As an artist, I have been pushing people to transmit something in the images we create that tells ME the story I want to see in other humans... Strength, confidence, knowledge, depth, integrity, foresight, empathy, joy, wisdom...
Photography still has a real magic to it. And I think people truly want to be seen. Deeper. More real. More raw.
For years, I have ravenously devoured knowledge and ceaselessly practised to get better at my craft from every conceivable angle. I can honestly describe myself as one of the finest professionals in my industry; consistently creating inspired excellence when I'm holding the camera.
I am a professional.
But I remember what it felt like a bunch of years ago - before I really was a professional at what I do. It was lots of 'fake it to make it'... going out into the world and telling people who I am and what I do until I actually believed it because my results could back it up.
But I've recently discovered something quite shocking. Something that I don't identify with considering how far I have come and what I've been able to achieve in so many ways.
I've been 'safely' sticking to what I know... I'm in the Comfort Zone!
To anyone who knows me well the 'comfort zone' has been - ironically - not really a place I've felt comfortable. But I've been hiding.
Only in the last few months has this realisation been dragged out into the stark contrast of brightest midday sun... What I've been hiding from is being a professional business owner - and all the skills and challenges that make one a true professional.
Mainly, it has come from an epic journey through an amazing program called Key Person of Influence... and the people with whom I have surrounded myself throughout these 40 weeks. And more specifically through a gruelling two day session with outstanding business coach, David Dugan.
I've always jumped into everything with both feet. Blind faith and an inconceivable certainty that I will prevail has taken me far. The ultimate quote that informs most of my choices is a simple one.
I don't have to try to believe it. It's just a fundamental truth beyond question. But lately, as I've learned a myriad new skills I have pushed myself well beyond the invisible confines of my 'zone of comfort'... Into a terrifyingly foreign realm of organising & planning and measuring & counting.
I have certainly leapt. But the net hasn't come up to meet me. I feel like I've been falling. ...waiting for the net. And getting nervous that I've been mistaken. Or maybe somehow this time I got it wrong.
But today it all became so clear. I am falling. But I'm falling up. It's strange to be out in unfamiliar space for so long. But I have mistaken this sensation of falling from a gravity-restricted reality.
Sometimes it's hard to see when you're so close to the situation... It's hard to get perspective. But I've seen such profound changes and growth in my business over the past few months I'm not worried anymore that the net will appear. It always does. But now that I know I'm falling up it seems to me that the farther I go... well, the farther I go.
And that's pretty awesome.
Somebody said that "Beauty is the Opposite of Perfection - It's about Confidence, Charisma and Character..."
I don't know who said that, but I totally agree.
The word 'Photogenic' is thrown around a lot in my world. It's not a word I personally like - or even use - because socio-culturally, it's a very loaded word that skews our self image, striking varying degrees of fear into the hearts of otherwise strong, confident people.
By now, you're probably used to my mantra that 'nobody is photogenic'. Because that's not the goal.
Wishing you were 'photogenic' is about striving for perfection which is that unrealistic and completely unhelpful.
There's an amazing Chinese word that describes what I mean perfectly. It's a very small word with huge implications.
That word is "Li".
Li refers to the imperfect perfection everywhere in the natural world... The markings in Jade, the grain in Wood...
These things are beautiful BECAUSE of their imperfection. Not despite it. Perfect symmetry and rigid order is not our nature either. It's Li that makes us special... beautiful. And it's the Li we strive to see and capture through the camera.
When we truly embrace our own Li, then the important things like Confidence, Charisma and Character are free to come through. And that is when we connect.
As lifetime consumers of media, our tastes are constantly refining.
These days, if it feels like you’re trying to tell me something, it makes me feel like you’re trying to sell me something. And I immediately begin to detach.
I first noticed when I was dabbling with video that people would “present” to the camera. I’d stop them and ask them to tell me what they were about to say and it would happen in the most natural tone… a conversation… rather than presentation (effectively advertisement).
Well I don’t go near video anymore, but my point is the same. The second we approach portraits from a place where you’re trying to tell me something you’ve lost my respect as a viewer of that image.
This is why I believe ‘personal branding’ is a disconnected plague of insincerity.
Your ‘branding’ is a fabricated extension of you and what your business represents. It’s important, of course, because it helps us define your product. But at best it’s a very rough approximation.
You, however, are a complete person with a unique story. And you are much deeper with far more context and relevance than ‘personal branding’ could ever hope to convey.
‘Personal branding’ generally presents itself as a smiling head facing a camera. Is this the degree of depth we are willing to expect from a portrait or headshot?
