When I first began snapping away with a camera, I couldn’t stop thinking to myself, “Really? This is the road you want to go down? But it makes no sense.”
It’s only been in the past few days, after much soul-searching and re-searching courtesy of Seth Godin and Barnes & Noble, that something inside me has clicked. And it’s starting to make sense why, after years of busting my butt academically and churning out papers like crazy and thinking that OBVIOUSLY I would pursue some high-and-mighty “real job,” I’ve chosen to be a photographer.
In his book All Marketers Are Liars, Godin talks about how the most successful businesses and entrepreneurs are those who can tell stories about their products really well. He uses as an example Riedel, the company who makes wine glasses. They came out of the woodwork and told people a story of how different wines needed differently-shaped glasses to complement and bring out their unique qualities. And wine drinkers around the world bought it (heck, so did we… we registered for them for our wedding!), despite the fact that true blind taste tests showed absolutely no difference in taste when wine is consumed from a fancy-pants glass intended to coax out all its subtle notes and flavors than when it is served up in a regular kitchen glass. The truth is, as Godin points out, that we, as consumers, tell ourselves stories all the time, and we want to believe stories that fall into our worldview. We believe that buying organic food and taking our vitamins and buying the latest version of software will improve the quality of our lives in some form or fashion, regardless of any actual evidence to that fact. It’s all about perception. Something that very well may not enhance our lives actually does because it allows us to believe a story about our lives being better because of it.
So he got me thinking about this whole story-telling thing, and I’m starting to see that the puzzle pieces of my life that seem like they could never fit together actually do, because they all point to one thing: I am a storyteller by nature.
Rewind to the beginning of my life , shall we? Yep, I was the classic nerd. The one who didn’t play sports and had asthma and wore glasses and… read books. Lots of books. It wasn’t possible to go to the public library too many times. In fact, I was often disappointed that I could only check out a certain amount of books… even if the maximum was like, 20. In fact, I didn’t read- I devoured. So many of my childhood memories are attached to the stories and characters who played such an important role in my life. Alice and Peter Pan and Lucy and Ramona and Amelia Bedelia and Nancy and Max. Just to name a few.
As I grew older, it became pretty clear that my gift was writing. It was something that came so naturally to me, something that I didn’t really have to work at like I did at math and science and… ugh… gym. My favorite classes were always English classes. My favorite teachers were always English teachers. Though I didn’t always particularly enjoy the assigned readings, I loved writing about them. To me, there was something fascinating about reading and researching and then formulating an idea, an opinion, that somehow brought all that together in a creative and concise piece of writing. I loved printing out the final draft onto warm white paper that smelled faintly of ink, and then carefully stacking the papers and stapling them and presenting them in a crisp, new manilla folder. Yep. NERD ALERT.
This path continued well into my college life. When I first began the process of picking a major, I tried so hard to find something that seemed more “acceptable” than English. I went through phases of considering architecture, interior design, international business…. but at the end of the day, I had to follow my heart, and my heart told me time and again that my passion was writing.
Yet I also began being pulled in different directions. As I took a variety of electives, I found other little “mini-passions,” if you will. One of these was film. I actually ended up just being a couple of credits shy of a film minor, but alas, summer school just wasn’t in the cards for me, so I opted out. But I took some absolutely wonderful film classes, with professors who were SO full of passion for cinema. It was enthralling, really, because here was the chance, again, for me to write and to engage in a story, but this time there were so many other players than me and the author. Suddenly, I was paying attention to music and cinematography and lighting and wardrobe and facial expressions and tone and color… all of these other aspects that helped to tell a filmmaker’s story. And truthfully, I found it wildly fascinating. But I knew I could never be a filmmaker. In fact, I really didn’t think I WANTED to be a filmmaker. But I couldn’t help but wonder how this love for film could play a role in my future.
And now, here I am. A photographer. A professional storyteller. And my medium is no longer simply words, and my audience is no longer simply my professors, and maybe a handful of peers. I now have this platform fueled by a blog and social media and all sorts of other technology, to reach a broader audience. A MUCH broader audience, in fact. And I now have this instrument, a camera, to bring a whole new level to my love for storytelling. And better yet, the stories I am in charge of telling are… true. But not boring true. They’re there, and they’re waiting for my voice and my eye to share them with this newfound audience. What is so wonderful about photography is that it combines all of the creative forces that I’ve always felt have pulled me in different directions, not the same one: art, music, writing, editing, interpreting. And now I have so many more TOOLS beyond just words to tell stories: light, color, music, mood, directing, etc. Something I’m beginning to learn, though, is that it’s super tempting for many story-telling artists to let the tools be the end rather than just the means to the end. I’ve seen so many films, photographs, and essays that, while technically “perfect” and rather beautifully crafted, lack any sense of authenticity and emotion and inspiration, because they simply fail to tell a story that resonates with even a few people. I don’t want to be that kind of artist. The kind that cares more about the art itself than the purpose of the art, which I feel is to reach out to others, to communicate a message, an idea, an emotion, to reflect back to others their stories in a way that sheds new light and meaning on their lives. And I know I risk sounding like some more-philosophical-than-thou wacko, but it’s the honest-to-blog truth.
