In last week’s article, I discussed three mistakes to avoid when building a career as a photographer or filmmaker. Today, let’s look into three broader concepts that you might want to lean into.
It’s Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know
Let’s start with my least favorite of these facts of life. As a staunch introvert, interacting with large groups of people is admittedly my least favorite part of the job. Not that I hate people, mind you. I’m fascinated by people. That is why I’ve built a career where I am legally allowed to stare at them for as long as I like without it being deemed creepy.
I consider it a testament to how much I love my art that I’m even willing to engage with people so much in order to earn the right to do it. But, regardless of my ambition, fundamentally, social interactions drain me and need to be followed by long periods of isolation in order to recover. So a world in which I could dream up my creations in my head then magically snap my fingers and have them come to life without me having to leave the house is decidedly appealing to me.
But sadly, that’s not how the real world works. In the real world, unless you are photographing landscapes or still life purely as a hobby, at some point, you are simply going to have to depend on other people. If you shoot portrait subjects, you’ll at least need a model. If you are a commercial photographer, you’ll need to interact with clients. Assuming you plan on actually getting paid, that is.
I live in Los Angeles. It’s a city with endless possibilities. But it’s also a city where the adage that “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is possibly more in effect than any other place else in the world. As a 16-year-old, I couldn’t even get my first grunt job working at a McDonald's until a friend of the family called in a favor. When it comes to breaching the exclusive worlds of high-end commercial photography or Hollywood filmmaking, the volume of networking required rises to eleven.
But does that mean that, if you, like most people, weren’t born into an industry family or gifted the happy accident of having grown up next door to Steven Spielberg, that you are doomed from the start? Of course not. It just means that, if the name of the game is who you know, you need to put in an effort to know more people.
You have to spend as much time networking, cold-calling, accidentally/not accidentally being in the same place important people will be in order to meet them casually as you spend on learning your craft. I know it sucks. I too wish I could live in a truly democratic world where the only thing that mattered was your skill set, and those who worked the hardest on their craft would always win. But, as they say, reality bites.
Hence, why last week, in addition to scripting a new project and being in preproduction for a different project, I spent no less than 30 hours networking and shaking hands. This was a particularly busy social week, as one of my films was in a festival. So, there were a lot of handshakes condensed into a one-week period, this being in addition to other networking lunches, dinners, coffees, and official Zoom calls that had nothing to do with the festival. But shaking hands with everyone from the event organizers, to industry insiders, to people who just wandered in off the street when they saw that a party was going on, is exactly the kind of thing that opens up opportunities for people to discover your art. That is not to say that you can skip being amazing at your craft in the first place. If your work is awful, knowing the right people isn’t going to suddenly bless you with talent. But what’s the point of being awesome if only you know about it? Doing this hard work of expanding your network opens up opportunities for more people to see just how talented you really are.
And just as a side note, don’t make the mistake of thinking of networking as only connecting vertically up the tree. Sure, we’d all like to suddenly find ourselves in a conversation with the CEO of XYZ company at a dinner party. But today’s busboy is tomorrow’s head chef. Treating all people, regardless of their current rank, with respect is the best way to build a lasting network that can continue to grow even beyond a specific person’s reign in office. Likewise, networking with your fellow artists, even though they may not be in a position to hire you directly, could also lead to future connections. At worst, it can gain you solid friendships and people you can turn to in order to help you navigate the road ahead. Or maybe just an extra pair of hands when you need help in a pinch.
Know When To Hold ‘Em, Know When To Fold ‘Em
Times change. It’s a fact of life. Your only role in that process is deciding how to change, or if to change, with them.
If you’ve ever read any of my previous articles, you will likely at some point have openly wondered if I was, in fact, a full-blown curmudgeon. And, yes, you would be right that I have literally been the old man with the water hose telling kids to “get off my lawn.” I am that guy. I’m a guy who likes a clear set of rules. I’m a routine guy. So, dramatic shifts in the landscape can often be met with skepticism.
But we live in a world where not only are new cameras released every three months, but it seems like technology comes along that dramatically changes how we work every three minutes. I can’t turn my back for a second without hearing about something new that photographers simply have to do to stay relevant. Film versus digital. DSLR versus mirrorless. Vertical video. A.I. art. It can make your head spin if you haven’t sufficiently screwed it down.
Of course, the thing about fads is that they are temporary. In the world of social media, there’s a new epic thing every day. And just because something seems like a big thing today, likely the result of an unseen corporate conglomerate pushing the idea, most fads are not here to stay.
But some are. So, you can’t simply bury your head in the sand and wish things away. I’ve been trying to wish away reality TV for 30 years. No luck. I’ve been trying to wish away superhero movies for 25 years. Fat chance. I’m still hoping that social media was never invented. Well, you can see how well that wish is going. Sometimes, things get caught in the zeitgeist and are here to stay.
You may have read my piece a couple months back about the A.I. art. I won’t rehash it here. Mostly because I’m incapable of talking about the topic without launching into an eight-hour rant about the intellectual property rights of artists. But two things are true. One, A.I. is going to massively overturn the photo industry, fundamentally change the way we do work, and put a lot of photographers out of business. That’s the practical reality based on market forces. The second thing that is true is that, no matter how much I protest, A.I. is going absolutely nowhere. There is no way you are putting that genie back in the bottle. So, how are you going to react to it?
I’ve decided to do my best to learn it inside and out, figure out how it can help me, but also be acutely aware of how it will hurt me. Try to get out ahead of it because, unlike the Chia Pet, this isn’t a technology that is just passing through. It’s here to stay and only going to get more powerful. So, my approach is to learn how to work with it to prepare myself for the future.