Looking at portraits, I want to be presented with a message from the very core. A message that resonates with me as a complex person, full of preferences and conflict and experiences. That is what we should expect from head shots and portraits… not a fraction less.
And it’s possible. For real people. Every time.
When I get the feeling from a portrait that you have something to say you get my attention and that is the biggest commodity of all. That’s what all businesses are reaching for.
Our brains are evolved to look for a challenge. Something unique… unexpected. We know very well that the familiar and obvious fades into the background very quickly. It is precisely one of the things our brain does best. Unfortunately, familiar and obvious is what most photographers deliver.
If the most important thing in business is to approach your audience (your potential clients) with them in mind, then most photographers are really missing the point. But when it’s done well, we frame the story the viewers tell themselves about who they see.
You see, a photo is not a one way street. That’s the real magic of photography (and the aspect most photographers ignore). It is not a passive experience to the viewer. We can’t avoid putting the face in front of us through the matrix of human, emotional interpretation.
The same applies when you’re in a room with someone. You are either building rapport based on some sort of familiar recognition… or you’re not. There’s rarely anything in between.
If you’re telling me something - like telling me ‘smiling’ - I am left with no way to engage with the image. If it requires no interpretation it will not demand the viewers’ attention.
Opportunity lost. And how many opportunities can anyone afford to lose, really?
This is all fleeting. The reactions we have to images are instantaneous. Forget seven seconds! We process way faster than that because we are forced to. I’m not sure where this whole seven seconds thing even comes from, but if you think you have someone’s attention for SEVEN WHOLE SECONDS in order to make an impression, you are completely deluded.
Go ahead. Do it right now. It even feels absurd to suggest… Look at anything in the room and count… 1-1000, 2-1000, 3-1000… It’s a freaking eternity.
Often, our images get a glance at best. But that’s all we need. These days we are wired to accept or reject in a moment. So we need a headshot or portrait that delivers instantaneous impact.
The only way ‘telling smiling’ is going to have any impact is if the viewer happens to be smiling in the moment they encounter your image. I’m not willing to gamble on those odds. Are you?
Go try that little experiment. I dare you.
Go and sit in a room full of strangers with a big fake smile plastered to your face and see if it resonates. It might if someone else is sitting there smiling too because one of the ways we build rapport is mirroring each other.
Otherwise, you are ‘that’ person on the train or in the waiting room that people move away from… often clutching their bags - or their children - just a little bit closer.
And what is your Portrait or Headshot? It is you when you can’t be in the room. It works the same way. Who do you choose to put in the room?
Your portrait is an opportunity for deeper interaction with you and your story. And according to the finest business minds out there, that is how we build business these days.
How much more vital to share something deeper?
This is not merely facial recognition. Computers can do that. I’m talking about a true recognition of values and intention… something fundamental. One of those aspects that only we - the incredibly refined, blunt objects called ‘humans’ - are capable of recognising in each another.
We don’t need to see your face or your ‘personal branding’. We need to see you. All of you… with all the sincerity, power, experience and intention that makes you, you.
Sounds daunting? I know. But a great portrait photographer will help you get there with proper coaching in front of the camera. And the closer you get, the more inspired you are to push further… Ultimately creating images of yourself you never thought possible.
Not the fabricated mask that is the ‘person’. And not even simply who you are… When done well, you begin to uncover - visually - who you know your best self to be… and who you hope to become.
That is the magic possible in every portrait session.
...And anything less is a crime.
I just finished listening to another amazing installment of my absolute favorite radio show / podcast of ALL TIME...
Most NPR fans in the US will have heard of Radiolab. If you haven’t ever encountered this most fascinating portal of knowledge and understanding, throw down that thesis or bunt cake you’re working on and go to their website immediately.
They describe their program as:
“…a show about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience.”
Personally, I would venture to call it the most inspiring hour you can possibly spend learning. And it is often the seed that has sprouted quite diverse directions & interests in my professional life.
This particular show (an old one that I hadn’t heard) was called DIY Universe.
Basically, this scientist was saying that it is theoretically possible to create your own universe. And according to the proposals out there, the universe you create would create its own space… Not encroaching into your house or region… But it would expand into new space. Space that hadn’t existed before.
Listening to these grand theories, I felt such a powerful connection to my own entrepreneurial situation. I arrived in a strange place and built a very fine ‘something’ (which I’m quite proud of) out of ‘nothing’. Almost every second of my current reality is informed and molded by this new ‘universe’ I created 3+ years ago.
The whole issue (in the photography industry, anyway) that ‘there are too many folks out there trying to be professional photographers’ is one I can’t subscribe to. Because deep down I know that I am creating all new space in which my life – career – whatever is unfolding. I never feel like I’m trying to fit in amongst the rest.
