Help me choose to do something scary - or back away from the edge
February 8, 2017 12:58 PM   Subscribe

I'm a photographer. I've done plenty of work at a local level — not enough to make a living from it, but enough that I've got some local respect. I promised myself that in 2017 I'd put myself out in the world to the people who might actually want to hire me for money instead of gratitude (preferably both, but I'd rather get the money right now). I've got my portfolio(s) together and … I can't do it. I feel frozen. Help me break away from this tar baby!

At 36 (as of tomorrow) I know I'm on the old side for starting out in the editorial photography world. I don't expect to get many jobs — or to make that much money from it, because there's not a lot of money there, tbh. I see it as a stepping-stone to something bigger — commercial work of some sort (though I haven't got that figured out yet).

I know that my work is okay — nothing special but not terrible — and I know that I can do the kind of work that most magazines that I'd be sending my portfolio to (music magazines plus the Sunday inserts, for starters) with my eyes closed. That's fine. But over my "career" as a photographer I've had a couple of pretty harsh bits of criticism that I've never been able to shake off:

- I was told by a portfolio site , about five years ago, that they wouldn't accept my work as there was "no life" in it.
- When I submitted some work for a portfolio review by an editor last year it was rejected with "I see this every day; you're wasting my time. You need to be different" ("different" is something that we each, apparently, have to figure out for ourselves).

I've had good feedback too — at another portfolio review event in 2015 I was told by a "name" photographer that I should carry on doing what I was doing and that it was worthwhile. Trouble is, praise doesn't stick, for me. I either forget it, or convince myself that the person that gave me said praise was in the grip of some temporary terrible insanity.

Rationally, I know I'm probably good enough to succeed, at a base level, anyway, if given the chance. But I can't get past the terror of being told that I suck by people who are quite literally the gatekeepers for the industry.

Oh, I know, I should network, meet people (who?!) who are "influencers", do small work … fine. But I have to actually start getting my name out to some people.

How do I hold my nose and dive off the high board here? How do I overcome this morbid fear of heights that I'm going through every. single. time. I start drafting a email to photo editors or junior art buyers?
posted by gmb to Work & Money (8 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I am also in a "gatekeeper" field and also find it really difficult getting feedback. The way I get through it is knowing that you really can't control what other people think of your work -- you can just control yourself. So that means working hard, getting your work out there, and always improving. Focus on yourself, not them. And your work is not you, and you are not your work; critiques of one is not a critique of the other. It's the only way to think about it. This from Ira Glass is also incredibly useful.

And remember, it may seem obvious, but you don't have to feel like sending out your work . . . to send out your work. You can hate it and want to claw your eyes out and vomit, but still send it out. If you wait until you feel calm and excited to send it out, then you won't ever do it.

Good luck!
posted by heavenknows at 1:23 PM on February 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

I don't have any specific advice other than that I think it might be useful to read stories about writers or even actors who are rejected over and over, including stories from a lot of very talented, very famous people. I guess my advice is to understand that criticism and rejection of any art is inevitable and often harsh, and the best thing you can do for yourself is to inoculate yourself to it, to whatever degree you can. In short, criticism and rejection are the price of admission. That sucks, but once you accept it, you'll be OK.
posted by cnc at 1:24 PM on February 8, 2017

Get on Instagram and use hashtags like crazy to build followers. There's recommendation engines that will help you find which hashtags will help get you the most exposure (e.g. you don't want to use ones that are too common like #sunset but you don't want to be too obscure either).
posted by Candleman at 1:25 PM on February 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Try to find an approach that doesn't involve jumping off a cliff. I like Candleman's suggestion.

You need to find a means to connect with an audience of some kind that is genuinely interested in what you are doing. You need to find some means to get feedback of some sort that will make sense to you and be useful to you.

One way to do that is to post it online and see what gets likes or traffic or whatever. That isn't a perfect method because there can be many confounding factors. It may get ignored because someone else posted something "hot" that day or because people were busy with the holidays or any number of things.

You need to learn to kind of put your blinders on to the failures and figure out how to recognize successful connections and grow them. Things can fail for a million different reasons, but success will tend to be somewhat less random. Try to learn from the successes and grow your understanding and your model based on that.

As for praise not sticking: Nice words can be empty. I am much more interested in seeing metrics that show genuine interest, such as page views, retweets, sales! and so forth.

If there is some website that is the photographers version of an "Indie band" website, try that out. You can potentially try making products on a site like Zazzle to see what people buy, if only as an experiment.

See if you can find a photographers forum -- or create your own -- for discussing the business end of things.
posted by Michele in California at 1:38 PM on February 8, 2017

Re: Instagram as a suggestion— You'll find that the most successful up-and-coming Instagrammers have found a way to leverage highly specific hashtags in a manner that is visibly unobtrusive to the viewer. Usually by line-breaks of some form? Certainly in agreement that this is a great way to establish critical rapport / socially engage / ego boost / gain professional clout in general.