But that doesn’t mean that everyone has to take that course. Just because the world takes a step to the right doesn’t mean that you have to step with it. Sometimes, technology changes in a way that it fundamentally changes the thing that we love. And, while we could shift with the technology, doing so removes the thing about the process that we fell in love with in the first place. So, sure, we could shift. But, at a certain point, one has to ask themselves the question of why exactly it is that we’re shifting in the first place. If doing so takes you further away from what you’re trying to accomplish, is it worth making the switch just because others in the market have? I can’t answer that question for you. It’s not a universal response. It’s specific to each of us on an individual level. But knowing which trains to board and which to let pass you by is key to longevity as an artist. And to not getting lost in Brooklyn.
Know Yourself First
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained, you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. - Sun Tzu, “The Art of War”
The world is simply full of opportunities. If you’ve got talent, which I know you do, then possibilities abound for which paths you can take. And there’s a better-than-average chance you’ll be good at a lot of different things should you choose to pursue them. So, how do you know which path to follow?
There’s no other way to get around the fact that you absolutely positively must take the time to get to know yourself before starting out on your journey. The answers to some of the questions and quandaries I’ve posed so far in this essay can only be formulated once you add the key ingredient. You.
And just like technology changes, so will you change as time goes by. Remembering to stay in touch with yourself and continue to cater to your own joy is essential. What you dreamed of at the beginning of your career might not be the same thing getting you out of bed tomorrow morning. While, at the same time, there may be fundamental red lines drawn when you were still in grade school that, decades later, you still are not willing to cross.
I could go on and on here to tell you about my ongoing journey of self-knowledge. But the journey you really need to know about is your own. So, I’ll sum this section up simply into six words.
To thine own self be true.
Christopher Malcolm asked,
"A.I. is going absolutely nowhere. There is no way you are putting that genie back in the bottle. So, how are you going to react to it?"
I do still photography because I love it. I love the process of photographing wild animals, and I love the results. I do not enjoy video at all, and I do not enjoy AI at all. So, if the only reason I do still photography is because I love it, and if I do not like AI or video at all, then why would I ever do them? I think that one must be true to one's self. Being true to one's self means pursuing those things that one has a deep love for; the things that one is deeply passionate about.
In speaking about AI, Christopher Malcolm said,
"I’ve decided to do my best to learn it inside and out, figure out how it can help me, but also be acutely aware of how it will hurt me."
If you do not like AI, then why are you engaging in it? Just to get money for yourself? Isn't that a bit of a sell-out?
I would love to know what your real motivation is when it comes to photography. Do you do it because you love it with every fiber of your being, because it is the very core of who you are as a human? Or do you just do it to earn money for yourself to live on? The answer cannot be "both" because then there will be some inconsistencies with your ideals, as compromises will undoubtedly surface if you try to walk atop the fence instead of choosing one side or the other.
EDIT: I realize that my comments and question may sound a bit snarky and critical, but I don't mean it that way.
I honestly would like to know your reason for delving into something that you aren't particularly fond of.
Tom Reichner I was curious about your questions "If you do not like AI, then why are you engaging with it?" As staff writers for one of the biggest platforms in the industry, we are expected to learn, engage with, and discuss the biggest changes in the industry. It's part of our job.
I love and hate that first point. "It's not what you know it's who you know". The process of being known is long and tedious but it is a process that pays off. Everything, of course, on the assumption that your work is excellent.
(in response to Tom, for some reason the comments aren't letting me respond directly)
Fair points. But the answer is, unfortunately, "both." I do photography because I love it. There are a lot of easier ways to make a living. So, going into photography is hardly a practical financial decision. But I do also make a living from it. Therefore, even if I don't like a particular aspect of the industry, I have no choice but to know the ins and outs if it will affect my clients. I can choose whether or not to adopt a particular technology. But ignoring it is only going to hurt my business. That's not the same thing as only doing it for the money. It's simply making sure you are prepared for what will be asked of you when your clients ask. Within a year, we will all be both competing against A.I. generated imagery and likely being asked to create it (or work with it in some way). There's no way to avoid it. I can choose to simply not do it like I choose not to paint or sing. But as AI will so directly impact photography, it just makes sense to be as familiar with it as possible.
Yeah, I think that most artists have to make some compromises about what they really want to do deep down in their soul, and what they are forced to do if they want or need to generate a reasonable income.
When it comes to photography, I only do the things I feel deep down in my soul ..... but I do have an income level that is actually right at the official poverty line for the U.S., so there are unpleasant prices to pay for "being true to myself as an artist". But it is the path I have chosen, and I have fewer regrets than I would if I shot things I wasn't passionately interested in.
Doing things you don't wanna do is part of life, like paying taxes and taking out the garbage. Chris prob wishes he didn't have to churn out articles... prob not why he got into photography.... but it helps pay his bills and people besides him can appreciate it. You sound like a totally selfish person who never achieved anything and calls being lazy and selfish "staying true to himself as an artist." Bro if you write an article teaching your children about photography even tho u didn't want to...it doesn't make you a sell out... just makes you a good dad... get a f life dude.
Wow - you're really mean!
I have always thought that the way we go about pursuing art should be different than the way we go about pursuing everything else in life. That for life in general, we are to do what needs to be done to meet our needs and the needs of those we are close to. But that in art, we are supposed to only do what we are most passionate about, regardless of whether there is any practical benefit or not. That is the mindset from which I asked my question.
If someone does not have this ideal about art being so different than everything else in life, then it makes sense to me why one would pursue artistic things that one is not passionate about. But I really did want to see Malcolm give me his personal answer to the question in his own words, particularly as he is the one who wrote this article that piqued my interest in this topic.
First article I've seen from fstoppers in ages that wasn't written by a.i. and/or clickbait. I loved it. Registered just to say ty for taking the time to write this.