I am currently in Seoul, South Korea, on assignment to film a documentary. I thought it would be a good idea to completely immerse myself in the beautiful culture and vibrancy of this massive city, and, use that to create some compelling images through the “lens of my eyes”. Over the next couple of weeks join me on a conceptual art documentation of Seoul.
5 years is a long time to fit into one article’s read, but a growing itch since the last 2 weeks of February has succeeded in influencing me to at least attempt this article. You can expect a lot of drama that is infused with great stories of dangerous adventures, soul-stirring romance, and spirited heroism in this entry…
The past 5 years has seen me live through a great deal of achievements and disappointments in the crazy world of art and photography. Of course, in reality, I have not been a photographer for just 5 years only. I bought my first camera, the Canon EOS 50D, many years before that. I am taking into consideration only the past 5 years, starting from the time I had started HyperFrontal Productions (a photography and video services company), because, according to me, that was the point when I had really turned into a “true-blue professional”. In other words, that was when “**** got real”. So, for those of you who have grown disinterested in my article already thinking that it is going to be a long rant or nothing of value, don’t cut me out just yet. What I am going to be sharing about is how 5 years worth of experience has, today, made me more aware about my abilities as an artist and photographer, and, has helped me learn how to make better decisions for my work.
STARTING UP - WAS IT THAT EASY?
Incorporating a business was the easy part, but knowing what to do next was the big question that I, admittedly, didn’t have the answer to. Many articles out there tell you to have a business plan that reflects your current financial state and projects where you want your business to be in 3, 5 and 10 years. I had nothing like that on paper. I swiftly started to work on my logo and website and, ‘Voila!’, HyperFrontal Productions was created!
A fancy website and a creative logo only got me so far. There were no new jobs coming in and something didn’t feel right about all this being so easy. I started reading up more articles and photography related YouTube channels to learn more and realized that I had barely scratched the surface.
According to Dane Sanders in his book Fast Track Photographer: In the 1st year, 60% of photographers give up their business. Of that remaining 40%, another 25% will fail within the 2nd year. The ones that make it are the remaining 15% who endure through the 3rd year.
As creative folks, what some (or most) of us do not realize from the beginning is that being good at what you do is not enough. You still need a shrewd business acumen to take you to the next level. Despite all the resources available online to help me, I willingly chose to do things my way which sent me on a journey of questionable decisions and unnecessary expenditure that never got me closer to my goals - all of which could have been avoided.
LEARNING NEVER STOPS
Research and Development are two key factors that should never stop if you are in the pursuit of success. In one of my favorite reads, “Photographers and Research: The Role of Research in Contemporary Photographic Practice” authors Shirley Read and Mike Simmons suggested that doing research is one of the pillars of developing and furthering skills as a photographer. This would be something I would apply as a staple principle.
Being an avid reader meant that reading came naturally for me because it was something I enjoyed very much. So an effort was made to align my hobby of reading with researching on photography. I started purchasing many photography books and swallowed them whole! Some of my favorite books that I recommend you to check out are:
3) A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005 by Annie Leibovitz - Famed photographer, Annie Leibovitz, publishes a book that contrasts her glitzy and glamorous work-life with that of her personal life.
Through such books, I was able to understand the ropes even better. I, as a matter of a fact, began to realize that I had stepped into the industry with the wrong idea - chasing fame or money was not the way to do it. Excellence was the key and to achieve that I needed to step down from my high-horse and put all my readings into practice.
Practice versus Over-working - The Death of HyperFrontal Productions
It is an obvious fact that you need to put in the time to get to where you want to be. Steve McCurry did not just wake up one day with National Geographic flying him all over the world. He too had to put in his fair share of time and effort into practicing his craft.
My area of interest, from portraiture, started to lean towards more abstract, conceptual/ surrealist and story-telling work. By this time, I had already moved on to having better equipment, and, after years of investing on such equipment and building a contact base of like-minded creative folks, I took the plunge into the unforgiving world of fine art photography.
