Yes, I have an IRA account, a savings account, real estate investments, a small business, and a treasured camera collection that represents the history of photography. But, the best financial return on investment that I ever made was an investment that I made in myself.
A $391,154 return—and counting.
Networking and connections have always been a foundation of a successful career. Lately, social networks in particular have really become a persistent part of our culture’s lexicon and our photography lives. For the last several years I’ve connected with many people through social networking and I value all of the connections I’ve made. I have participated in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Google+ and Vimeo, but few of them have increased my business even fractionally. I think they have that potential for certain kinds of photographers, but for the kind of work that I do, it’s not likely that I will ever be commissioned based on my Instagram pictures or some quotation I’ve posted on Twitter.
“It’s worked so well that if it were a stock or bond people would be standing in line at their broker’s office to buy as many shares as they could.”
What has worked is a very different kind of networking. In fact, it’s worked so well that if it were a stock or bond that yielded the kind of return on investment that’s been possible, people would be standing in line at their broker’s office to buy as many shares as they could.
What is it?
First, a little background: Several years ago, I realized that I’d stopped shooting the kinds of things I wanted to shoot and instead I’d allowed my photography career to sort of take it’s own course. All at once I found myself with a career that hadn’t really been chosen, but instead had simply evolved and I suddenly realized that it had been several years since I’d shot anything that I wanted to put into my portfolio. I was shooting for big-name, big-budget clients, but I was just grinding it out and not really doing work I was proud of. My clients were happy, my accountant was happy, but I was miserable.
It was about that time that I heard about a Sports Photography Workshop being taught by some of the world’s best photographers and editors at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
After reading the brochure, I discovered that if I attended, I’d have the opportunity to make portraits of some of the best athletes in the world. I could also photograph them in any way I chose while not having to worry about pleasing a client. I could then meet face-to-face with editors and photographers from several of the most prestigious publications in the world and show them the portraits I’d made. Finally, I’d have the chance to listen to the wisdom of some of the most talented shooters in the business. And this experience would last for an entire week.
So, without too much thought, I sent in my money, packed up my cameras, and headed to Colorado.
Here’s what happened: After exploring the Olympic Training Center and familiarizing myself with the wide range of sports and environments, I introduced myself to six different athletes and then arranged to make a portrait of each. Once I edited the take and processed the images, it was time to show the work.
“Nothing can ever take the place of a personal connection.”
I’ve always believed that a website or FedEx’d portfolio can do a fine job of showing an editor that you’re capable, but nothing can ever take the place of a personal connection. Meeting with someone gives them a sense of who you are, how you’re likely to handle yourself on an assignment, and whether or not they might be willing to take the risk of sending you out to represent them. So, after selecting a few of the better images, I made appointments with several people from Sports Illustrated who were instructors at the workshop to look at what I’d done during the week. One of the editors seemed to like the portraits I’d made, but just as significantly, I had the opportunity to introduce myself to her.
Several months after the workshop, I got a call from the same Sports Illustrated editor I’d met during my week there who asked if I’d be interested in making a portrait of a Major League baseball player for the next issue of the magazine. Two days later, I shot the assignment and it ran the following week as a two-page spread—as well as a table of contents image and a closing image. That success led to more than 100 additional assignments—not only for her, but with other editors at the magazine. A little more than a year later, one of the editors I’d worked for a few times at SI left to become the Director of Photography at Golf Digest magazine. In the years since, I’ve shot more than 150 assignments for them as well. Not long ago, one of the editors from Golf Digest left to become an editor at Major League Baseball who then assigned me to shoot portraits for her. And so it goes—just like a viral social network, only better.
How much better? When I added together every assignment that I could trace back to that first meeting at the workshop, the billings came to a total of $391,154. I should pass the $500,000 mark this year. From a purely financial perspective, that’s an incredible return on investment.
Probably more significant than the financial reward was the impact it made on my work. Attending that workshop gave me a blank canvas to rediscover what I loved about photography and what I would choose to shoot if I had complete freedom. I made pictures that for the first time in many years were authentic to my vision, not someone else’s. I began to produce photographs that I was proud to show and they were pictures that people increasingly began hiring me to shoot. And that cycle continues today. All it took was a very small investment in myself.
Perhaps the most lasting effect of attending that first workshop has been the many friendships and relationships that probably would have never been possible otherwise. Photographers and editors who likely would have been unreachable and inaccessible are now friends. I also met two of the finest assistants that I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with at the workshop in Shawn Cullen and photographer Christy Radecic, and each has helped me to make images that I could have never made without them.
If you’d like to get a feel for the photographic opportunities at the workshop, the images above were all made as part of the location portrait sessions and each of the workshop participants was able to photograph these athletes for their portfolio. If you’d like to get a sense of the week, this short video really captures the workshop behind the scenes.
I hope you’ll consider investing in yourself and your career this year.