Marketing Travel Photography: Portfolio and Identity
We will do just about anything to get travel pictures: endure bad food, short money, no sleep, harsh weather, nonexistent legroom, bodily harm and moral turpitude, because photography is an art form directly linked to experience. You can paint Paris while in your studio. You can write Moby Dick without ever setting foot on a boat. Your imagination can compose great symphonies without leaving your apartment. To take a picture “you gotta be there”. The tactile nature of travel photography is one of the most compelling reasons we do it. It is real.
But selling photography is abstract. In the past two articles, we dealt with the principles and philosophy of marketing travel photography. But marketing is never the same for everyone. It is not cookie cutter. One size does NOT fit all. Any serious application must be customized. What works for one career may not work for another. So this article seeks to deal with more practical aspects of marketing—your portfolio and your identity. Ultimately you have to put all that theory to work. We will deal with some of the decisions you need to make.
Back in the “good old days”, I used to shoulder a camera with a long lens and fast color film. On the other side, I carried an identical camera with a short lens and slow color film. Down the middle, around my neck, a normal lens was loaded with black/white. (I had to have plenty of every film stock in my camera bag too.) It may be apocryphal but there are rumors that the Life magazine “deity” W. Eugene Smith carried six cameras for the very same reasons. It was efficient but an awful lot of hardware. On the other hand one camera always had the right answer. Fewer lens changes.
In my case I could shoot for assignment, be spontaneous and capture that once in a lifetime shot—the very reason for traveling in the first place. I walked the globe using this technique for years but today technology has eliminated the schizophrenia. With just one camera and a zoom lens, now I can shoot digital, swap ASAs and convert to black/white in postproduction later.
Towards the end of that era I finally realized it is hard to walk and chew gum at the same time without losing my balance. Also I could not logically think in color and black/white as I explored every nook and cranny of a new location. I can only do one thing at a time. The same goes for all my other work. No one trip can be “all things to all people.” I cannot think advertising, editorial, stock as I encounter the same scene. And not all styles fit all clients. So the following are some of those decisions we have to make.
Social Documentary Portfolio
Suffice it to say, even if you have contrasting interests, you have to decide how to ultimately represent yourself. If you were to choose social documentary, for example, your images are about the human condition and are based in “reality”. Seeking the appropriate assignments and demonstrating your commitment to your subject matter may be as important as the power of your images. You have to prove your level of competence, experience, understanding of culture or exhibit elements that you comprehend their nuances. Humor and levity may play a major role in your approach but marketing a cavalier attitude that may work when attracting commercial clientele will likely miss the mark with the kinds of NGOs and humanitarian organizations that might seek your services.
Your marketing materials should reflect that point of view. Recently, while redoing one of my web sites, a graphic artist showed me some of the latest trends in web design: bright colors, anime, Flash, cluttered backgrounds. We went head-to-head over the pros and cons of remaining true to a career pursuing serious subjects and not abandoning longstanding branding for the latest fads. It is a delicate balance between establishing your style and embracing modern trends.
The very same talents that make you a good traveler are in evidence when marketing travel photography. You forge ahead when the average person turns back. What most people see as obstacles and hardships, you accept as challenges. Marketing travel photography is persistence and relentlessness but it is also staying ahead of the crowds.
There are all kinds of places to see examples of important work being done in this field by dedicated photographers. The Internet provides more and more opportunities to showcase this stunning, profound work. The web is becoming an amazing alternate often usurping traditional outlets. Go to socialdocumentary.net amongst others for an example of them.
We can concede that advertising agencies play fast and loose with reality. The destinations and products are always idyllic. The people are always attractive, the weather always sunny. The idea is to make your client look good. This does not have to be in direct opposition to documentary work but the two are rarely found in the same discussion. Therefore your marketing should take this into account. When choosing portfolios art buyers and art directors may be electing style over content. What kind of accounts you have worked for and the size of the budgets may factor into the decisions. Curriculum vitae count.
Good creatives are always interested in different points of view but for many of them advertising is a job. Showing work that is more personal in nature shows your depth and breadth but you have to be careful. Work that is too political or provocative can alienate a business relationship. Unless you know someone’s orientation or viewpoint, it may not be the best idea to bring out your obsessions during a meeting. You get hired for your talent, style and ego but you have to read your audience.
Although I spent six years photographing men and women on death rows all over the USA, I rarely mentioned it when I was visiting agencies. Even though I always kept examples in the back of my portfolio, I only rolled them out when I thought I had made a good impression and we were “of the same political affiliation”. I once sat through an agency owner’s diatribe extolling his support for executing all murderers while we were driving to a shoot. Needless to say I never mentioned my long term project.
When making a specialty of magazines for work, your profile may usually be that of a “hired gun”. Like a lawyer who accepts a defendant, guilty or innocent, you are asked to tackle jobs whether you initially have an interest or not. Photo editors may select you because of your resourcefulness or reliability or your ability to get to the heart of a subject quickly—in addition to the quality of your pictures. An editor once confided that he continued to use me because he never got emergency phone calls from me when things were not going right (which they never do). I would solve the problems without bothering him.