I’m also discovering that many of the things I do that are considered by many to be a waste of time, or at best just an entertaining way to pass the hours, is actually just ongoing research. Jamie and I watch a LOT of movies (thanks to Netflix and Redbox!), and some people think that’s stupid. But I truly find so much inspiration in them, even if sometimes they are awful. Because it forces both of us to think about the world a little differently than we did before, and, for me anyway, to analyze the art behind the story that was told. Jamie understands by now that I need a few moments of “quiet time” when the credits begin to roll to really process what I just witnessed and experienced. And then sometimes we talk about it. Sometimes not. But at the very least, what good is a movie, no matter how silly it is, if it doesn’t mean something to you, if there isn’t the least shred of authenticity behind it?
And this brings me back to the whole English major thing. I think it’s really tragic that I’ve been conditioned to feel a twinge of embarrassment when I tell people what I got a degree in. Like it was a total waste of four perfectly good years of my life. It’s also why it took me so long to come to terms with the fact that it’s truly what I wanted to study more than anything. But you see, there’s more to it than reading some books and writing some papers. English has taught me to be an effective communicator, and that’s a skill that has become fundamental to everything I do, be it leading a shift at Starbucks or editing a batch of images and putting them into a slideshow or making casual conversation with someone I barely know or writing this blog. And (most) everything I do somehow becomes a foundation for the next stage of my life. And that stage is now this: photography. It’s not the medium I began with. I haven’t had any formal training like I have with English. It’s not something I’ve been doing since I learned how to walk. But here it is, and now, NOW it’s starting to make sense how all the random things I love and have done fit together.
Recently, AMC has been doing a series of advertisements centered around this mantra: “Story matters here.” You may wonder why I bothered to delve into this much detail about my personal history when for crying out loud this is supposed to be a photography blog. I guess I just feel like I want you to understand that behind the camera, there is a human being. A hot mess of a human being, granted, but one whose life experiences and passions have completely and totally made her the person she is: a storyteller by nature, a photographer by trade. God help me if I ever start referring to myself in the third person as a means of sounding more professional. I can’t emphasize enough that more than anything, more than beauty or knowledge or power, I crave authenticity. That’s the kind of person I want to be. And hopefully that’s the kind of person you’ll trust to tell your story. Story DOES matter here.
And I guess since photography blogs don’t generally have this much text, and since I don’t really have any recent work to share with you, and I’ll give a little sampling of stories that have brought meaning to MY life:
I will be the first to admit it.
Yes, I was also a skeptic.
A skeptic of this whole social media thing (just seemed like a big ole party of narcissism). A skeptic of self-promotion (seemed kinda shamelessly sleazy and definitely not easy for a -mostly- introverted kind of girl). A skeptic of joining forums, commenting on blogs, sending replies on Twitter, etc. (why try so hard to be part of the bigger conversation if I don’t feel like I have anything worthwhile to contribute? and won’t this only keep breaking down “real” human interaction, the face-to-face, meaningful kind?).
That was then.
This is now.
Now, after having done a LOT of research via blogs, books, forums, Facebook, and Twitter, I’ve come to find that in order to keep my head above the water, I don’t have any other choice but to participate in the conversation while simultaneously building a distinguishable brand out of… wait for it, wait for it…. MYSELF! Eeeeek! I literally have to sell myself. But why?
I thought Jasmine Star phrased it really nicely in one of her recent FAQ blog posts (must-reads, by the way):
What in your opinion is your competitive advantage? I’m going to ask a side-question as well that is related, but what do other professionals and/or your clients say draws them to you?
I’m going to be really, reeeeally honest right now. I don’t have a competitive advantage. There are literally thousands of photographers here in Southern California. All who take good photos. Many of who shoot with the same camera I do. Most of who edit in Photoshop the way I do. All of who love the art of photography just as much as I do. What sets me apart? ME. So, if this can be a considered a competitive advantage, then by all means, I’ll rock it out. However, this also means that anyone can be their own competitive advantage…which is awesome! Everyone is truly and uniquely created and that’s precisely what photographers should leverage as they’re greatest competitive advantage.”