It was a rocky start at the beginning given that I had so many ideas and so much inspiration flowing out of me. The act of practicing should never be confused with over-working and over-spending (both of which I was famous for). I was spending way too much time conceptualizing my own projects and too much money on booking studios that I had forgotten that I was running a business too. This would be catalytic in the eventual, and inevitable, DEATH of HyperFrontal Productions.
Making my Comeback
Surely, running a business down to the ground indicated that I was not meant for business, right? Wrong. If Donald Trump could “fake” a comeback from major financial setbacks with a Television show (The Apprentice), why, then, could I not make a genuine return to the business of photography? Surely, stories of comebacks aren’t just reserved for “celebrities”?
In late-2017, I decided that no matter what the result may be, I should at least attempt a comeback. Unlike when starting up HyperFrontal Productions, never once did I feel that this was easy. My financial blunders had, also, cost me family and friends so it felt more lonelier than ever before (to their credit, some people did reconnect with me again). However, what I did find “easier” was answering the question; what I am supposed to do next. Perhaps, this was because I had experienced failure before and this time I knew what to do to avoid it.
Whenever I look back at all the experiences I collected over the years, a sense of gratitude comforts my mind and eases away all the doubts and regrets. I have learned to continue to grow and develop to be a better version of myself. The real failure is not in experiencing failure, but, in negligently taking that downward spiral into the dark abyss of self-loathing. The 30 years old me congratulates the younger me for all my failures because, today, I am a better Artist and Photographer.
A good part of my conversations with photographers and models often involves discussing communication and, while respect comes from both sides, I notice a disturbing trend of wanting more of the unnecessary than the needed. How we communicate with models, or any other talent for that matter, can have serious impact on our credibility as professional photographers. It is far too often that we see a model speaking up about unprofessional approaches which has led to the death of the careers of many photographers.
As someone who’s entire career was built on work that requires models, I do believe that this is a topic that does not get enough awareness. So, here’s sharing some principles that I apply when approaching a model for an assignment or collaboration which may help you stay out of trouble.
KNOW THAT YOU CANNOT PLEASE THE WHOLE WORLD
Before making the decision to approach any model, it is always wise to bear in mind that you are not going to be able to please the entire world. As mentioned earlier, respect comes from both sides.
Several months back, I had contacted a model with interest to hire her for an assignment. I requested a meet-up to discuss further, however, what followed next was a string of unnecessarily cold responses. A lot of my work requires heavy physical and mental commitment from the model. This is only achieved if there is good chemistry and understanding between the model and myself. Therefore, I prefer setting up a meeting between us to see if we can vibe through discussing the shoot and, ultimately, signing a model release form. While many models have communicated their appreciation for this process, there are still some who feedback otherwise.
In such situations, there is nothing that you can do other than look for someone else to work with. Your methods and processes are yours and while you should not bend them for anyone else, know that there is nothing you can do about it and that, sometimes, it is best to avoid models you know you cannot work with.
LET YOUR PORTFOLIO DO MOST OF THE TALKING
Several models I have worked with told me that the main reason for agreeing to work with me is my portfolio. Most of us invest in expensive websites to showcase our portfolio - so why not use it to the best of its potential?
A template I follow when introducing myself always includes a link to my website. This would give the model confidence that the photographer approaching them knows what he or she is talking about and has a relevant body of work to prove it. In addition to that, I am of the opinion that the stronger your portfolio is, the more comfortable a model would be with working with you. This is because a strong portfolio can (most of the time) represent your professionalism.
Consider the Model’s Portfolio
Often times, many photographers only look at how many followers models have on their social media and this becomes the basis of their decision to hire them. Not only is this naive, it is also a disturbing trend.
Portfolios exist to present a body of work. Therefore, same principle applies as in point 2. - you should have a look at the model’s portfolio too before deciding to approach him or her. You should be looking at the general themes that the model has a portfolio of. If it is similar to the concept you have in mind, then this would be a meeting between two already like-minded professionals.
