Photography during a pandemic: Thursday, April 23

Join me as we talk about what Covid-19 has meant for our business and creative selves, tomorrow Thursday. Don’t forget to register, as it will enable you to ask questions.

Surprisingly, I’ve had assignments to help keep me busy. But staying safe and protecting others is always a concern, so we’ll be talking about that as well.

Look forward to having you join us!

How to Sustain Your Business as a Storyteller

Running a business will bring moments of truth. Mine came without warning after I voluntarily left my job 5 years ago as a staff photojournalist at the Chicago Tribune. A freelance opportunity had come up that seemed too good to be true. It would be years of regular work and position me well as a storyteller in advertising. I felt that I was ready, both creatively and business-wise, after years of freelance work in photography and video and many years on staff at the Tribune and the L.A. Times.

That opportunity was, indeed, too good to be true. In the rough-and-tumble worlds of mergers/acquisitions and advertising, what appeared to be a 3-year opportunity as a visual storyteller vaporized within a matter of months, to both my shock and that of the marketing director. Our carefully laid plans were thrown out the window and I found myself staring into an abyss, having cleared my schedule in preparation for this opportunity.

So where do you go from a moment like that? How do you survive and thrive in an industry of relentless competition where everyone claims to be a “storyteller”?

Join me and other speakers at the ASMP Chicago/Midwest Strictly Business Seminar this as we share our experiences, insights and much inspiration this January. Early bird pricing ends December 26.

I’m not in charge of the seminar, but I can almost guarantee that you will save a lot of money, and make more, by the advice that we give. Truly, I wish I could have shared these tips with my 2014 self. Someone get me a time machine for Christmas;-)

WGN Radio 720AM Interview

This week I had the opportunity to be on WGN 720AM with Andrea Darlas on her show, “Andrea and the Reporters”, where she interviewed former Tribune photojournalist Nancy Stone, photographer Will Byington and myself on a range of topics regarding our photography. Andrea (center, middle) is such a pro. Have you known someone so nice and so good at what they do that by the time you’re done with something that might stir some anxiety, you’re like, “Wow, that was too easy!”? We talked about storytelling, favorite pictures, why keeping your outtakes is so important, the kindness of strangers, and generally how our careers got started. It was a fun conversation. I hope you can put it on in the background this week sometime and give it a listen.

https://wgnradio.com/2019/09/09/andrea-and-the-reporters-journalistic-panel-will-byington-alex-garcia-and-nancy-stone/

Speaking at the Prism Photo Workshop

Just wanted to give a heads up that tomorrow, Saturday May 18, I’ll be speaking at the Prism Photo Workshop at Columbia College. If you can make it, I’d love to see you. I’ll be speaking at 11am for about an hour about how to take photojournalism and storytelling into other areas to expand your influence and business. I was added a few days ago to the keynote spot when my friend John White had to attend to a personal situation, hence the last minute notification.

For those interested, the Prism Photo Workshop was started by Michael Zajakowski, Alyssa Schuker and Michelle Kanaar with the mission to “provide resources and support for young photographers of diverse backgrounds to tell the stories of underrepresented people and communities with dignity.” We believe it is imperative that news organizations — and the journalists who represent them — are credible, diligent, and reflect our communities accurately and faithfully.”

​Over 100 people have already signed up online, and you can do so too. Or you can show up at the door. Hope you can join us!

Storytelling Video for Recipe for Change

After many years on the street in Chicago as a photojournalist, one of the concerns that I heard consistently in underserved communities was the need not just for good jobs, but for opportunities for those getting out of jail. It made no sense to me that someone who paid the penalty for their crime and who wanted to rebuild their life would be denied that opportunity because of their jail record. So when I was approached to do to a video for Recipe for Change, it was meant to be.

Recipe for Change is a non-profit organization that provides mentoring and guidance to non-violent detainees in the jail and prison system through culinary, fine arts and life skills training. It operates an active educational program five days per week in the Cook County Jail. The heart of the program is Chef Bruno Abate, who received a “call from God” that led him to start the program. He doesn’t just give cooking advice, but life advice. An equal dose of inspiration.

Detainees can earn a certificate that sets them up to work in restaurants once they re-enter society. Those who go through the program don’t come back. It’s that effective. That, according to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, is very unusual. There are currently creating a program in the women’s jail.

The production team was comprised of myself, producer Kelly Sullivan, my co-creative partner Laura Husar Garcia and Johnny McGuire, who provided the aerial cinematography that you must see at the end.

