As a professional photographer, money is never too far outside of the frame. But even as the budgets and day rates continue to rise, it is important that an artist never forget why it all started in the first place.
We’ve all seen Jerry Maguire. Well, at least I hope you have. Wait, you haven’t seen Jerry Maguire? What’s wrong with you? Seriously, go out and…
But I digress.
Among the catchy phrases like “Show me the money,” or the three handkerchief inducing words “You complete me,” is a quieter but no less important scene.
About midway through Cameron Crowe’s script, Rod Tidwell, played by Cuba Gooding Jr., a Terrell Owens-like NFL diva complains to the exasperated sports agent who gives the movie its name, Jerry Maguire, played by Tom Cruise. Strolling post-practice au naturalle around the locker room, Tidwell demands that his agent go back to team management and secure him a higher salary. Having heard this, and pretty much nothing but this, for the last several months Jerry implores the player to get back to the reasons he first started playing the game.
“Way back when. When you were a kid. It wasn’t just about the money, was it? Was it?
As photographers, we can fall into the same mold. We can get so caught up in day rates and pixel counts that we often forget why we ever picked up a camera in the first place. We didn’t pick it up because we thought it would make us famous? We didn’t pick it up that first time because we thought it would make us rich? We picked it up because we wanted to create something beautiful? Something memorable? We had a story to tell and it wasn’t about the money, was it? Was it?
That is why even when you make the move from hobbyist to professional, especially when you make the move from hobbyist to professional, it is more important than ever to continue to produce work just for yourself, outside the confines of a commercial assignment.
“Personal work” is the industry term for it. Work not created for a client. Work created for you. Work created because you wanted to see the images birthed into existence. Sure, they may find themselves in the public eye eventually, they may even turn a profit, but making money is not the primary objective.
“But I’m a professional photographer,” you may say. “I don’t get out of bed for less than ten thousand dollars a day. You’re telling me that you want me to create something…. for free?”
Yes, Rod Tidwell. That’s exactly what I’m saying.
Now, let’s be clear that I’m not advocating you work for free. I’m not suggesting you take a crappy assignment that pays only in experience and allows a third party to use your images to generate income while you are content with “exposure.” That is not what I am saying.
What I am suggesting is that you generate your own assignments. You decide what you want to shoot, you put together the pieces, you execute the shoot, and you make the world a better place by sharing the images in your head.
And before you think the act of making personal projects to be wholly altruistic, this would be the part of the essay where I mention the numerous benefits.
YOU ARE IN CONTROL
When shooting for a client, more often than not, we are conforming our work to their artistic needs. If you do commercial work, the client is coming to you with a creative brief that lays out, often to the minute detail, exactly what they want the finished product to be. Sometimes, you may have the good fortune of creative freedom, but the odds are high that that freedom will still reside within the outlines of a predefined box. Even if you're shooting on a more client-direct basis like weddings or headshots, you are still somewhat limited by the expectations of the bride or client paying the bill. Creating personal work gives you the opportunity to loose those chains and interpret a subject exactly how you want to see it.
YOU ARE REFINING YOUR PERSONAL STYLE
When you shooting for a client, it is a collaboration. Collaboration is not a bad thing. Many of the great works of art are a collaboration. Cameron Crowe didn’t make “Jerry Maguire” by himself. He had a great cast of actors. Legendary cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. Academy Award winning editor Joe Hutshing. The film was even produced by James L. Brooks for crying out loud, the man behind films like “Terms of Endearment,” “Broadcast News,” and a little known TV show you probably never heard of called “The Simpsons.” Crowe was hardly lacking for creative input. But on a personal project, your voice gets to be the loudest in the room. In the end, the buck stops with you. So you are in a better position to influence the final result.
YOU ARE ABLE TO TRY NEW THINGS
You are also in a better position to try something new. If you’re on a set with 25 members of cast and crew and a digital tech surrounded by clients, it may not be the best time to try out those new “special filters” you made yourself in the basement. But on a personal shoot, you are free to fail. If it doesn’t work out, all you have lost is time. The freedom to fail allows your creativity to go through doors it otherwise may have shied away from entering. Going through such doors leads to the development of new techniques. New skill sets. It is precisely those skill sets, once perfected, that you can then take back into your client work and will help you stand out professionally.
YOU ARE OPENING THE DOOR TO MORE PAID WORK
“But wait,” you’re probably saying. “Isn’t the point of personal work that it is not for personal gain?”
Yes. You are absolutely right. But much like my gym membership is intended to sustain my six pack and not my shutter speed, if there just so happens to be a potential client working out on the next bench, I’m not going to ignore him in the name of fitness integrity.
As I’ve discussed at length in a previous article, you are ultimately hired as a photographer because of what you bring to the table. There are literally thousands of photographers that can produce well lit in-focus images. What sets your work apart from all the rest is your unique personal voice. What you have to say and how you, and only you, would choose to say it.
Personal work is where you find that voice. It is where you develop the skill set that sets you apart. Even if you are already producing polished work for the largest clients in town, it is still more than likely that your personal work will be the images that garner you the most attention. Clients are looking for a unique perspective. Your personal work is where your individual perspective is most clearly on display.
So next time you’re between gigs and have time to experiment, or you feel like you are getting a little stale and need a reboot, or maybe you’re already on fire and just want to jump to the next level, do yourself a favor and make personal shoots are regular part of your photographic journey. You never know where following your own vision will take you.
Personal work is feeding the muse. Just like the movie reference of the pro athlete's motivations, a professional photog must keep feeding their muse - or it will starve.