Much editorial is about telling a story. In the editing process individual pictures are often selected because they illustrate a writer’s words. Many artists who come from a photojournalism background or are classic “road warriors” gravitate towards editorial. Specialists are in high demand. Extreme travelers who take risks, wildlife/nature, theme or landscape photographers are sought for their unique expertise.
If you are fortunate enough to habitually be hopping airplanes, this is an excellent lifestyle and opportunity to do some marketing on the road. Postcards and emails sent back from distant origins with exotic stamps or postmarks or time signatures tend to be opened and noted. The practice requires some diligence and a comprehensive mailing list. Despite a dawn call time, I have stayed up half the night composing personalized notes to people I have met all over the world. Once in a while I see the doggeared postcards push pinned over their desks and I recognize my handwriting.
For these same eyes, besides your normal portfolio which consists of your best, award winning images, editors are equally interested in personal photography that may be closer to your heart. Even though there may have never been a client or anyone you were answering to, personal projects reveal a lot about the creative mind and may show a sensitivity or aspect that was not immediately obvious in past assignments done for third parties. If jazz was playing in an editor’s office I would sometimes show my collection of famous jazz portraits. I have had some very lengthy and interesting conversations about the music and my exploits with the musicians while interviewing with art directors.
Take a look at Magnum’s David Allen Harvey online magazine burnmagazine.org. He has some of the best talent working in the genre represented on his web site. Tewfic El-Sawy’s thetravelphotographer.blogspot.com has a unique vision with his site.
For want of a better title I am resurrecting an older term: Collateral redefined to categorize all the commercial photography that does not fall beneath the umbrella of advertising or editorial. Brochures, annual report, guidebooks, etc. shot in foreign countries are all opportunities needing good photography. Besides the hotel chains, travel agencies, airlines and other companies where travel is the “product,” the list of Fortune 500+ and smaller institutions is enormous. They have holdings and customers they want featured in order to make themselves appear more international to their stockholders.
In many cases the locations are secondary to the nature of the business being conducted but the logistics of travel are every bit as complicated. Corporate culture in foreign countries requires even more tact and diplomacy. The ability to fluidly maneuver in and out of alien protocols has to become second nature in order to avoid global gaffes. On a broad survey of three European countries, my assistant and I were responsible for two art directors who were traveling with us. Non travelers think that once you are “over there” you might as well visit several locations. Because their schedule was so ambitious I creatively booked sleeping berths on crosscountry trains just to go from place to place and also get some rest. With my eye on the budget as well as time, we could move and snooze. Since they had never been abroad before the women had misjudged the distances and were incensed that they did not have enough time to do some shopping on their first trip overseas. In three languages we captured great pictures and made every appointment, on time, by the skin of our teeth.
Again for this type of work, your pictures are to bathe your handlers in a good light. Your mission is to illuminate the best situations and obscure the bad ones. You are balancing being an artist, a diplomat, an accountant and a beast of burden. It is great fun and you can market these extra skills to the right trade. Make your potential clients understand not everyone has them. Not only are you talented but have the savvy necessary to fulfill their fondest dreams. Through your pictures and your personality they will achieve their fantasy.
Chasing the Dragon
If you were to put five agency heads and/or photo editors on a dais at the front of a room and ask them questions, they will give you five different, unrelated opinions. One will only review portfolios that he can hold in his hands. Another is too busy for that and her first impressions are always online. A third wants to look at several books at the same time only brought in by a rep. This, of course, makes it harder for the freelancer to comply. They can afford this capricious behavior because they have steady jobs.
I term photographer’s reactions to the ever changing playing field as “chasing the dragon”. We can only hope that he/she is not also allergic to the handmade, raglan paper on which you have your resume printed. It is a hurdle we are all faced with that will restrict your access to the people who are hiring but it comes with the territory.
Stock is one of the biggest sources for travel photography. Rather than send an expensive photographer out to photograph a location, magazines and design studios feel they can save money by using all too prevalent, previously-shot imagery. Economics are the biggest factor but weather or unique events may prohibit using new product.
Stock is a very good source of income for the traveling photographer and should be approached with the same diligence as assignment photography. Even after you have joined a stock agency there can be internal “marketing”. If you have a specialty or a large body of work on one subject, you can emphasize the depth of your collection internally. Or if you have the capacity for productions, let it be known that you can shoot to request for the agency or for clients.
Peculiar to travel are the fancy guidebooks that every city trying to attract tourists has to produce. Often these are done strictly from stock or by a local photographer who knows the region. Being able to produce inexpensive, relevant artwork can be classified as somewhere between photojournalism and public relations. It takes a personality that can insinuate yourself into delicate situations and come away with pretty pictures. You are most often following a script and the creativity comes in making the publisher’s wish list come to life.
Bob Krist has been shooting and writing about travel photography for years. He is one of the most knowledgeable about its intricacies. He has a new blog at bobkrist.com/blog/.