If you know anyone who owns and operates restaurants or who would like to donate cooking equipment, please ask them to reach out to the organization through their website, recipeforchangeproject.org.

They could transform a life and change a family for generations.

Finding Flow in Creative Briefs for Portraits and Headshots

 

More often than not when creating an image library for a corporation or organization, I am called upon to create portraits or headshots. It’s logical, since the library is often part of a more ambitious overhaul of a website and that includes the “About Us” page.

But because they don’t reside on the home page, these portraits don’t always receive the same creative consideration. You would expect that to be a creative goal to create consistency in branding, so I’m always prepared for that to be the case.  My modus operandi has always been to answer the question,  “What is the end goal here?”

This all comes to mind on two recent shoots, where careful consideration was, indeed, given to crafting a look for photos of individuals. In the top example for a healthcare company, the agency showed samples of different headshots, had discussions, and issued a creative brief. On set, the agency creative director and the company’s creative reviewed the images on the tethered laptop to make minor adjustments. The goal was more about color and light but not so saturated in color that it set up an odd pairing for the mature leadership.  The background was different but similar, to account for what could be future photographs taken in other environments. Thematically, they had to work together without being identical.

In the lower example, the headshots were taken at a Working Not Working creative gathering. Discussions ahead of time were about how they should be a little more moody, muted with a dark background but not so dark as to create jarring juxtaposition with a smiling, happy person. It was to be more personal and intimate. Again, samples were offered but I was given the flexibility to bring whatever look I thought was appropriate within those guidelines. Practically speaking it was also very quick, since we were doing dozens of subjects and it was taken in a corner next to a crowded bar! But it was a crazy fun time.

Both were a success and an enjoyable experience, in part because of creative direction. To me, that element always been essential in order to align expectations. One reason there is a “Create PDF” link in the left column on my website is because it’s a very useful function in creating a mood board.  Clicking on the image shows all the images in the website, allowing a person to create a PDF by selecting images that might pair with the creative look and feel they have in mind.

You would think after all this, the only thing missing from having photographs achieve a creative goal is to have creative direction. Yet unfortunately, the head-scratching truth is that there are photographers who don’t know how to follow a creative brief. I don’t get it. I was on a recent multi-city project where a very thorough creative brief was given to different photographers shooting in different cities. It called for a white background, even lighting but a light source not too hard, very shallow depth-of-field, a certain type of expression. Examples were given. I understood what was needed and rented equipment as appropriate to the project. Afterward, the project manager was happy with what I had done but circled back in a group email (mercifully bcc’d) in which he complained to the other photographers about their lack of follow-through while holding up my pictures as an example (with my name redacted so no one ended up hating me later). Honestly, I don’t say this to brag. How can you brag about something as basic as following directions?

This is perhaps fodder for a different post, but in the end, it appears to me that many photographers are not comfortable shooting outside their creative comfort zones.  I understand this to some degree. There are natural instincts as a photographer that take over when faced with uncertainty on a shoot. You solve problems a certain way. You subtly adjust to repeat past success. The insecure impulses associated with a challenge can be hard to fight. But having been a generalist for much of my career in which I have been expected to emulate different looks for different editors over the years, I don’t get caught up with what I’ve done but what I need to do. As with the examples above, I echo what Gregory Heisler used to call the “appropriate response.”

So it’s a two-way street between a photographer and a creative director.  It’s fantastic and a relief to have a brief written by someone used to directing photographers but it’s up to the photographer to read between the lines of any project description or brief to ask questions and offer synonyms for ambiguous words such as “candid” or “edgy” to get everyone closer to acting from a shared vocabulary.

The example here is portraits and headshots, nothing terribly complicated. But once expectations are aligned and creative flow is moving forward, it makes the process a lot more reassuring for everyone, no matter the size of the shoot.

 

 

 

 

Group Trading Firm Image Library

Before the trading markets converted to software and technology, the most reliably frenzied places for pictures in photojournalism were at the exchanges here in Chicago. It was crazy fun and the traders usually enjoyed the attention. The changeover happened after I left Chicago to work in Los Angeles. Everything went fast and silent on the floor, but the stakes were just as high. Returning to Chicago, I didn’t see up close all of the big changes until asked to produce an image library of (mostly) documentary images at a firm that had a website relaunch. As a firm with a presence on the Chicago Board Options Exchange and NYSE AMEX, they were looking to convey their success, their training culture and the fun time had by their people. Underneath it all, you could feel the hum of intensity among the traders and the money that was all at stake.