And I’ve been reading all sorts of stuff that basically says the same thing: Mastering and selling your art is essential, yes. I’m selling a service. However, I am also selling an experience, and that experience is, when it comes down to it, ME. And it’s taking some major adjustment to get used to this idea. I’ve always seen people who talk about themselves all the time or update everyone on what they’ve been working on or what their latest achievements are as being… well… stuck-up and self-centered. And I’ve never wanted to be, or to be perceived as being, that way. I’ve always been the keep-your-head-down-and-work-your-butt-off-and-maybe-you’ll-get-recognized-for-it type. Which is partly because I can, at times, be socially awkward. (I can hear the collective gasp as I type this… :) ) Of course everyone likes being recognized, but there’s something about the spotlight that is intensely intimidating and embarrassing for me. So to have to learn how to graciously accept praise (and humbly accept criticism) AND praise myself in a very public way is… hard. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no saint. I love attention as much as the next person. But purposefully drawing attention to myself is not as easy as it might be for other people. Heck, I would LOVE to be able to do it without batting an eyelash. But it’s hard. Plain and simple.
However, I MUST do it, because that’s the only way I can build the Morgan Trinker brand. A brand isn’t just a logo… the golden arches, the Nike checkmark, the white apple…. it’s an idea, a feeling, associated with a person and that person’s business. Think Martha Stewart. Rachel Ray. Oprah. Donald Trump. Brad Pitt. For the most part, the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear these names isn’t a logo. It’s an emotion or idea you connect with what that person stands for. Luxury. Self-help. Down-home cooking. Exquisite event design. High-profile. Established. Industry leader. Favorite things. Likable. Etc. Etc. Etc.
Obviously, those weren’t very specific descriptions, but you can see where I’m going with this. We attach feelings to people based on the brands they’ve built. And a lot of times, our spending habits and entertainment preferences reflect the impact that these brands have on our thinking.
Yesterday, I tweeted about the branding success by the name of Dolly Parton. I bet you $20 bucks you’ve already come up with ten thoughts/ideas/emotions you connect to her just by reading her name. They might be positive, they might be negative, but there they are. (If you want to know MY feelings about her, check out this blog post I wrote last year in her honor.) Anyway, CNN recently did a “Revealed” series on her and as I watched the video, I was particularly struck by the discussion of “Brand Dolly”:
Narrator: “After more than four decades in the limelight, Dolly has perfected the art of being Dolly.”
Dolly: “I’m in the Dolly Parton business. And I feel like I know how to run that very well. […] I’m a very professional me. I can’t tell you how to be or tell someone else how to be. But I know how I’m supposed to be.”
Narrator: “Dolly Parton is arguably as famous for the way she looks as for the songs she sings. Over the years, her iconic image has graced the covers of thousands of magazines. […] As Dolly’s music shot her to stardom, her flamboyant image also got people talking.”
Dolly: “Well, when people look at me, they see a lot of things, like, I guess first of all, you think ‘Oh my lord, why would somebody go out in public lookin’ like that?!’ But I know I’m a bit over-exaggerated. I wear too much makeup, too much hair. How I look is just a country girl’s idea of glamour. Back in my early days, I wanted to be pretty and I wasn’t, and I didn’t have anything, so I think when I got to where I could, I overdid it, and then I became comfortable with that, and that’s just how I’ve always felt, you know, just comfortable. This is how I look and I think people now, through the years, I’ve shown them that I’m a little more than what might meet the eye. Hopefully!”
Narrator: “But it wasn’t just an image she was creating. Dolly was more than aware that her iconic look was becoming her business. Brand Dolly was born. The strength of her brand is the result of years of her hard work to maintain it. […] Whenever Dolly is in public, Brand Dolly is in action.”
Dolly: “I do protect my brand, and I do protect myself. It’s an image, and I’ve created it, and I protect it. I think I owe it to the public. I think I owe it to myself. And I’m comfortable doing it. […] I would not go out in public without being made up and my hair fixed unless my husband was dying of a heart attack or something, and then I’d have to think about it. [laughs]”
Kenny Rogers: “Dolly has become a caricature of herself, and she plays that: Know me, know what I am, then watch what I can do.”
And how true it is, that her enormous fan base is as much a testament to her music as it is her image… because both work in harmony to create Brand Dolly.
