Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Tip of the day: Managing Difficult People

I've been thinking about this for a few days and it's an experience every experienced photographer has endured at some point in their journeys.

Difficult people. Whether they be stylists or models (because usually it's the stylist or it's the model). And yes you can quote me on that :) Difficult people need to be managed.

Let's break it down. Why are difficult people
difficult? In my experience it boils down to some deficiency. This deficiency is usually lack of self-confidence/worth/love manifesting itself as a bad attitude or poor behavior. With that said however, I'm not qualified to psychologically analyze these personality defects. But what I can tell you is how these situations arise and how I've manage them.

It usually starts early in the shoot. If it's a model, she usually tells you how much experience they have shooting, traveling, etc. basically trying to convince you that they're good models. It quickly escalates to being very picky about makeup and wardrobe and sometimes refusing to wear certain wardrobe. In extreme situations they question the lighting and nonverbally (though they probably think it) you as a photographer. They always want to see how they look on camera and their usual responses is "Oh that's terrible" or "I don't like this".

What's really happening is the model is expressing a lack of confidence in the way she looks. Regardless of what she says, the truth is she is not a confident model. Most of the time this experience is paired with the fact that she is a bad model, meaning she can't pose. The objections to wardrobe/makeup/etc. are simply deflections of the true problem at hand; that she doesn't feel good about herself.

As a photographer you need to nip these situations in the bud early and often. Because like a weed, once that seed is planted it sprouts quickly and infests everywhere and is difficult to remove. It's has the potential to fester and ruin everything, especially the mojo of the shoot.

As an inexperienced photographer I didn't know what to say, I would agree with the model and take her suggestions and play along... not knowing that this was the worst thing that I could do. By agreeing or simply by accepting suggestions you are implicitly saying "You're right. Your concerns are valid. Yes, there's something wrong with the makeup/wardrobe/lighting/photography. Yes, we should listen to you. Please tell me what else is wrong."

None of which is helpful. All of which are extremely detrimental to the shoot.

Let's play this out. Or better yet, let me tell you a story where I did exactly that.

It was a shoot with a reputable agency when I had just begun that relationship with the agency and wanted to "prove myself" to the agent. They sent a model with all of the above issues. Bad attitude, everything was wrong, didn't want to wear certain wardrobe, even questioned my lighting. Stupidly I obliged to her suggestions. When I reviewed the images on the computer, I knew I had made huge mistakes. For example, the model wanted a more dramatic effect and wanted more darkness under the eyes. I obliged and moved the light more overhead, in effect making the lighting angle more
steep and thus causing some major racoon-eye-action. When the agent received the images, she asked why the lighting was so harsh? I found myself in a conundrum; I didn't want to say "Well because the model asked for it" and I couldn't say "Yeah, it was my idea and it didn't work". But regardless of what I said, it was my fault. That was the last time I ever listened to the model when it came down to lighting.

Fast-forward many shoots later and a similar model walks through the door. First questioning the wardrobe, then the lighting, etc. Immediately I knew we were going down the same path; the path of no return. When we reviewed the images she would say "I don't like this" or "This doesn't look good" or "I'm not feeling it". In our dialogue I explained to her that she shouldn't sweat the details but instead focus on the feeling/emotion. She insisted she needed
perfection and began making suggestions. Instead of obliging to suggestions or questions however, I postured and played the following card:

1. I know your agents better than you know your agents.
2. I teach a class on "Working with Modeling Agencies" because/hence I know what agents want.
3.1 I know what agents want because I know why clients hire models... and it's certainly not because of technically perfect images.
3.2. Clients hire models because they're sold on what you
can be for them. Whether it's your look, your feeling/vibe, or what you represent.
3.3. But your images should first capture the viewers attention and then deliver the above message. Technical perfection has nothing to do with any of this.
4.1 You're a pretty girl but your images are flat. You need to give the viewer a reason to look at and remember you.
4.2 So let's instead focus in on your posing and your vibe. I'm seeing too many images with the same look/face/pose.
5. Why should you trust me? Because you've seen the caliber of images on the studio walls. Let me do what I do best.

I know that seems like a 5-card hand but it's really just one trump card. It's the "No, you're wrong" card. And not only are you wrong but I can explain to you why you're wrong and why you should listen to me.

Of course without enough experience you wouldn't know how to play that card or know that you even have that card to play.

But it's the most important card in the hand, albeit the last card in your hand. When someone expresses the above doubts about makeup, wardrobe, lighting, etc. they're really saying "I am challenging your expertise because A) I'm not confident in myself and B) I have no confidence in you". By obliging to suggestions you are basically saying "Yeah, you're right. I have no idea what I'm doing" which escalates that vicious cycle. Now your model
truly believes she knows more than you know.

The "No, you're wrong" card puts the power back into your hands and stops the vicious cycle from spiraling out of control. That cards says "I'm in control and we
will get amazing images with this makeup, wardrobe, lighting". This card quells the fears that dwell in the model's mind and instead plants the idea that she's made faulty assumptions of the situation. This isn't hard because this type of model is full of doubt and false assumptions. Raising additional doubts that are predicated on her being wrong is very natural. Yes, again. I said it. You can quote me on that :)

These types of challenges should always be addressed and answered with a strong hand. A better strategy is to completely preempt the occurrence of these events with so much clout and reputation that the model knows she's wrong before even asking the question. For example, no model in her right mind could dispute Meisel's choice of makeup, wardrobe, or lighting. But you're not Meisel...

Of course now I have to address the disclaimers. Yes, you should sometimes listen to the model particularly if they're soft-spoken and making harmless and occasionally useful suggestions. No, you shouldn't be overbearing and overtly sensitive to "challenges". As you grow more confident in your own skills, the less likely you'll see simple questions and legitimate concerns as threats. What you don't want to do is launch a nuclear warhead in response to a pebble tossed your way. What I'm suggesting is that in extreme situations, extreme measures must be taken to prevent extreme outcomes. Every situation is different and there isn't a single personality archetype that creates these situations. You have to be sensitive and situationally-aware to nip these issues in the bud... but only when required. The rest of the time you can/should enjoy the interaction and potential brain-storming of new ideas and suggestions.

Got it? Good ;)


  1. Thanks for this post.

  2. Great read Charles!!!!
    Would you say that these models have been 'manufactured' like this from others agents/photographers overindulging them?
    Viscious cycle indeed.

  3. Hey Justin,

    I dunno. I think it's a combination of being inexperienced, young, achieving some level of success very quickly that creates the diva-attitudes.

    In that short period of time they haven't truly developed their self-confidence so they're still somewhat unsure of themselves. Unfortunately they feel they have to front because the clients and the success make it hard for them to admit they're still new to this.

    Cheers :)


  4. You should write about difficult people: clients.