9 Powerful Archetypes in Super Bowl Ads (and One That Should Inspire Caution)

As some of you who have heard me speak or write on the topic, as a visual storyteller I have always been interested in archetypes –  universally transcendent types of people Carl Jung believes are found in our collective unconscious. They’re types of people we know without ever having met. Archetypes are shaped by our history, culture and personal context as they speak to us on an almost instinctual level. It’s always worth considering the relevancy of archetypes when poised for any type of mass communication, either in an editorial or commercial context.

Super Bowl commercials, massive opportunities for storytelling around a digital campfire, can be superb examples of how creative minds can tap archetypes to gather a community around a story. They also help to answer the riddle of our times: “How do you keep the human attention span when it’s shorter than that of a goldfish?”

Four years later, I am still inspired by a great example of an archetype at Super Bowl time – the “God Made a Farmer” ad for Ram Trucks, in style and approach similar to the prequel to the more controversial “Built to Serve”.  A transcendent voice in Paul Harvey intones our deeper selves to pause to grasp elemental truths about the Farmer archetype, a crucial figure of our food chain and the backbone of economies the world over. It helped the ad was based on the medium of documentary photography, a conduit for authentic truth and spellbinding attention.

Likewise, the “Built to Serve” by Ram Trucks had an equally outstanding message, built around the principle of serving others. It had the blessing of the Martin Luther King, Jr. estate. It had cinematic video of a high caliber. The ad was in part based on the Prophet archetype. What became painfully obvious, however, is that no estate owns holy archetypes – so such an archetype needs to be treated with caution. People the world over depend on the guidance of prophets for hope beyond our material world and things money can’t buy. Given the divided soul of a nation where many are crying out for peace and justice, having a prophetic figure guide us back to materialism in the form of a heavy-duty truck was too much for some.

When you look at serving others, as exemplified by the Caregiver archetype, no figure can perhaps lay greater claim to being the unselfish protector and compassionate giver than a first responder, which is probably why the Verizon ad was one of the few where I instantly started to tear up (nice going all). First responders are both Caregivers and Heroes wrapped in one. They also tap into the powerful Reciprocity Principle. Seeing news photos lifted up in context was also very inspiring to reinforce the “real people” reality of these stories.

The Hero Archetype? Most clearly seen through the triumph of 8X Paralympic Gold Medalist Lauren Woolstencroft, who proves the power of the human will against the odds. We see the courage, strength and discipline to fight our own heroic battles as we are left in awe.  Heroes are the role models that transcend circumstance.

 

The Innovator was represented by Keanu in his ad for Squarespace. As a Creator, he has what could be seen as a burning-bush-in-the-desert experience in the fuller version of the ad online (Neo is the chosen one, after all). What does riding on the back of a motorcycle until launching into the sky have to do with building a website? Is walking on wheels like walking on water? Who knows? He’s too busy fulfilling the archetype of a creator in his vision to create lasting value. Critics will easily get lost in this desert but the message has already been sent, and more importantly, felt.

The Regular Guy’s struggle for respect was exquisitely and comically played by Chris Pratt as he seeks the elusive fame of being featured prominently in a beer commercial, only to find that he finds fame as elusive as the rest of us. How many everyman’s dreams end in a bar with friends?  If you know his backstory before stardom, he was homeless and working at a restaurant until he was offered an acting opportunity, giving special resonance to this archetype for those in the know.

If you represent an airline looking to boost travel, why not tap into the Explorer archetypethrough Dr. Oz’s enthralled recounting of all we are capable of seeing, hearing, feeling and experiencing through the human senses? You could live out another Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell.

I’m sure David Harbour has played stranger things than the Jester, as he romped through all the well-worn commercials to rip up storyboards everywhere he saw them. His running joke irreverence helped us see the commercial landscape through a newer and cleaner perspective, leaving us amused and grateful.

 

I will never forget making a portrait of natural talent Keegan-Michael Key on a train in Chicago as a comedian with the Second City troupe before he achieved greater fame.  I was delighted to see him assume the role of the Sage, a wise and truth-seeking figure, as he set people straight until finally showing them how to navigate the mortgage process for Quicken Loans.