When you think about ‘creating a universe’ in terms of inter-dimensional, infinite space-type scale seems harder to accept such extravagant theories. But when you break it down into the most basic of notions… isn’t that exactly what each of us does every day? Every moment? Creating our own reality, which creates infinite possibilities responding to each choice… Suddenly, it isn’t so hard to comprehend.
Interestingly, this particular podcast wrapped up with one of life’s finest lessons.
He said that pushing the laws of physics to their breaking point is often where they learn new things about how the world works… Well, I know that one can be applied across the board… 100%
While we were in Barcelona about a month ago, news was coming out about the amazing Higgs findings (a.k.a. the 'god particle') and how this newly verified particle is basically responsible for matter and energy just appearing spontaneously. Of course this is wildly simplified, but it got me thinking about the implications of our fundamental existence, perceived reality, etc...
It was a lot to think about so I had to go for a walk.
And just a few blocks from where we were staying I passed by an empty shop front window emblazoned with a rather ironic declaration... 'Hasta Fin de Existencia' which translates to 'Until the End of Existence'.
Well, considering the interesting light bouncing around the narrow laneway, I just had to step into the doorway giving me a cool opportunity for a topical (and even more ironic) self-portrait in the window's reflection...
Wow! Spencer Lum dropped some serious wisdom a few months back that has really reaffirmed this process of 'making it happen'. And not just for creative types, either...
He's called it the "Rockstar Economy" and it's the kind of plain and simple truth that cuts through the noise and reaches straight to the core. It's the message we all need to keep going.
I'm still going to strive for Rockstar-dom (of course!) but after a few well placed words, I'm reminded that it's far from the point.
This 3 month European trip as been an exercise in exactly that... The 'Big Work'. Seth Godin wrote another short, super-resonant blog a couple of days ago 'Doing the big work (at the little table)'.
For me there are 2 main points.
1. You spend lots of time on the 'little' work... Meetings, planning, paperwork, etc... And often very little time on the 'Big' work... The stuff that scares you or might fail.
The 'Big' work for me is going out and shooting. For you the activity may be different but the principle is the same.
These folks go out in public and create (and hone) their art... I've written about it before over here. But they are out there doing their work. The guy above carves faces into olive tree roots...
The past few months have been an amazing experience because that is all I could do... The 'Big' work. Every day I go out with my camera, talk to strangers and make pictures. It has been fantastically inspiring and my craft has grown beyond measure. The client is me. And everyday I endeavor to impress myself. There has been nothing to distract me.
2. We're more likely to do it when the 'resources are lacking and time is short'.
Why do we allow ourselves to become distracted 'at home'? It seems that when everything is finite (time, money, etc.) there is a burst of effort. I allow myself to become wrapped up in all the little stuff (that is necessary - to a degree) and often get sidetracked from the Big stuff. Even when you know that's the work that counts.
What is your 'Big' work? Are you distracted?
As Seth says, "No need to wait for permission or the lightning bolt of inspiration. The big work is available to you as soon as you decide to do it."
One thing is for sure...
We spent a few hours yesterday inside a cave - La Cueva de la Pileta. Inside were hundreds of cave paintings... many dating back to over 30,000 years ago! Crazy, right?
And afterwards, back outside in the mid afternoon Andalucian sun, we were talking to the guide and an older German couple about the whole timeline.
- The land pushed itself above water over 200 million years ago... To eventually drain and form the basic cave system.
- We stood in the cave blown away by the human evidence in front of us from 30,000 years ago...
- I'm 34...
- And I'm trying to decide what to do this afternoon...
In the perspective of such vast amounts of time splayed out inside the mountain at my back, I remarked at the inconsequential-ness of all our ideas and worries and plans and regrets... Someone said, "It's all just a blink". The small group responded with nods and chuckles of agreement.
In a few moments the conversation ended. As we said our goodbyes the older German guy said, "Enjoy your blink."
There's a whole lot of wisdom in that amusing little quip...
...Enjoy your blink...
We're in Granada... June. Not as hot as it gets but good enough...
Hiking up above the city, I saw some elements that might make a photo and tried wrangling them together. The light was low-ish and interesting, moving through the hillsides of olive groves in the not quite Sierra Nevadas here in Spain.
I tried, no good. A bit lower, ok but not quite. Around a cactus, all the way down... This is it! It's working!
Meanwhile, I'm dripping sweat... It's about 7 pm but it's still hot as hell. I'm all contorted to get this shot and the sweat starts running directly into my eyes.
