Friday, March 1, 2013

How Do You Define Success?

"Fire and Ice" The location for our next fashion photography workshop!

Q: I hope you're doing well, and congratulations (!). I love all the new work, and look up to you as I try to progress through this very strange world of fashion photography.

I wanted to ask you for a little advice. I'm having a mini-crisis of faith. I've been shooting fashion and tests for a year or two. I'm very critical of my own work, but I see some improvement. I was shooting free tests for a couple of small/medium agencies, and occasionally booking some shoots through MM. I have only one publication in a print (small teen fashion mag) which I got through a casting call on MM a year ago. I usually shoot on location, mostly because it's interesting, but also because it saves money. Sometimes the agents ask me to pick up and drop off the girl. Generally they seem happy with my work, since it ends up on their board and they send me packages whenever I ask for them.

I just started testing with HMM. When I set up the first test, I didn't mention pay and neither did the agent/booker. It's not that I have to get paid, but it would nice, and seems like it would mean I've reached "the next level", where people pay to shoot with me. Maybe I'm wrong about the symbolism.

People rarely contact me to hire me for a shoot. When they do and I quote a price, they disappear.

I've spent countless hours improving my technique behind the camera and on Photoshop, made contacts with models, agents, MUA/hair, wardrobe stylists. Spent good money on cameras, lenses, computers, software.

What is the next level for me? How will I know when I reach it? Do I just keep growing in the same direction (shooting unpaid agency tests, occasionally shoot an editorial with a team and submit for a publication) and hope for a sudden lucky break? It's such an unstructured growth process that I'm lost. But I'm very goal oriented and motivated, so I need something on horizon.

A: At no point in your email have you stated your goal. And without defining your goal how can you determine whether or not you have accomplished that goal? I can not advise you of anything without understanding what you are attempting to achieve.

You mention money but you also say that it isn't a requirement. Is it the next level? I don't know, because that really varies from person to person.

On a grand-scale general perspective, getting paid by models, agencies, magazines, clients, etc. are things on the checklist of your road to validation. Certainly all the "greats" have achieved that shortlist of industry-standard "accomplishments".

On the other hand the "greats" mostly did those things back before digital rolled around.

Which really leads us back to the original question: "What is your goal with this thing?"

And since I know what you do as your day job, I know it's certainly not a question of finance.

But if I have to answer your question the way I'm hearing you ask it, it sounds like you're not achieving what we artists call "commercial success". That you have a following of people who might like your work but when push comes to shove and you ask to be paid, they obviously don't like your work enough to actually pay you.

Which begs the question, "How much did they really like your work to begin with?" Is it like how I like M&Ms but could live without them?

So on a commercial level you aren't successful. Welcome to the 99.9% club. I can count on 2 fingers the number of photographers I know personally who have been paid by agencies. Actually 1 finger if I don't count myself. Furthermore, I can count on 1 hand then number of photographers (that I know personally) who models are willing to shoot with. I don't know if this information should make you feel better or worse? Better, for the fact that there are so few paid photographers or worse, that the prospects are so dismal?

I will suggest to you also that talent and skill are only a small fraction of the equation. You can be the best photographer in the world that no one has heard of and with all your skill, you still won't get paid.

Van Gogh led a terribly unvalidated life but achieved raving commercial success after he died. While I'm not sure why he didn't achieve commercial success while he was alive, we can safely assume that it was not a result of lack of talent or skill. What I'm saying is that there are amazing artists that are just as unvalidated as you. Many of whom are much more talented and skilled.

A couple side points:

1. Stop being transportation for the model. That is not your responsibility unless you're asking the model to go to the boonies with you.
2. The agent will NEVER EVER mention pay. They will do everything in their power to avoid that conversation with you.
3. I don't remember which workshop you did with me, but it sounds like you didn't go to the Working with Modeling Agencies Workshop. You are what I classify in that class as "the unpaid tester". Yes, agencies will throw girls at you because they KNOW you will shoot them for free. And even better, you have never asked for money. But beyond that, you are nothing to them and so they treat you as such.

Unstructured growth process? It's even less structured than you think! I know your educational background was highly structured. Practically a lock-step process. As was mine for the most part. But you are in another realm altogether with this photography thing. It's a personal journey. I call it that because that is exactly what it is. No two people will go in nor come out of this journey the same. No two people will progress at the same rate. So stop assuming that there's a right (or wrong) way to do things. Pave your own road.

And to make things more complicated, the game changes with different conditions and constraints. But it's a double-edged sword. You can look at it as a problem; that there's no structure to the game so you don't know what to do. Or you can look at it as a challenge; that it's a blank canvass awaiting your art and that you get to do whatever you want.

One thing's for sure. You should stop defining your success by other people's standards. Otherwise you'll constantly be behind the curve. Just another photographer in the 99.9%.

And since you can do anything you want, we go back to the only question worth asking, "What do you want to achieve?"

The existential questions go away when you resolve the problems (primarily with your assumptions) for how you define and achieve success

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