To conclude, there are plenty more archetypes to consider, from Vikings to Knights, and other figures who have come to represent various versions of the Conquering Hero (this is the Super Bowl after all). What I found most interesting and amusing was how the Bud Light ad almost “flipped the script”, where the shining-hero-on-a-horse that expect to act in one way, acts in the opposite.

Good thing our knight had second thoughts. Perhaps we will see more examples of upside-down archetypes next year as we see new twists on the old.

“Photographer to Video in Today’s Gig Economy”

I’m thrilled to announce that through the School of Visuals Arts and Kadenze online arts and technology courses, I’m co-teaching a program called Photographer to Video in Today’s Gig Economy. It’s for all those photographers who need focused and cohesive instruction (read: Kick in Butt:-)) as they add video to their skillsets, or reinvent themselves as video storytellers. This is a MUST DO, as I’ve told many photographers. My transition to being an independent freelancer was made possible with video as an option for my clients, and in many cases, the primary offering. I’m honored to be among distinguished faculty who are also co-teaching this course, including Eduardo Angel, Gail Mooney and Manuel Tejeda. The experience of teaching in front of a camera was new for me (reading a teleprompter to begin with!), but I got into the swing of it.

Why is this so important and why do I care? As I mentioned in my introductory video, I was once at a meeting with a room full of photographers when an agent asked how many photographers had transitioned to video. The room was packed. Maybe 5 hands went up in the room. I was stunned and sad, especially after seeing many photographers I know give up on their careers. Who could possibly miss the signs of the marketplace that point to video?  I could go on, but that’s why I lay out some of the reasons in the first class. Of course every photographer wants to be the photographer that doesn’t have to shoot video, who wants to be recognized for their vision at such an order of magnitude that video is unnecessary. I understand that thinking, but uh, good luck with that, since even the topmost photographers in the industry have embraced video in a powerful way.  It’s why I started my company Three Story Media.  It’s about not just about video, it’s about scaling up video productions in general. But you have to start somewhere.

From the course description: “Today’s gig economy demands that creatives draw from a wide range of knowledge and frequently adapt to new tools and workflows. Having a strong foundation in photography is a good start, but having solid video production skills will expand the number and kind of jobs you can be hired for. Photographer to Video in Today’s Gig Economy provides five courses to give today’s digital photographer a working knowledge of video as well as projects to extend your portfolio. Starting with Camera Essentials, you will gain an understanding of the camera settings and gear that is used in professional DSLR and mirrorless video production. The second course, Working with Motion and Time is a deep dive from photography to videography and shows you how to think in motion, add motion where there is none, and control focus, light and sound. Sound Essentials is the third course and, as the name suggests, covers an entirely new dimension that can make or break your video work. Next, the Fundamentals of Video Production course will get you ready for your first shoot covering everything from storyboarding to managing the crew, location and lighting. Finally, in Fundamentals of Video Post-Production you will jump into the art of editing your work.”

This program starts with the basics, assuming you have a foundation of knowledge about and experience shooting digital photograph. So if you know little or have dabbled with video, or if you’ve learned video on your own and need some confirmation of what you’ve learned together with deeper insights by other faculty, I’m confident that this program is for you.

For those people who might want to take this class as evidence to a school or employer, the Kadenze program offers this: “Completion of a program or credit-eligible course appears on your Kadenze resume/portfolio, which can be valuable for presentation to potential employers, or schools to which you might apply.”

Here are the 5 courses that are part of my portion of the program. The first session is more of an essential overview, on the way to other meatier topics:

Session 1: From Still Photographer To Videographer 
Understand the importance for photographers to incorporate motion into their skillset, and the essential steps towards rethinking their creative process to create videos.
Session 2: Recording And Seeing In Motion 
Understand the basics of recording video and how the different types of motion, both of the camera and subject, create meaning, mood and purpose as it contributes to the story that a director wants the viewer to experience and understand.
Session 3: Motion Methods 
To deepen one’s knowledge about how to create the motion needed for a particular scene through an exposure to the different equipment and technologies that exist and the critical success factors needed to execute a director’s vision.
Session 4: Managing Focus, Light And Sound 
Grasp the special significance that audio, light and focus have in a motion environment, and how the success of a video project can literally depend on controlling for the variables posed by these elements.
Session 5: The Documentary Project 
Experience through hands-on practice how a very commonly done video with an interview and b-roll, combined with motion, sound, and lighting come together to create a unique experience for a viewer.

The program also offers a forum for students to interact with each other.

I’m hoping this program might be helpful for you, or someone you might know who would benefit. Please share as you might.

