“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.”