Bold Photography and 2016

I just wrapped shooting a major conference in New York City.  Four long days, the theme of the executive event was simple:

Be bold.

That’s it.  Be bold.  More than 40 hours of shooting in four days, boiled down to two simple words.

But it’s not as easy as you think.  Being bold inherently means taking risks.  Taking risks, by definition, opens you to failure.  Too much failure, and it’s over.

Be bold.

One of the discussions at the conference centered around Captain Ernest Shackleton and the story of the Endurance.  His third attempt at crossing Antarctica, Shackleton and his team spent two years stranded in a frozen version of Dante’s seven gates of Hell.  He endured a one-man mutiny, a photographer who was a prima dona (imagine that!), brutal conditions, and a final journey on a home made toboggan literally free falling down a mountain of ice to the relative safety of a whaling village.  It’s the most dramatic story never made into an HBO series.  Yet.

His family motto?   Roughly translated, “victory through perseverance.”  It was only through dogged determination that he kept his team together and made it home.

That motto recalls a story passed down through my family about two types of people:  eyebrow taper uppers and non-eyebrow taper uppers.

Here’s the family story, and I’m CERTAIN it’s true.

A friend of a relative owned a mechanic shop.  He was working on a car one day, and his eyebrows started to fall over his eyes.

Why his eyebrows were falling over his eyes and blinding him didn’t enter into his brain — he just knew they were, and that he had to finish working on his car.  His solution?  Duct tape his eyebrows up, drag queen style, to keep them from falling in front of his eyes.

He finished working on the car, and drove home.  When he walked into the house, his wife asked why he had his eyebrows duct taped up on his skull.

He explained.  She went (understandably) insane, and insisted he go to the ER, immediately.  After, all, she said, it might be a stroke.

He tooshed-tooshed her, but went.  It turned out to be nothing serious, and he returned to work the next day.

The motto of the story?  In my family it’s not “stop immediately and seek medical attention if something odd happens.”  In my family, it’s “be an eyebrow taper upper.  Finish the job.”

Shackleton lost in his quest to transverse the last frontier, but he returned his crew alive, and that was his real job.  It was through bold thinking and leadership that every man who left on the expedition returned home.

Shackleton won.

Victory through perseverance.

And the images his prima dona photographer captured?  They became a historical record of the story.  The cost to Shackleton were his fingers:  he gave his mittens to the photographer when the artist’s fingers became cold.  Frostbite was the result.  It also tells you the value Shackelton placed on his team member — and the photos captured.

So that brings me to my point.  What makes you bold?  What is bold thinking?  What is bold photography?  What is bolder:  attempting to cross the Antarctica or failing but returning your crew home alive after two years spent on ice ?

 How will you win in 2016?  Will you simply endure or will you obtain victory through perseverance?  And what does victory look like?  Is it financial?  Is it the art you are producing?  Is it the number of jobs you go on?  Is it new clients you develop?  Is it new staff you hire?  Is it new equipment you buy?  Is it a new workflow you create?

After thinking about this for four days, hearing countless opinions, I circle back to one thing.  Bold photography rethinks  every aspect of photography, twists it, and produces either unique images or images in a workflow never previously seen.

Bold photography sets you aside from your competitors, it makes you stand out from the crowd, it puts you as the expert in your specialty — if you do it right.

Bold photography means you don’t look at what others are doing and try to copy them — you invent new everything: new workflows, new types of images, new business models.  Bold photography means you question everything, everyday, about what you do and how you do it, and change as appropriate.

Bold photography embraces change.

Not every client wants a bold photographer.  Some want the opposite — someone who will do what they are told and not think too hard about it.  Some clients want timid photography.

Those clients aren’t a great fit for me, and I tend to weed them out.  Some web sites that refer potential clients to photographers seem to encourage that type of client — the client who thinks they really don’t need a photographer, who isn’t willing to pay for an expert, and honestly would be happy if the entire shoot just went away.  Or, they want a photographer but only look at rate when they hire.  Nothing else matters to them.  It’s all about rate.  Those clients are nearly impossible to work for.

Remember:  the cost to Shackelton for the photos from his adventure?  His fingers.  I’d wager you are less expensive.

It’s the high end of the market where bold thinking exists.  In my experience, it’s actually the client who is willing to pay for creativity that is the easiest to work for.  It’s the client who encourages you to think differently, who is seeking unique imaging, who wants access in a creative way that will open the wallet for your service and be enthusiastic about doing so.

Bold photography leads to bold clients.  Bold clients set you up for success.  Of course, the opposite is also true: with your success, the client wins.

My style isn’t for everyone.  There are a lot of photographers who want to wear photographer’s black polyester and blend in with the background.  I’m not one of them. Neither is mom.  More on that later.

There’s been a few times in my career I gambled everything.  When I drove to Ground Zero on September 12, 2011 was one of them.  That launched my career.  Again, when I decided Photoshop was for mistakes and started streaming conference photos live, as I captured the images.  That defined a niche.  Later when Brian from Photo Party Upload tapped me on the shoulder at the Wango Tango Festival and slipped his card in my pocket.  That changed our green screen workflow.  Again when I asked Melanie to join the team in Las Vegas, running the Vegas operations.   That paved the way for growth.

But U.S. Event Photos has grown beyond me.  Those I share my life with make me look timid:  mom, who changed her photo business from film to digital at an age when Sprint tried to sell her a Jitterbug  style phone.  Matthew, who left a safe, regular paycheck to move with me to Florida and work in the business full time.  Melanie, who emailed me one day just asking, “how can I fit into your business?”
My dad.  My father,  who I grew up with, watching him build his own successful business as a writer at a time when no one succeeded in his field.  But he did succeed, buying the very first personal computer to revolutionize his business —  and teaching his son what bold thinking in business looked like.

It sounds pretentious to talk about — but you can’t discuss being bold without giving examples.  And there have been set backs, too.   Those I’ll save for another day.

I can only say this.  When it looks like a setback is looming, I grab the gaffers tape (because I am a good photographer) and prepare myself to gaffer tape up my eyebrows.

Old habits die hard.  

Victory through perseverance.

See that wreck on the screen?  That’s what was left of Shackelton’s ship.  Two years later he and his crew made it home.

Here’s another example. April Holmes lost her leg when she was pinned beneath a train.  That’s an Olympic gold medal in her hand — for running.
Re-examine how you see your photos — and your jobs — and look for opportunities to be bold.  Only you know how that might look.  I tend to be bold through humor.

Matthew has a different approach to bold photography: in 3 seconds he becomes BFFs with his subject.  The result? Super warm images.

This comes from a client tweet.  Mom is the photographer.  Does she look timid or bold?  The client recognized her boldness, and called her “amazing” in the tweet.

Melanie took an idea and ran with it: redefining portraits at conventions.  Now, she has her own niche and no one can compete.  Why? She created the niche and now owns it.

I remember my dad bringing this home.  You are looking at the world’s first PC.  He used it to redefine his business — one that continues to morph today, more than 40 years later.

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