“I'm the king of U-turns,” photographer Andy Anderson told our class at the 2014 Texas Photo Roundup. Over the course of the next few days, we'd come to learn that he meant that quite literally: Andy was in constant pursuit of his next personal project. For him that could have meant a dune buggy in a desert, or oilmen at work.
The bigger picture though, to me at least, wasn't about the art of it. Yes Andy spoke at length about how it was important to craft your own vision and continually be honing a unique point of view, and both of those things are incredibly important, that wasn't the golden nugget. The most valuable take-away from the workshop, and from my experiences since then was that photographers who shoot the most personal work get the most commissioned work of the type they want to do.
Other Tiffinbox blog posts that address the idea of personal work are here and here.
This concept has been reinforced by Andy's rep, Heather Elder, who writes the incredibly insightful, Notes from a Rep's Journal blog. Heather has often written that among the photographers she represents, it's always those who shoot the most personal work who find themselves the busiest commercially.
Years ago – I think it was from Nick Onken's blog, but am not 100% sure – I read the best advice regarding the photography business I've ever heard.
“Everything you do needs to be in service of two ideas – take better photos, and show them to more people.”
As I've built my business, that idea has been at the center of everything I do, and if a particular task isn't in service of one of those ideas, maybe that's something I should consider outsourcing (like bookkeeping).
The most valuable take-away from the workshop, and from my experiences since then was that photographers who shoot the most personal work get the most commissioned work of the type they want to do.
It all ties together though. In 2015 I committed to sending monthly e-mails to 2,000+ creatives and current clients via Yodelist as part of my overall broader marketing plan. Yodelist, while far less expensive then their chief competitor Agency Access, isn't a small financial commitment. To see a return on that investment, I realized quickly I couldn't send e-mails saying, “Hey! Come look at the same work I showed you last month!”
The catch-22 though is that much of the work I shoot in a given month won't be available to be shown publicly for a few months following, because it's either part of a broader yet-unfinished campaign, or because a magazine hasn't yet been published. As a result, having new personal work, like my recent “Fuego Faces” series is a key component to my marketing plan as I can shoot something today and have it live on my blog or website tomorrow.
While the “Fuego Faces” project was all shot in a day, my series of photos of New England Craftsmen has been ongoing for 3+ years with no end in sight. I don't exaggerate to say that literally every new client I've worked with during the past few years has referenced the craftsmen series – it's led to thousands (tens of perhaps?) of dollars of new work. I've received creative briefs with individual images pulled from the craftsmen gallery, and lost track of the number of times clients have said, “Just shoot it like your craftsmen series.”
Personal Work by Doug Levy
I try to treat personal work no different than commissioned work, and often that means paying an assistant to come to personal work shoots. It totally depends how you work though. For me, paying to have an assistant is just part of my overall marketing budget. I wouldn't do a client job without a second set of hands, so why would I shoot personal work any differently? To me, spending a few hundred dollars on an assistant = better photos = more paying client work. Personal work is also an opportunity to try new techniques and work in new assistants (or stylists, or digital techs) on jobs that inherently have a lower stress point than those involving large client expenditures.
I frequently get asked by local photographers, “How do I get more commercial clients?” At its root, the first step could almost always be, “Shoot some killer personal work and show it to as many people as possible.”