I'm in position... I know the elements are there. I open my eyes for one last second to see if the shapes look about right. The sweat burns them shut again.
Click. Click. Click. I bracketed 3 shots.
You know how you can never go back. Like, 'Oh, I'll go back to get that shot tomorrow'. Well it doesn't happen.
The light was moving, the clouds were shifting... I was in place.
I took the photos with my eyes closed.
It seemed easier to trust than waiting for everything to align again.
Close your eyes. Take the shot.
The school organized all 600+ kids to get into the action (literally). I was supposed to shoot this aerial shot from a helicopter on the day but due to poor weather conditions the pilot cancelled the flight.
This was really the only shot I was sent out there to get. Anything else was a bonus. So there it was. 8am. Helicopter cancelled. 600 kids ready to go. The school had been preparing this event for weeks. The kids had practiced. Everyone was totally amped. But what could I do? Learn to fly?
With some quick thinking (and even quicker talking) we managed to organize a 12 meter cherry picker at the 11th hour. It was the tallest we could get on such short notice. ("Yeah, we're going to need that in place in about 45 minutes... Do you think we could make that happen?")
I must say, I was a bit skeptical that 12 meters would be sufficient. The field had been marked for the kids in an exact pattern. So there was no compensation for much lower perspectives.
What a relief when I got up and saw that it we could get the shot! It took a bit of re-jigging the kids in the word 'Close', but we sorted that out and got shooting.
Good lessons that day...
- If you think you've tried everything, try something else.
- Keep assuring everyone that it will work (even if you don't necessarily believe it)
- Just get the shot. Never show up empty-handed. Make something happen.
The other day we went out for a walk with the dogs along the Brisbane River. I took my camera along just because. As we walked I was snapping away at nothing in particular. I was taking crappy photos. And I couldn't believe how much I enjoyed taking crappy photos. I mean, it was amazingly liberating. There was no brief... no agenda... no outcome that I was working towards at all. I just lifted the camera every now and then and pressed the shutter.
And after some consideration, I think there was more to it than merely the absence of pressure to perform. There was a kind of 'allowing'... A genuinely joyous revelling in mediocrity.... Which is far from inspiring, I realize. But in that moment I wasn't labelling it mediocre. I wasn't labelling. I was just playing with a toy that records reality in slivers of time and light. For a couple of hours I just was.
I guess it's all practice... I know you supposedly grow in your craft when you're pushing yourself at the edges of your comfort zone... That's where the 'real' learning takes place. But that afternoon on the eroded banks of the still recently flooded Brisbane River I found that the edges aren't the only place that growth can happen.
I've been spending lots of time and energy on my business and feeling frustrated and spent - like I haven't been making progress... A few days ago I took a step back and noticed that when I'm only maintaining 'what is' I seem to spend more energy keeping things in place. Conversely, when I'm on the edge, testing new ideas and trying to innovate I become more invigorated and pro active. It's like a positive feedback loop...
I guess it's kind of like how you have more energy when you're exercising regularly... It's sitting still that really makes you tired.
I have been swimming for exercise without impact, and it's kind of new to me. So for the past month I've been building up strength and stamina, to the point where I can do 10 laps. I've felt very proud of my achievement, being able to swim such distance.
Yesterday, for some reason I was swimming more comfortably than ever and decided to push myself a little bit more. My body was ready to stop at 10 but for some reason, my mind was screaming KEEP GOING! So I did. I did one more lap.
The amazing thing happened during that final push to complete one more lap. I thought, 'What if this 50 meter pool is 50m ONE WAY?!'. You see, my spacial understanding of metrics is shaky at best. And for a month I've been swimming believing a 50m pool to equal one lap, up and back. Something in my brain just clicked and I realized that 50m is the physical length of the pool! Meaning that swimming 10 laps is swimming 1 kilometer!
I doubled my distance in an instant!
I couldn't help make the immediate connection to photography and business.
Just about all of my time and effort goes into carving out a little slice of the photography pie. I enjoy the challenge and I see small achievements and advances in my career from time to time. But I do put in considerable effort. And it suddenly occurred to me that I could very well be accomplishing far more than I realize.
Am I swimming '10 laps' in photography, never realizing that it's twice the distance I believe it to be? Do I get frustrated that I'm not accomplishing as much as I'd like; only to discover that I've grown surprisingly successful relative to such a short time in the industry? Do I listen to my heart when it says 'PUSH ON!' after my mind has achieved its predetermined goal of '10 laps'?
Maybe that's where the real magic happens... In that 11th lap when you've followed your heart beyond what you thought you could do. Maybe that's where the clarity comes and the pieces fall into place and you see that you have achieved far more than you ever realized.