Everybody who picks up a camera more than twice thinks they have pictures to exhibit. Whether you have what it takes to hang on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art or just your bathroom walls is a matter of conjecture. How it relates to marketing your travel photography is much more significant. There is great speculation as to the impact exhibitions will have on your career.
Taken out of context, photography that is worthy of wallspace is a very narrow category. And museums and galleries that are willing to display your work are few and far between. Theirs is a cutthroat business and unless the powers-that-be can anticipate a profit in managing your work, they will never take a chance on the complicated effort necessary to springboard you to “stardom”. On the other hand there are myriad venues that are easier targets to get your work seen. Colleges, hospitals, ad agencies, service institutions have staffs whose sole job is to keep their galleries filled with exciting new work. If you are an alumnus of a school or if you have worked for a company, you have an instant introduction. Exploit it. Camera manufacturers have galleries somewhere, often in the country where they manufacture the equipment. It is a start. Banks and insurance companies have huge lobbies begging to be covered. You can start out small in cafes and bookstores to learn to navigate the minefields of “showing.”
Exhibiting shows you are serious. You have experience and are in for the long haul. A long list of one-man shows gets you noticed by bigger venues. We mentioned tertiary marketing in a previous column. Mailing invitations to potential clients is a subtle but aggressive way to get noticed. It is a promotional tool to reminding those who will never show up that you are still active and encourage those that do to become friends. A wonderful commission to photograph all the “living” deans of a major university came after an administrator saw my death row exhibit at another college’s gallery. She wanted the same style. Go figure.
Pet Peeves with Travel Photography
Just about everything we have talked about in these columns concerning marketing travel photography is proactive. They are essentially positive things that we can set into motion to help our business. We all think of ourselves as special and, as such, we adopt peccadillos. Self-serving things we do that are not always in our own best interest. We cannot control the things that our target audience does that drive us crazy but we can make note of the things that make us less accommodating. As I said at the very beginning this is nuts and bolts.
Why do we think that one encounter makes us memorable? It is a mistake made by both neophytes and seasoned veterans. After a favorable response to our portfolios or even a good phone call, we expect an immediate assignment. For that you have to be at the right place at the right time. I found that even if there is an assignment to be had, I would get a call back only after two or three encounters. A good review is not a license to pester an art director.
In this revved up, supercharged world, everyone is looking for shortcuts. Internet shorthand, acronyms are prevalent but it is discourteous to “talk” to industry professionals as if they were your college BFF. So many notes and text messages are passed with abbreviations that test whether you are hip or not but too many people leave off the basic necessary information. Never including your last name or address is anathema. ADs and editors are busy people and everybody knows more than one Bob.
I wasted time tracking down a work study student who queried me about a series of photographs. She had been asked by administration to contact me about usage for an upcoming conference. But all I received was a quick email with her nickname and an acronym followed by “.edu”. I only had to hit the “reply” button but I had no idea where she was from other than a school or whether she was a teacher or pupil until she got back to me. In an environment of spam, viruses and scams, I was leery from the beginning. She was treating me with the familiarity of one of her roommates and it did not instill confidence.
Still on that topic, creatives who receive hundreds of emails every day delete most that have nothing in the “subject” line. Generic “subjects” are also often eliminated. Inform people with something of interest: “Hello from Sri Lanka” or “Photos on HIV in Zanzibar.” Pique their interest. There is no selling if nobody looks.
And last but not least, how often have you had that awkward networking moment when time comes to exchange information and your counterpart has no business cards. “I never carry them,” they proudly declare. Major faux pas. Lost opportunity. That first and only chance to make a connection.
Once on my yearly trips to the Far East, I met a Japanese man at the pool who pulled out a waterproof card from his bathing suit with his name and contact numbers in Japanese on one side and English on the other. Completely trumped, I never traveled anywhere without business cards again.
These are very small incidences but they are all related to marketing. The devil is in the details. We have to take advantage of every opportunity to make a good impression. Because of photography, the world is shrinking since our image of it is expanding. The thirst for imagery is increasing exponentially. There are so many new venues for our pictures and new ones are being invented all the time. Sustaining a career following our wanderlust requires us to remain open to all kinds of adventures. Ultimately, being a traveling photographer can be reduced to two things: 1) making great travel images and 2) convincing people that you make great travel images. This has become my mantra. That is about as nuts and bolts as you can get.
Lou Jones is one of Boston’s most diverse and inspiring commercial and fine art photographers, known for his courage, creative skill and humanity. He specializes in photo-illustration and location photography for corporate, advertising, and editorial clients like: IBM, Major League Baseball, Federal Express, Peugeot, Museum of Fine Arts, Paris Match, KLM, National Geographic, People Magazine, Nike, Price Waterhouse, and Aetna. Jones’ assignments have taken him often to Europe, South America, Africa, the Far East, and 47 of 50 of the United States. He has been on location at NASA, Boeing, Universal Studios, British Telecom, Mitsubishi, and Saab. Lou has two published books. His second book, Travel + Photography: Off the Charts, was published in 2006 and is now in its second printing.