me to write it. I occasionally try to add a little humor here and there but I'm sure it sounds a lot funnier in my head than when read off the screen. Unless you appreciate dry humor with a squeeze of wit. Probably a lot drier than it is humorous though :)

    Oh and lately I've noticed that I'll write sentences and completely omit words. What's up with that? LOL! I don't remember this happening before but I suppose the mind works faster than the fingers?

    And lately, I'll start a blog post and then totally lose steam halfway through and forget what I was even trying to convey... LOL!

    Oh and unfortunately I'd probably trade all my wordsmithing for better photography/retouching. Although as these things work, I probably wouldn't get much for that trade. Definitely not a 1:1 ratio. Probably diminishing returns. Dunno if you've ever specced a character in any game but I bet you if I traded 10 writing skill points, I'd probably get like +2 in photography/retouching. In which case, I'd probably just keep up +10 in writing ;P

    Or borrowing your example, I'd trade all my writing skills for a +2º shift in my perspective ;P

    I consider myself a jack-of-all-trades. I'm pretty good at everything. But not the best at anything. It's unfortunate really. I attribute it to my ability to learn but on the other edge of the sword lies my short attention span :)

    That being said, so often I feel like my life reads like a Shakespearean tragedy. My character flaws are responsible for a lot of my life choices. With all the opportunities I've been afforded in life, it's completely unthinkable (to most people) that I make such gawd-awful decisions. But though I'm flawed, I'm not retarded... there's simply a lot of good logic filled with bad assumptions that result in such decision-making!

    And with that said, I think one of the things I've managed to learn is how to manage people in a "game-environment". I say "game-environment" because I'm actually not good at managing people in "real-life"; long-term relationships with in day-to-day life. I only excel in closed-circuit, short-term, situations such as 1-day studio shoots. Meeting someone new and then only having 8 hours to achieve a goal is totally a game, one which I actually have the patience for. On the other hand, I suck at anything that lasts more than a day (short attention span) which is why I often disappoint the ones closest to me! :)

    Divas need to die. ;P

  7. Howdy Charles,

    You were close if you would've guessed that I had a history background. One of my closest friends is a historian of sorts and we're always talking about topics like the workings of the Roman Empire, Pax Britannica, American history and the endless details of World War II. :)

    Strangely enough, or not so strangely, I also consider myself a jack of all trades with a few sharp focuses-- one of them being photography :) I have too many interests I'd like to pursue and not enough hours in a day to pursue them. Thus, I'm down to just a few interests. Also, like you, I'm not the best at anything... but then again, if I was the best at any one thing, I'd be pulling down the big bucks, which of course is not the case. ;P

    For myself though, I consider my multifaceted interests as a blessing. When I get burned out on photography, I shift my attention for a time on reading and writing. When I get burned out on reading and writing, I switch to playing around with Calculus and Trig. Then, I go back to photography. Of course, it's not as cut and dry as this because I find myself doing strange combinations of these interests all the time. But the point is, taking time away from one of my interests gives time for the other to percolate and renew. It keeps things fresh, if you will, like taking a spoonful of apple sauce in between bites of prime rib.

    As regard to life's lessons, (with Elizabethean tragedians aside :) I have a quote for you:

    "Damn it Bones, you're a doctor. You know that pain and guilt can't be taken away with the wave of a magic wand. They're the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. [to Sybok] I don't want my pain taken away! I need my pain!!" -Captain Kirk, Star Trek V

    This is a piece of wisdom I didn't recognize when I first heard it, but it's true. I can always look back on life and regret that I didn't take a left rather than a right, but the question I fail to ask in those moments is, "Would I be myself and encountered all the loves in my life if I had?" The answer is, no. I would've missed out on a lot of things and people that I wouldn't trade for the world :)

    Like photography, I try to take events and situations one at a time with each being similar yet each being obstinately unique. :P If you take a shot of a building every day for a week, no two pictures will be alike though you'd instantly recognize their similarities. The same goes for shooting a model, sans Photoshop, of course :)

    I try to approach long-term and short term relationships this way... sometimes I succeed, sometimes (that is, often) I fail. But to me it's a goal worth shooting for. :)

  8. Okay, you're a LOT smarter/nerdier than me! LOL! Lately when I get bored of photography, I'll go surfing, when I get tired of surfing I'll go to the gym. If you can't tell, I like activities with instant feedback. Some of the activities that have fallen out of rotation in recent years are volleyball, paintball, triathlon, and track-driving. Come to think of it, I don't have any hobbies that require a ton of patience and IQ LOL :)

    But one thing we definitely have in common is our ability to rotate through our interests. For me it's a function of having a short attention span along with lots of interests. It's just a matter of time before I burn myself out on anything in particular ;) And I totally agree that spending time away provides time to adjust and recompose yourself for that particular interest. Very important towards personal growth!

    Life choices are strangely interesting and defining. I didn't realize Captain Kirk was so full of wisdom, I'm going to let that quote simmer a bit in my head :) But no, I suppose I wouldn't be who I am without the poor decision-making. It's definitely a hallmark of my life!

    Great conversation! ;P

  9. Howdy Charles!

    LOL! I ain't that smart, but I do love doing nerdy things :) (I would surf in my off time... but I can't swim! LOL!)

  10. Swimming is a little important for surfing ;P On the other hand if you speak dolphin, you'll be just fine! ;)