Today I received an inquiry from someone who stumbled upon my portfolio and e-mailed me seeking advice on how to make a breakthrough into event photography. Here’s what he writes:
To be honest, I’ve never really received inquiries like this but I felt like publicizing this post for other photographers pursuing a similar line of work without direction on how to start. Despite how saturated this industry is with new and old photographers at all skill levels, the single most important variable correlating to success has always been how well these people were networked. In one of my articles, I vaguely recall writing something about networking and how weak self-marketing skills has contributed to stunting the growth of most photographers. I write you all today to reinforce the importance of social skills, whether you want to turn photography into a business or simply elicit a connection with a model you’re testing out. Even if you consider yourself an introvert or wall flowers–heed my advice and attempt to incorporate even a fraction of this.
1) If you’ve got friends, ask them. From the time I was in high school, I always valued the saying that “95% of the reason people get those jobs they have, are through the people they know”. It’s all about the 6 Degrees of Separation, the theory that you could reach anyone in the world in six or fewer steps, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world. Nearly all my photography endeavors have been afforded to me by friends or friends-of-friends connected somehow to the event or talent. So if you’re like how I used to be, the anti-social type, stop it if you want to start opening up all these opportunities for yourself. No matter if you’re into photography or are trying to get into the pharmaceutical industry, life is all about connections, how you maintain those connections, and how you become a resource to your connections.
When I moved to San Diego, it was at my first Comic Con that I befriended the guy responsible for Adult Swim’s marketing. I made that introduction through a good friend of my girlfriend and I. That friend was hired on by the marketing team to work some of the promotional aspects that Adult Swim had set up at the convention center in addition to stuff going on outside the venue. However, this friend knew I was big on photography and I posited the question as to whether they may need one. She had no clue, but was able to introduce me to the marketing coordinator, who saw my pictures, and then told me to come back for the entire weekend. The rest was history.
2) If you don’t have friends, make some. My earliest pursuit in photography dabbled in fashion. I was inspired by my girlfriend and the collaborations she appeared in with other photographers. From that moment, I started reaching out to models, stylists, and make-up artists on ModelMayhem.com, propositioning trade work for our portfolios. Through this network I made my earliest friends in the industry. If you never heard of Model Mayhem, the site is legit, and I know that really successful people in the industry still utilize the network for work or scouting purposes. Not only did these people school me on the particulars of “good work”, but those same connections gave me the necessary introductions to higher quality models, stylists, make-up artists, photographers, etc.
Even though I ultimately broke away from fashion photography and dealing with models, people knew who I was. Those friends viewed and critiqued my work, passed my name along to people, and kept me in mind when they heard about gigs that needed a photographer. On the same token however, your friends don’t need to come from a specialized demographic. You just have to be aware of what your friends are doing or at least keep your friends updated on what you’re up to. Up till this point, I had experienced photographing for several cotillions and weddings but my bearings in event photography took root through a huge dance competition at UC San Diego called “Fusion”. Under the pseudonym of “The Final Statement” my work found its largest audience in the Multi Asian Student Association and the 220 Two Twenty Second To None dance team who really appreciated my documentation of the entire day’s festivities.
You also can’t rely on friends to throw opportunities at you like free candy. Sometimes it takes initiative and situational awareness to seize the moment and introduce yourself to people who look important. I did this at the La Jolla Fashion Film Festival in 2010 and was able to meet Robert Dahey, a prominent fashion photographer in San Diego, who I’ve since named a personal mentor of mine. Through Robert I’ve learned many tricks of the trade, polished my skills, met very influential LA-based photographers, and accumulated credited work experience in big campaigns. Needless to say, you don’t make these opportunities possible without even trying. It’s just like when people tell you that the possibility of winning the lottery starts with you purchasing a ticket.
3) Take rejection with grace as long as you worked an angle. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my fair share of rejections. More specifically, I wanted to ride the wave of success I gained from Fusion and tried to pursue becoming a photographic figurehead in the hip hop dance scene. The biggest show in the Southern California circuit, Body Rock, shut me out. Despite knowing the event organizers, they had already had their roster full of photographers and videographers, and wasn’t able to accommodate me–even for free.
Rejection only proves you were on the right line of thinking. Though I could have continued pushing for involvement within the community, I still went on to photograph for a few more years of Fusion shows. On the same token, my affiliation with UC San Diego’s AS Events started with an e-mail reaching out to their directors. While a small part of it was a verbal heads-up as to who I was, I still thought it would be wise to shoot over a formal e-mail to the event organizers expressing interest in photographing for the Sun God event that Drake was headlining. These “risks” in rejection were hardly risks at all, especially when you have nothing to lose over a simple introductory e-mail. Moreover, my Sun God experience ended up earning my portfolio a few of my favorite photos to share with people.
4) Put aside your ego and help others succeed. What really infuriates me are the attitudes I’ve come across among fellow photographers. As a photographer meeting another photographer, it typically plays out like a scene out of Mean Girls where the popular girl looks sizes up the protagonist with that air of confidence in her superiority. Photographers can be greedy, not only do they like to brag about what they’ve done, but they will hardly share with you about how they got there–out of fear that someone else would creep up on their territory. And I get it. But when you start alienating potential allies, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.
If you happen to come across a gig that would be phenomenal to have on your portfolio but you are unable to make the event, don’t hide it! Share it with your friends! As much as it may be a shame that you won’t get credit for photographing that kick-ass celebrity at that kick-ass venue, you may come to regret it when that promotions company finds another photographer with no affiliation to you. Not only did you miss out on that opportunity, but you may have jeopardized any future opportunities with that venue. So be strategic and be generous. Make friends that you can trust that share a similar enthusiasm for seeing a friend succeed and take care of one another. Tonight it might be your friend photographing Jay Z, but tomorrow that friend might pass you the job to photograph Justin Timberlake.
Apply this practice in your everyday life, photographer or not, and see how many doors open to you because of how many people in your network want to pay you back for helping them succeed.
5) Additionally, nobody cares about your Photography Major or your high-end camera gear. This is another personal pet peeve of mine that’ll get you in trouble and further alienate you from potential networks. Don’t be a braggart about your work, stop trying to correct people if they don’t photograph in a particular mode or technique you’re enamored with, and stop showing off your new Canon camera that you dropped three grand on. Photography is art, and not one piece of art exists out in the world that hasn’t caught some sort of condemnation from an elitist snob of an offending school of taste.
This is the kind of egotistical flak that I meet with most often. Critique is healthy and I always welcome the opinions of others, as should anyone else. But when critiques are made snidely, personally attacking aspects of your craft that you deem most valuable, that’s when I know that photographer hasn’t really made any strides with his or her work.
So be humble about what you’ve done, your technique, your gear, and your being. There are people out there that love the look, feel, and involved processing of 35mm film. Others love Polaroids. People like me love our DSLRs. And as individuals, we all have our methods, our approaches, and unique vision for the same thing you are observing. Whether or not you like someone else’s’ work is irrelevant because there may be hundreds of others out there who may connect emotionally with that same shot. In the end, neither of us are famous for our work. So keep working hard, develop your network, be humble, and the universe’s karma will come pouring in.
Thanks for the writing inspiration, Ed!