PICK YOUR WORDS CAREFULLY
Where Vocabulary is concerned, there is a fine line between decency and indecency. This is where most communication problems begin.
If you have a concept that requires significant skin show from the model, try putting it in a way that does not make him or her feel objectified. Use keywords that projects your ideas well but does not make the project as a whole sound too sexually charged. Consider the following comparison:
a) ”Hi XYZ, I would like to hire you for a photoshoot. You will be naked and the poses will be sexual in nature.”
b) ”Hi XYZ, my name is ABC and I am a photographer based in Singapore. Here is my portfolio: www.fghj.com. I am interested in working with you. Please do let me know if you are comfortable with working on a nude concept.”
In the first example, no concrete intention of sounding perverted is displayed, however, you cannot control the way someone else might receive your text message. Therefore, as seen in the second example, it is best to elaborate more, use the right words, and check with the model on their comfort level first. Both examples say the same thing, it is just that one seemingly sounds better than the other.
DO NOT PUSH FOR A FAVORABLE ANSWER
How you deal with rejections is the name of the game. Over the past half a decade of being a professional photographer, I have faced plenty of rejections from clients and talents, and, likewise, have rejected many offers as well. It is in handling rejections that you show, not just your professionalism, but also who you are as a person.
When a model rejects your offer, move on and approach someone else. There is no use of trying to conversationally slither your way into trying to get someone to work with you, especially, when he or she has communicated that your concept is not their cup of tea. Being pushy could lead to serious consequences.
A close model-friend had shared with me an unfortunate experience she had with a particular photographer. He had, first, approached her for a nude shoot. She found this weird because nothing in her portfolio showed that she would be alright with a nude theme, and further more, she risked losing her job if she appeared nude. Despite already communicating all this, the photographer still kept approaching her for very sexual-themed photoshoots. The approach, choice of words, and conduct of the photographer led her to believe that she was being harassed and this led to her lodging a police report.
Harassment is very subjective and the Law dictates that the accused would have to prove that his or her conduct was reasonable. How do you prove that when someone had already rejected your offer to work on a theme that he or she is uncomfortable with but you still decide to constantly ask anyway?
What inspired me to write this article was a recent (unpleasant) inquiry made to me by another photographer who was interested to work with a model that I share a close relationship with. Calling the inquiry unpleasant is an understatement because as the conversation progressed, I realized that this was less about work and sounded more like an indecent proposal.
Over the years, we have seen the fall of many well-respected artists, actors, filmmakers and photographers due to sketchy behavior and it all started with just a single social media post from the victim. Sure, we cannot satisfy the whole world and, generally speaking, everyone has a story about everyone, but why unnecessarily put yourself in the line of fire right from the beginning when it can all be avoided?
Lastly, as with any photographer, models are also trying to make their mark in a highly competitive industry that, just like any other industry, has sexual predators lurking about. The last thing you want is to be identified as one as well. So, stay safe and be wise with your approach.
When I create a list of goals for myself or my business, I treat them as challenges that I MUST overcome to progress ahead. It drives me to focus on living purposefully and keeps things exciting and fresh for me. I am of the opinion that there is no such thing as “the right time will come” or that artists in general need to “wait for the correct signs”. The only right time for me is NOW and the only right signs I need are the ones that keep me alive enough to work another day. So, here are my 5 goals for 2019, and, as bonus content, I will be sharing more on why I will definitely SMASH all of them!
1) Meaningful Collaborations
Much like many other portrait photographers, I have a portfolio filled with beauty and aesthetic portraits. A lot of these projects were collaborations and, without the intention of sounding offensive towards all the women I have worked with, they mostly lack depth. I, also, observed that besides more likes and followers, such work was not doing much for me in terms of progressing on.
I spent the second-half of 2018 disciplining myself in the area of collaborations; - if the potential work did not project a meaningful outcome, I would not take it on. This is something I am applying to 2019 as well. I will be concentrating on paid work and collaborations that either has a cause or the power to create social impact.