Aside from that, I might actually suggest you do some focused work around this fear you have. It sounds tough. Interred deep. I'd choose to engage by precisely challenging it a little more. Reach out to people in the industry, hopefully locally, who you can appreciate and yearn to be more like, and do the whole cup-of-coffee thing. I can't think of a downside except for energy expenditure. You might also pick up a CBT handbook and specifically look at the ideas around all-or-nothing rationalization. Even a professional counselor, if it is indeed what's able to kick you over the edge? ...Reading this, I want you to conquer it :)
posted by a good beginning at 2:36 PM on February 8, 2017

"I see this every day; you're wasting my time. You need to be different"

IANAC. Answering with the context of a comedian's work. A comedian has his or her unique brand of comedy; be it observational or one-liners. The comedian has a sense of what gets the laugh and endlessly perfects their craft.

With that said, I think you know your brand (and potential) and you see the medium your brand can be featured in.

In the short term, use the social media avenues to get exposure and repetitions as others have mentioned.

Go ahead and send a few emails to the editors and buyers; the critiques you've mentioned were a while ago.
Good and/or bad feedback will always be there regardless of who's involved and the amount of money at hand.

One thing I've used in these types of situations was to realize, 'you can't finish, if you don't start'.
posted by mountainblue at 2:55 PM on February 8, 2017

I work in photography and filmmaking. I think every creative struggles with imposter syndrome. We all feel like we aren't as good as so and so or that what we are doing should be better before we go after a client. You just have to keep doing the work and never become complacent. Always try to make something better or look at something differently than you have before.

Professionally, I think it's best to find a niché that you are passionate about and/or that is underserved. Dive into that headfirst and try to make a name for yourself. Then as you start doing well in those areas start to slowly branch out.

You also need to get over any reluctance to be self promoting. I definitely struggle with this. I don't like to call attention to myself. But, in this field you're really selling yourself as much as your images. Really think about your business plan and how you can create a revenue stream out of your images. Stop giving away your work, unless you really want to for a good reason. If you're good at something, don't do it for free.

Here are some words of inspiration from Ira Glass.

posted by trbrts at 6:50 AM on February 9, 2017

I was a photo editor for a large metro daily newspaper, and before that, at a wire service. I hired freelancers daily for news jobs. I've watched some former classmates thrive in the business. (My specialty was different from yours, so some of this may not translate.)

Find a way to get your confidence up. Take time to do some personal work that you really like. Your eye and unique style are what those editors and art directors need. Believe that. Be that. Part of it is going to come from developing your craft, and part of it is going to come from developing your marketing and social media outreach. Your website should have clippings and a pretty diverse selection of your work, a list of previous clients, and a lot of pictures that we're able to see without a lot of clicking. The people you're marketing to see pictures all day. They can take it all in fast.

I know that I can do the kind of work that most magazines that I'd be sending my portfolio to (music magazines plus the Sunday inserts, for starters) with my eyes closed.

So, the point of them taking a risk on hiring you is that you can give them something they don't already have among their existing roster of freelancers. You're selling yourself as a way for them to up the game of their publication. They're reluctant to start with someone new who is just going to give them more of what they already have. Most prized is the photographer who could give me something interesting or unexpected from a job that seems mundane. (But you can't go too far as the photo still has to fit the placement.)

The key to getting more work is exceeding expectations for whatever work you get. Your marketing and networking gets you the first assignment. That assignment gets you the one after, but only if it's good. And so on. Keeping your client list growing is about being available and professional. Answer your phone/email promptly. Transmit images on time, in format requested, post processed within the rules of the publication. (Less is always better than more.)

Get to know your target publications really well. Read all credits/bylines/mastheads. Spotting when the photo editor or art director changes can be an opportunity to offer yourself as someone who can help the new person take the publication in the direction they want to go. Regular writers can and will suggest the photographer they want to work with. See if you're ready to get representation with an agency or production company, which is where some of those commercial jobs will come from. Some of your calls to potential clients will be in the form of "hi, I'm looking for advice/portfolio review, when might you have time." Some of it will be "Hi, I can help you improve your publication, when can I come in to see you." Be good at making both those calls.

Set some goals about where you'd like to see your work. Figure out some steps between here and there. Then take the first one. There's no licensing exam or credential review for this job. Don't wait for your photographer's license to come in the mail. It's not going to come. It's a thing you become by doing.

Personal work is great. Do a portrait series on people you're interested in. Give it it's own instagram, and link it back to yours. But don't work for free.
posted by thenormshow at 8:20 AM on February 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

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