Since writing VisionMongers, I talk to a lot of photographers every year about business stuff. The frustrations, fears, and struggles are all similar. No one said this would be easy. As I recall, and it’s been a while since I wrote the book, I spent time trying to convince people not to go down this path, so when they inevitably did they did so with eyes wide open. Anyways, back to the conversation with photographers that seems to be on repeat right now, and the reason for this article being called what it is.
It’s easy to forget that people don’t have a natural need to buy photography. They have a lot of needs and desires, often impossible to tell apart, and most of them don’t include you as a defacto starting point. If you want to make it as an entrepreneur whose commerce revolves around your photography, that photography has to meet a need. It has to scratch an itch.
Forget for a moment how important all the other stuff is – the logos and the business plans and blogs. If you miss this or forget it, you’ll never get off the ground: for whom are you creating value? Whose itch are you scratching? Who are you serving? People have problems they themselves can’t solve. You can. That is the core of every business transaction. The deeper that need, and the more uniquely you can meet it, the more value you offer. Remember that when you market yourself. Because no one, but no one, cares if you say you’re an award-winning photographer. That scratches your itch, not theirs. Remember it when you negotiate, because they aren’t doing you a favour by coming to you, they’re asking you to help. The more clear you make that itch, and the more clear you make your ability to scratch it in a way others don’t, the more value you put on the table. Remember it in everything you do, every blog post you write, every social media sound bite you create. Does it teach them? Inspire them? Make them laugh? Give them something? If it doesn’t, it’s just noise.
Combining art and commerce isn’t mysterious. Find an audience you can serve. Find an itch you can scratch. And then pour yourself, heart and soul, into serving that audience and scratching the hell out of that itch. The rest is details. Not easy details, I know. And there’s a world of work involved in the search for the right audience and an itch that you scratch like no one else. But once you find it, don’t get sidetracked. Serve. Scratch. Repeat.
The best two questions you can ask every day, in this regards, are these: who am I serving, and how can I serve them better? Even if you’re not in business, they aren’t bad questions, because how you answer them is how you bring value and relevance to what you do, even if no money changes hands.
I believe a living can be made doing what you love, that now is as good as – if not better than – any other time in history to do so, and that people complaining that things aren’t what they used to be are missing out on astonishing (challenging) opportunities in the present. VisionMongers, Making a Life and Living in Photography, is available on Amazon and from other major booksellers, and though I wrote it and therefore lack any objectivity, I still think it’s one of the most honest conversations available on the subject.
Nicely put David. I read your book a few years back and enjoyed the straightforward no BS way the business side of things was covered. It helped me take a step back at the time and that’s always a good thing. Keep up the good work. Cheers.
Thank you, Brook! We could probably all use a little less BS and time to take a few steps back once in a while 🙂
David, This line “But once you find it, don’t get sidetracked. Serve. Scratch. Repeat.” was crucial for me in getting momentum on a narrowed down niche. Finding that itch to scratch was key. After that, …not getting sidetracked. Thanks for the great article!
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Hi David, thought I’d just connect because its been about a year since I read Visionmongers and it helped so much its hard to put down verbally. I (like no doubt many other shooters) have been ‘out there’ doing my thing pretty disconnected for a while and its been encouraging and helpful in more ways than one. Thanks for giving! XXX Maya
Well said, especially about scratching our own itch when we say award-winning photographer. That’s so true. I can echo your subject because when I first started out I tried to cater to everyone. Now, I cater to people interested in Scripture and Biblical teaching by pairing each photograph to verses in the Bible. After doing that consistently I started to see a steady loyal following start to grow. A photography mentor once told me, “Find your niche, even if it’s taking photographs of bushes. Don’t cater to everyone.”
David, if you were just starting out and reading this, how would you summarize the itch that you’re fulfilling for others? (Obviously, we who follow you know what we are getting out of doing so, on several levels, but just wondering how YOU would sum it all up if you had to write a mission statement of sorts.)
Wait, that doesn’t quite make sense as far as you starting out vs summarizing the itch you’ve been scratching for years, but putting that minor detail aside for the moment……? 😉
Fair question. I think any itch we’re passionate about scratching probably comes from some core values and priorities for us – so let me answer the question a little obliquely. My work, though I don’t think I’ve ever written it down like this, is to encourage photographers (mostly enthusiastic amateurs and young pros) to find freedom in their work – freedom to do their best work, free from rules and preconceptions, freedom from fear (including the freedom to recognize it and admit it), and freedom from their own crippling expectations. I think that freedom leads us to stronger, more intentional work that feels more authentic. So that’s the scratching, the itch is just the flipside. How’d I do?
And David, if I may say so, you do those things admirably.
David, this srticle really itches. because it’s soo hard to really narrow down what our niche is. but if we don’t focus on that, we get lost. So thanks for the reminder!
As always, you hit the point precisely. And you also highlight the most important question everyone should be asking, photographer or not….who do I serve? Am I helping to improve things for fellow beings? I am happy when I can donate my work for a fundraiser, or do a workshop that I give back the proceeds to the garden or group. I love teaching others and my hope is that I do serve others, even in any small way. That is what it is about. Thanks for the great article!
I like that you used the word serve. I have just started out in photography and have found that most photographers won’t do anything unless it benefits them. I belong to a club that has put out posts a couple times that just required some time with no pay. No one would volunteer, so I stepped in even though I have no idea what I am doing yet. I now take pictures at an animal shelter weekly and every animal has gotten a new home that I have photographed and this Saturday I am doing a wedding for free- the groom has stage 4 cancer that has spread. Even though there are a lot of experienced photographers no one blinked because of the lack of income. I am scratching my itch- the need to serve those who are in dire circumstances. I might not make any money, but I do believe eventually good things will come my way.
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