I am already starting the year with a project called, Shadows and Mirrors, which is based on sexual assault and features, Devika Panicker, spokesperson for AWARE SINGAPORE. I believe that in starting the new year with a project that is in-line with my goals, I will be setting the tone right for the rest of the year as well. Shadows and Mirrors will be screened privately on the 18th of January 2019 and will most likely be out for public viewing several days after that.
2) Meaningful Projects
It goes without saying that meaningful collaborations will lead to meaningful projects. It could be simple portraiture work or a project with a high-concept, whatever it may be, the project needs to be aligned with my identity as a fine art photographer. The responsibility is on me to either produce or take on projects that will further endorse my brand of photography art.
In the middle of December 2018, Serene Martin, owner of Serenity Secrets, and myself came to consensus that we have a lot to gain from each other through a business partnership. What got to me was the opportunity to turn her words in to pieces of photographic art. Together we are planning out a year’s worth of content that is conceived by Serene and created by me.
Therefore, for 2019, I am on the hunt for opportunities that will allow me to show to a wider audience the power of what my brand of photography can do rather than churn out usual work that any other artist or photographer can create as well.
3) Long-term Business Relationships versus Short-term Monetary Gains
Establishing long-term business relationships is a tricky one. It comes down to the negotiating prowess of the offering party. If there is one thing I have learnt from the failure of HyperFrontal Productions, it is to never let go of a client so easily especially when there are “a hundred-and-one” photography and video service providers out there.
What I bring to the table for businesses like Dragnet Smartech Security and The Fesique Lab is my unique focus on content over cost. I rather charge a monthly fee than a giant sum at one go. This keeps the business I am contracted with away from being financially strained just because they had acquired my services and keeps communication going between me and them. I do not invoice according to volume because then I am restricting myself from providing any value-added services but rather determine a pricing based on the longevity and complexity of the assignment. The determined sum is then divided into an affordable monthly fee. It may seem easier to many people to collect a one or two-time payment but what happens after that cannot be projected. This uncertainty is something I would like to stay away from for this brand new year of 2019.
4) Acquiring Funding
In my time of running a business and being involved in several other businesses, I have learnt that the one thing that keeps potential investors away from funding a business is the uncertainty of the future of the business. You may make one million dollars over the next 6 months but if you have no idea what you are going to do with all that profit and, worst still, if you have no idea what happens after that 6 months, your business starts losing credibility despite the high returns you made in that 6 months.
Art has its prominent position in my life but cultivating purposeful projections of the future and strategic partnerships in the present is my goal where the more business side of Bedtime Tales Inc. is concerned. For the year of 2019, progression should come with growth and for that to happen seeking funding is quintessential.
5) Awards and Portfolio reviews
Thus far, we have pretty much concentrated on Art (meaningful collaborations and projects) and Business (meaningful partnerships and funding). However, I am an artist at the end of the day and to fuel my determination, I will need loads of motivation.
I have always found sending my work to award festivals to greatly motivate me and this is without the expectation of winning or receiving 5-star reviews. My career as a fine art photographer has seen many highs and lows but one of the most encouraging events is when I receive positive reviews from major photography art festivals and organisations from all over the world.
I, therefore, will be dedicating more time to sending my work out for the world to see and, hopefully, appreciate them. In return, I know that it is going to charge me up to smash all the goals I set for myself for 2019.
It can be observed that my goals are interdependent where one cannot be achieved without first achieving the other. I am of the opinion that goals should be set in a progressive manner to help climb the overall ladder of success. Of course, what I have listed here are unique to me and my business and I am not asking fellow artists and photographers to take anything I write as principles written into stone; nothing that I write in my other articles should be taken in such light as well. I project my excitement and eagerness to work in hopes that it may resonate with other artists and photographers out there and if it inspires them to work a little harder (or smarter) then I would feel that I have done my part to contribute to an industry that I love.