Veterans Day 2017

Happy Veterans Day to all of the veterans out there and thank you, sincerely, for your willingness to risk everything to serve your country.

This time last year I was privileged to provide the photo part of a wonderful tribute to veterans assembled by our Graphic Arts department under Candace Lopez and displayed in our photo program’s gallery.  I was honored to be a part of it.  The show is down but you can still order (or even just look at) the book of photos and the other sensational art work from that show by following this URL:

Speaking of books, I just turned in the materials to Lulu Press for a book that was never intended to be a book – my research on the future of professional photography and the impact that will and is having on vocational photo education such as we offer at San Diego City College.  But the research was fascinating and it kept growing… and growing… and growing.  You can check it out and, if you have any interest in such things, order a copy at this URL:

That project was what I had agreed to do in return for my sabbatical leave for Fall of 2017.  I think of myself as an image maker and not a writer.  And normally faculty in creative fields would put together a show of their work and I did think about that.  I even had a few ideas that would have been fun to do. But in this case I thought plenty of people had and were seeing my work, but the program was facing a triad of storms coming at it and I really wanted to address them so that somewhere at least, that warning bell had actually been rung whether or not anyone would ever pay attention to it.

That also gave me some time to do both some still shooting and some video work as you’ve seen in previous posts.  But in doing so and searching for some fun projects to do since my boredom threshold is so incredibly low, I did run into a situation I would never have anticipated.

Back in the day when I was producing industrial and corporate video I lost a project because the potential client saw an example in which the first client had picked a red color for the background of the graphics and text.  This potential client hated it and seemed to think that was the only color I could or would use and I was unable to convince them we could use any color we liked if, it turned out, we needed such stuff in his project.  I wrote it off thinking that if such was the mentality of the client I had actually just dodged a bullet.  But I assumed such thinking was limited to non-industry people who simply did not know any better.

I was wrong.

I just had an offer to help with a program project turned down because of the thinking that what I had done for some other purposes must be the limit of my capability and they, in their words, thought it impossible for me to change the “aesthetic” for their project even though the projects had totally different purposes and central topics.

Perhaps things have changed in the years I’ve been here teaching or, again, perhaps it IS California, after all, and I keep forgetting that.  But in my working day, it was the client and their specific, unique needs that ruled over how a final “deliverable” would look, i.e. the “aesthetic” of that project.  I was unaware that had changed.

In my day, both the stills world and video world, brochures or video for one client did not look like the brochure or video for another.  Engineering in Oklahoma did not get work that looked like that produced for a Call Center provider in Denver or an electrical services provider in Wyoming or a financial services company, again, in Denver.

While it is true that in the world of fine-art-style creation, whether traditional medium or photography is in use, at any given point in time an artist may have a discernable style or approach, at least until they have exhausted that set of artistic options and grown from it and moved on. Some never grow beyond a style and hit some sort of artistic/intellectual plateau… but that’s another topic entirely.

It is also true that if you are at the very top of the pile in the commercial world, you may develop a style that clients are drawn to and want you to do for them exactly as you did for someone else.  But for the 99% of real world commercial photo practitioners that is not the case. (And it certainly is not the case when you are starting out trying to get any and all work you can.)

You see, clients have this quaint idea that they know their target demographic and understand their product and so are in a position to have some major input into the “aesthetic” of how it is you will present their product to their potential customers.

At least the good ones do.  A client truly knowledgeable about their product and customers and what they want and need is a delight to work with.

Your job it to unleash your best ideas and skills to help them sell THEIR product to THEIR customers.  And that means you have to have the flexibility of skills AND aesthetics to make it work for their purposes not ones you think they ought to have.  You are there solely to provide value to them by increasing their sales sufficiently to pay them back more than you cost them.

I do not know a single successful working pro that does not understand that.  Consequently, I assumed that anyone who had even brushed up against the real commercial world would know that, much less people charged with teaching students about it.

Once again, I was wrong.

Selling your video services does have a major presentation problem.  In the stills world you not only have your “book” of examples, it is not at all hard to rough out some concept sketches to get the creative juices flowing and help the client start narrowing down their likes and needs and illustrate that a piece for one client does not have to look like a piece for another.   But in the video world that is enormously impractical and in reality, all you might have to show are actual examples — which may or may not be on target with the current potential client’s needs.  And those might actually, when speaking with someone that does not understand the process, work against you.

The solution will be pre-pre meetings/consultations to get a handle on the clients’ real needs and wants and then rough out either a loose script or even storyboard presented NOT as a final but as a starting point from which you and they will collaborate to hone in on the final approach.  You will, sometimes, need to do some education of the client to help get them on board.

But when their mind is already made up because they saw something of yours they did not like, and they are clueless that a commercial product they saw, still or motion, was created to please someone else not them, then my advice is to just let it go.  Working with a client that does not really trust in you to do what they need is a nightmare of micro-management and interference that very likely will doom anyone’s ability to produce a good piece.  Worse, you will not believe how insidious they will be in making their self-fulfilling prophesy (of your failure) come true and subtly (or not so subtly) sabotage the work at every opportunity.  

It will very likely become what we used to refer to as a “snakebit” project; one in which there is no way to win and all you can do is try to finish it will the least amount of damage to yourself and reputation.   Worse, the stress and irritation will show up in the finished product.  In the end they will never be really happy with it.  And, of course, it will be you that takes the blame for it and your reputation, especially when starting out, does not need that.  Nor does your blood pressure.

Trust me on this one…  They are not worth it.

So thank them for their time, smile, and walk away.  Don’t be disappointed, but breathe a sigh of relief and then go after the next project having learned an important lesson: there are “gigs” that you need to turn down no matter how desperate you are for a job.  This is a field where you are only as good as your last job so take the projects you can do with only the normal production pressures and not additional ones from a distrusting client that you somehow managed to talk into it.

That may be good salesmanship… but it almost never results in good work products. It is also important to realize that such behavior is almost never really about you or your work.  There is some other hidden agenda at play that you could never overcome because it would never be revealed.

One of the most important lessons to learn is when it is OK — and even preferable — to let it go, say “No” and walk away.




About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s