Asking Not Asking #6: Shooting for More
TINA ESSMAKER / Creative Coach
I'm an outdoor and active lifestyle photographer based in North Lake Tahoe, CA. I read about your column for WNW and wanted to send you a note.
After assisting some of the biggest shooters in the world for some of the biggest clients, I feel like I have a breadth of knowledge. I'm on retainer for a couple of small businesses here in Tahoe—two clothing brands, and a brewery and distillery.
I would like to be working more consistently with larger national and international brands, similar to my mentors and those I admire: Andy Anderson, Embry Rucker, Kevin Zacher.
The old adage "Just keep shooting" is overplayed. Of course I’m going to keep shooting. But how does a guy who doesn't have the budget for a $2k printed book and a $4k trip to NYC to maybe get a meeting with a few agencies move on to bigger clients?
Any help or insight would be welcome!
Shooting for More
Dear Shooting for More,
Thank you for this straight-to-the-point inquiry. Let’s explore this more. You are at a liminal stage in your career, neither here nor there. You’re too experienced to be a beginner, but still aspire to learn and grow into what’s next. This is an awkward stage to be in and yet the in-between is part of any nontraditional path. Unfortunately there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, and often what works for another creator won’t work for the next. Unlike, say, a doctor or lawyer, no one is waiting with a checklist of what you need to do to enter your field and move up the ladder until you retire.
The joy of choosing a nontraditional path is that you are creating something out of nothing. But that can also be the burden of it. It is a hard-won path as you feel your way in the dark. The dark can feel heavy, negative, full of fear or dread. But I want to help you reframe it. Dark can also mean hidden or concealed. Your path is obscured right now, but there is a way. In her book, The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit puts it so beautifully when she says:
“Creation is always in the dark because you can only do the work of making by not quite knowing what you’re doing, by walking into the darkness, not staying in the light. Ideas emerge from edges and shadows to arrive in the light, and though that’s where they may be seen by others, that’s not where they are born.”
We see others’ paths in the light, but we cannot see what they had to go through to get there. You are in the going through phase right now. There is a place you came from, which you no longer fit into, and a place you’re traveling to, but you’re not there yet. And the path is in the dark. This is normal; it’s part of the creative process. It sounds like you are right on track. That you are questioning what’s next and thinking about how to shoot for more tells me that you are going to be okay.
So let’s get practical and tactical. You have knowledge and experience assisting successful photographers on shoots with big clients. You want to work with bigger clients yourself. I’m going to walk you through a few exercises to help you explore how to approach this.
First, I want you to think about your skills, knowledge, and experience. What skills have you acquired throughout the years—either natural talents you have developed through practice or skills you’ve learned through professional development and training? List those skills in detail. Now, what knowledge are you referring to when you say you’ve acquired a “breadth of knowledge” from assisting others? Write what you know down in detail. How does it give you an advantage? Finally, what personal and professional experiences have you had that feed into your work and differentiate you from your peers? Write those down.
Next, think about the clients you would like to work for. Write a list of everyone from local clients who you have contacts for to dream clients who you have no idea how to get in touch with. Next to each client, write why you want to work with them. Because their values align with yours, because aesthetically they would be a good addition to your portfolio, because they would increase your platform, because they would have big budgets and more resources for you to execute the work? Knowing why you want to grow your business and why you want to work with specific clients is just as important as knowing how you will do it. The why drives your business and is the compass for all of your decision-making. I’d encourage you to solidify your why first.
Now, when you look at your list of skills, knowledge, and experience side by side with the list of clients you want to work with, where is the overlap? Where is there an organic match between what you offer and what those companies want? Do you have speciality knowledge or experience that aligns with a company’s brand or mission? Put a star by the potential clients that jump out to you. Think about how you might contact each of the companies and what your ask would be if they responded. Do you have mutual contacts who could introduce you to someone there? Could you send something special to them via snail mail? Could you make a phone call since most people use email these days? How can you make the outreach personal and stand out—again, how can you differentiate yourself?
Don’t underestimate the power of personal connection. We live our lives on screens. A personal connection goes a long way. How did you get the jobs assisting the photographers you worked with? How have you found clients in the past? Can you employ those approaches or put a twist on them as you seek to connect with bigger clients? When you’re in the dark, there’s a lot of trial and error. Try an approach, but if it’s not working, change it. If it doesn’t feel like the right approach for you, change it. Ultimately, you want to attract clients who align with your values and aesthetic as a photographer—that’s the reason I am big on clarifying your why as I mentioned above.
As you begin to experiment with this process, you must be prepared for rejection. It’s part of the experience. You have to take a lot of shots to get one in. Keep going. I would encourage you to write down what success looks like to you during this process. Don’t define it based on outcomes you cannot control. Define it based on parts of the process you can control. For example, maybe you will define success as reaching out to 5 potential clients every Wednesday morning. Or maybe success means contacting 1 person from your network every Monday afternoon to ask for support in a specific way. Or maybe it means saving a percentage of your income each quarter for marketing materials.
Once you have identified the activities that will make for a successful process, integrate those activities into your workflow. Put them on your calendar. Make them part of your routine. Taking action is like planting seeds. Even in the dark, keep planting. Even when nothing seems to be happening, keep planting. In the meantime, take the work that pays the bills, but don’t lose sight of where you want to go. It takes time to build anything worthwhile, your career included, but the building happens in the in-between, in the moments that no one else notices because those moments stay between us and the work. But you will know it, you will feel it when the momentum begins to grow and out of the darkness blossoms something beautiful and perhaps even unexpected.
To the fertile darkness,
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Asking Not Asking is a bi-monthly column written by Tina Essmaker, a New York City-based coach, speaker, and writer who helps others live into their possibility. To be considered for the column, send and email to email@example.com with a short note about where you're at and where you want to be, and make sure to include the following:
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