The trouble for me, I think, has been figuring out my OWN brand. Deciding who I am, what makes me uniquely me, and how that can be a leveraged as an advantage over my competition. Because there will always be the rock star photographer with more experience, more expensive equipment, more off-the-wall creativity. So the only way I can stand out is to be myself, and connect on that personal level with other people, so that this is more than a business transaction… it’s a relationship, a connection, a signature Morgan Trinker experience. And because of this, Brand Morgan must always be in action, whether working at Starbucks, walking Gretchen at the park, leaving comments on Facebook, writing blog entries, etc. I have to start being a more professional “me.”
If you, like me, are trying to figure out how to build and maintain Brand You, here are some excellent resources to get your wheels turning:
The Business of Being Creative – blog by Sean Low
Photo Lovecat– blog written by photographers Anne Ruthmann, Christine Tremoulet, and Jillian Kay
Big Pink Cookie– another blog by Christine Tremoulet, devoted to running a creative small business
Seth Godin’s Blog – You may have heard of/read some of his fabulous business books, like Tribes, Small is the New Big, and All Marketers are Liars. The books are great, but his blogs have lots of handy information as well.
Good luck to you in building Brand You…. and hopefully as time goes on, Brand Morgan will be stronger and more recognizable than ever!
…. even if neither of us achieves the status of Brand Dolly. :)
… so says the incomparable Jenny Lewis.
And right-o she is.
Let me ask you…. what do these scenarios (which all took place within the one week my parents were in town recently) have in common?
- We visited Olympic Village in Park City so that my dad could bobsled (on the ACTUAL track used in the Olympics, which looked pretty ridiculously scary if you ask me). He had already told everyone at work that he was going to do it, so there was no backing down when he saw the track and then saw the price list- $60 a person for a minute-long ride. He bit the bullet, and we all loaded up into the shuttle that would take us to the top of the mountain. Now, our driver was a super-nice guy. He was giving all sorts of pointers and whatnot, being very friendly and chatty. Well, then his supervisor’s voice came through on his walkie-talkie. More or less, the guy launched into this tirade on the driver, yelling at him for picking us up when he was supposed to have done some other task. Chewed him out completely, over the walkie talkie, IN FRONT OF PAYING CUSTOMERS. Um, can we say “unprofessional”? The poor guy was clearly a bit embarrassed, but he simply responded that he was going to take us to the top before he did anything else. Meanwhile, the rest of us just sat there awkwardly, unsure of how to react to that whole episode.
- A couple of days later, we were shopping at the Gateway, and my brother and I had gathered up some clothes to try on at the Gap, so we went to the fitting room station and stood there waiting… and waiting… because we needed someone to unlock the doors for us and there was no one to be found. Finally, one employee came rushing toward us in a fit of obvious frustration that she had to deal with us. Rather than apologize for the wait and offer to open up a fitting room, let alone EVEN ACKNOWLEDGE OUR PRESENCE, she brushed by us while yelling at her coworker, who was all the way in the backroom, that she needed to be attending to the fitting room while working on whatever other task it was that she was doing.
- One night, we decided to get some authentic Northeastern-style pizza at a local pizza place (which had been highly recommended to us by Joe, whom I mentioned in my last post). We walked in and the hostess barely spoke two words to us as she seated us. Let me preface this next part by saying that Jamie and I LOVE to tip well. We know what it’s like working in retail and customer service, and we really appreciate being tipped well, so we like to share the love back wherever we go. Regardless of what we order, we never tip less than 20%. Ever. So the waiter comes to the table to take our drink orders. My mom often likes to drink tea with dinner, and my dad and brother will occasionally order a Coke or something, but it just so happened that that night, we all wanted water. Buddy, as soon as the waiter heard five waters being ordered, he gave us this look of utter disgust and walked off. In fact, he barely paid attention to us the rest of the night and I think only once offered any refills on water. And why? Because he sized us up from the very beginning as being cheapos. Just because we all wanted to drink water with our dinner. Sadly for this guy, he probably would have been tipped twice as much as what we ended up giving him, had he only chosen to forgo immediate judgment and treat us as he would have treated a table full of heavy drinkers. Ironically, from what Jamie has experienced waiting tables and I have experienced working at Starbucks, the customers who appear to be the wealthiest right off the bat, who order the most expensive meal or latte on the menu, are, in fact, often the absolutely stingiest tippers. At the last Starbucks I worked at, we even had this notorious customer who would pull up in the drive thru in his $40,000 SUV and actually attempt to STEAL our tips. No lie.