Thank you!

Alex

 

“I have never heard of you,” and the Realities of Getting Known

Keeping visible during a TEDx event presentation in Chicago.
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“I’ve been working in this town for 30 years and I’ve never heard of you”, the head of production at a Chicago ad agency said, impressed by my work but mystified about my perceived invisibility. A well-known commercial and editorial photographer who works for the same editor as I did as a staff photojournalist at the Tribune for years, had no idea who I was at a mixer.

This was shortly after leaving the Tribune. I knew then that things were going to be a little more uphill than expected.

The problem with working at one of the largest circulation news organizations in the country is that you assume people in your backyard creative community might know your name.

I didn’t think it unreasonable. I was one of the more public photographers at the paper before leaving three years ago. I had a Sunday column for years sharing photo tips. I was interviewed on radio and television numerous times, and presented work before thousands at events such as TEDx Midwest, Chicago Ideas Week and Chicago Lit Fest.

I had even worked large commercial jobs while freelancing during my free time from the Tribune, of course under the watchful eyes of that friendly person in Human Resources who would call me on Christmas Eve to make sure my freelance gig was approved by my supervisor.

So to any photojournalist looking to transition to the commercial world, that should be something to think about. You certainly shouldn’t wait until your buyout money starts to fade to get yourself going, because it can take a year of getting to know people before work starts coming your way. The one mistake I regret was not marketing right away after leaving, mostly because I was busy with a big client who helped make the leap possible.

One experienced commercial photographer seeing that I had prepared myself for freelance remarked, “It takes photographers normally 5 years to really get things going. It might take you 3.” I’m at 3 years now and finally things are jelling. I’m very grateful for the projects that come my way through relationships, many of them friends and colleagues who know and trust my work. It’s a lot of fun. It’s been a continuation of our relationships, in different stages of our lives.

So it doesn’t matter if you were a star in your industry. You might have a Pulitzer, put your life on the line in combat and worked in awful and dangerous conditions that would make a studio photographer crumble in fear and stress. You might have won awards in World Press Photo and been asked to mentor the next generation at some of the most prestigious workshops and universities in the world.

But once you leap into commercial or advertising worlds where you may not have as many contacts, prepare to prove yourself all over again to each and every new client. They may have heard of you. They likely haven’t. Either way, they assume you have set patterns and might not understand the sensibilities of project or client management or how to be guided by a creative brief, or more importantly, how to get along in their culture. I’ve written about the similarities of production between news and commercial work, but really, that’s all logic. In the end, we all make decisions based on gut and emotion.

The good news is that, if you ever learned to accept the editor phrase, “what you have done for me lately?” you’re well-prepared for future humility and the constant need for self-promotion.

There is another silver lining – proof you can have a career in photography without being known whatsoever. It’s not uncommon for me to stumble upon a commercial photographer or director I’ve never heard about, happily and successfully working for years in the city, oblivious to his need for a big reputation. He just knows the right dozen people to make a great career.

So I hope this is a great kick-in-the-pants about getting known before you hang out your shingle. One person’s “superstar”, which I was once called at a photo conference (true story), is another person’s unknown character lingering at an APA networking event (also true).

In the end what I’m discovering is a truism:

Being known helps create a relationship. Having a relationship brings trust. Trust brings work. And that process takes time.

Many photographers feel that social media fame is the way of the future. You see twenty-somethings getting offers of work from brands eager to connect to their audiences. Indeed, on assignment, I was impressed by the kitchen that McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Brook had devoted entirely to Instagram influencers. But I know a lot of very busy commercial photographers whose Instagram followings are abysmally low by superstar standards. It’s because they are proven talent – experienced, reliable and dependable. Your real life social network can be just as valuable as your online social network.

It all reminds me of a surprising conversation I had after a talk about storytelling I gave at the SoHo House here in Chicago. I was sitting with a group of photographers, talking about self-promotion. After I finished saying something about what it took to find new clients, a complete stranger across the table said to me, “You really disappoint me.” I stared at him, mystified.

Then he says, “If you, with all your experience and reputation, still have to work hard to find clients, how am I ever possibly going to make it? ”

I felt bad for him and didn’t know what to say. Honestly, I imagine it would be hard to start from scratch in today’s competitive photo world.

The first thought that occurred to me, sitting at an exclusive club of creatives from various industries, reflects a reality any self-employed person can relate to:

“Welcome to the club.”