Sadly, I think these situations indicate a decline in customer service these days. Which is so puzzling to me, because all these big shot companies are constantly whining and complaining about how bad this economy has hit their business, yet they are neglecting one of the few things in this economy that will make any business stand out and shine: excellent, unsurpassed customer service. They claim they need us to shop more, spend more money…. but when we do, they treat us like crap. Does this make any sense at all? The other day, I was closing at Starbucks, and I was ringing up this couple who had come in shortly before we were about to lock the doors. Normally, this can be very frustrating, because we’re running around trying to get a million things done, and all we want to do is lock up and get the heck outta dodge, but I know that any business is good business, and so I try (not always successfully, mind you) to treat all customers with equal enthusiasm and helpfulness. It’s easy to complain about being too busy, and to get frustrated and take it out on customers with rudeness and abruptness. But when I stop to think about it, I remember that this company has given me a job. Not just a job, but a job with really good affordable health benefits, even if I were to only work part-time. And trust me, Starbucks has taken some HUGE hits within the last year and a half or so, in part due to the economy, but also because of some poor business decisions. And I’ve watched my friends and coworkers be fired, demoted, transferred, etc. because of all this. So how lucky am I to still have this steady income with great benefits? And you know what… I would have none of it if not for the loyalty of our customers, who still come in for a $4 latte even though McDonalds is selling them across the street for $2, in a terrible economy, because it’s a place where they feel belonging, appreciation, authenticity, and that human connection that is so lacking from other establishments. They like being “regulars,” enjoying a little bit of luxury in a 16 oz. cup and being treated with respect… as more than annoyances who just get in the way of getting other tasks done so we baristas can just show up and punch in and out on time and go home and let that be that. So anyway (sorry for that massive digression), this couple came in and after I rang them up, the guy said, “Wow. You know, you’re really friendly. That’s awesome. I really appreciate that.” And that SO made my life, and proved to me that customers ARE paying attention and DO appreciate being treated well. And we had this brief but great discussion on customer service in this economy, and how it seems that it’s dying everywhere you turn. It was wonderful.
So with that said, I am making it my mission to form this business into one that is completely and totally customer-centric. It’s going to be challenging for me in many ways, because I’m going to have to do some growing up and become more responsible and mature in some ways, but I know that this is crucial to my business’s survival. I don’t want to be another small business failure statistic. So it’s time to man up and change my focus and get my act together. And here are some things that I’m going to work on, ways that I can give a little love to get a little love:
- Blog love! I’m a notorious lurker and blog stalker, but I don’t often leave love and participate in these discussions like I should. In order to form a presence to not only potential clients but also to my colleagues, who will be the ones to spread the love back to me, I’ve gotta contribute. Before I can ever expect anyone to give ME advice or help ME out in a pinch, I’ve got to be willing to do the same for them FIRST. If I want people to read MY blog and leave some comment love, I’ve gotta do the same for them first… or else how will they even know I exist?
- Email and phone love! Ew, this one is not so fun. But a necessary evil. Today’s savvy and discerning clients demand excellence not only in the quality of the product, but also in the quality of the EXPERIENCE. Making myself constantly available to be super attentive to others’ needs is the only way I can at least some ensure a positive customer experience. I’ve got to remain in control of my inbox and my voicemails and my Facebook messages and everything else. So I’m pledging to myself that I will do this. Do this with passion, not out of obligation, but out of true appreciation for my clients, because they and they alone will be the ones who will allow me to make a living off of my dream career.
- God love! It is far too easy to get caught up in the “rockstar” world of high-profile wedding and portrait photography. I have seen it time and time again, even in the few short months I’ve been immersed in this whole world. But let me tell you, there are PLENTY of egotistical, self-worshipping photographers out there, who live for the latest gear and the most awards and whatever the heck else they use to measure their self-worth. I want to be a photographer who loves my colleagues and clients, yes, but I want to be one who loves God first and foremost, for without Him, I would be nothing. I would have no talent, no prospects, no opportunities, no resources, no passion, no drive, no NOTHING. So to Him I owe the very best of my efforts at gratitude, and then everything that’s left will be spread around to the people who help me make it happen based on what I HAVE been so blessed with.
I encourage you, you who may be thinking about starting your own business or who, like me, are in the formative stages, or who have been in business for years now to consider your own priorities when it comes to spreading the love. Be grateful for the talents and skills you possess, but also give recognition and appreciation to those who allow you to live your dream and actually USE those talents and skills to earn a living.
Be thankful. And just give a little love.