The Value of the Experienced (Old) Photographer

I don’t think of my self as old, except at times when a part of my body doesn’t act or react the way it used to. But, I would say that many of my colleagues would call me old, chronologically speaking. The premature deaths of Glenn Frey, David Bowie, Natalie Cole and Alan Rickman – all in the span of a few weeks and all in their late ‘60’s, has given me pause to look at my own mortality. It has also given me resolve to make the most of each day.

The fact is there is nothing we can do about our age.

Gail Mooney with James Michener, Chesapeake Bay, MD
Gail Mooney with James Michener, Chesapeake Bay Photo © Thomas Kelly

Unlike other things in life that we can change, we can’t change our age. But we don’t need to allow a youth-obsessed culture, define our value. I’ve grown weary of the dismissive attitude our culture has about aging. It’s especially frustrating for me as a photographer, filmmaker, and creative entrepreneur. Creativity comes from the spirit within. Our spirit never ages, so neither does our desire and need to create. I’ve never felt more in tune with my spirit and my authentic self than I do now. I never imagined that would happen at this point in my life but I’ve never felt more creatively alive.

I get bewildered and frustrated when society perceives my value as somehow diminished, simply because of my age, but then I look at my assets.

  • Experience – There are no short-cuts when it comes to experience. It’s earned over years of trial and error on the job and in life.
  • Problem Solving – I wish I had kept track of all the problems I’ve solved on assignments as well as in personal life. Countless decisions and consequences to learn from. I’ve gotten pretty good at it.
  • Creativity – I take more chances and push myself in terms of my craft now, than at any other time in my career. I’m not afraid to try something different because I realize that failure is part of the process. So, I hate it when getting older is equated with getting stale. Sure, some folks do but there are so many people in my generation that are still incredibly vibrant and innovative. Check out my latest personal project, “Like A Woman”, short films and still portraits of women working in male-dominated professions.
  • Perspective – I’ve lived through profound changes in the span of my life. They haven’t always been easy to deal with. Technology has changed everything – how we do business, how we communicate, and how we interact, globally. My generation has experienced both the analog and the digital world. Hopefully, most of us are able to see the merits of each. Change is inevitable, it always has been. I’ve been around long enough to experience many cycles of change, and I can tell you for certain, nothing lasts forever. I try not to let change intimidate me, but rather let it excite me to embrace what it has to offer. That has opened me up to all sorts of possibilities.
  • Wisdom – It’s true that we get wiser as we age but only because we’ve had a lot more mistakes to learn from. Whether we’ve learned from our heartbreaks or from the stupid things we’ve done, we’ve grown despite it. Wisdom is kind of like experience – there are no short-cuts to getting there.

I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this topic and their perspectives.

 

“Try to have a little more control”

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately purging – getting rid of a lot of stuff I don’t need any longer. I came across a portfolio of architectural drawings that I had made during my days as an architectural student at Syracuse University. Stuck inside the portfolio were graded copies of the drawings with remarks from the professor. The comments were consistent and repeatedly pointed out Gail's college architural renderingsmy lack of “control”.

“Try to have a little more control!”

“Without control of lines and line quality, solution is lost!”

Back then I used a rapidograph (technical pen) for rendering these drawings. Unlike a lot of my fellow architectural students, I had very little training in the way of art classes before coming to Syracuse and my skills as an artist were terrible. Drawing fine straight lines with a rapidograph was my downfall. The ink would blotch or would seep under the ruler or triangle that I was using and my drawing would usually end up being a big mess.

I think my lack of “control” as an artist ultimately turned me away from pursuing architecture as a career. Instead, I changed my path and pursued a career in photography. Today, architectural students use CAD for their drawings and I would imagine that perfecting one’s skill with a rapidograph is no longer a requirement.

I wonder if things would have been different as far as the path I chose, if I had the tools available to me, that we have today? It’s an interesting question to ponder, but ultimately I don’t think I was well suited for a career in architecture and it went beyond the fact that I had poor drafting skills. I was a “big picture” thinker and not focused on the details.

Fundamentally, I haven’t changed. I’m still a big picture thinker. I am able to clearly visualize, my creation or project as a “whole” and know usually know what I need to do to achieve that end, but in determination to finish, I sometimes overlook the details. I’ve trained myself over the years, to not be in such a rush to complete something, that I compromise the quality. I’ve also accepted the person I am – what I’m good at and what I’m not so good at and found that I’ve produced my most gratifying work in collaboration with others.

I will always be a big picture thinker – the bigger the idea and the more possibilities – the more I love it. I have learned to have more control, but I still love to color outside the lines and push the boundaries.

5 Tips for Filmmakers (and other artists) for Building an Audience

The good news for Indie filmmakers, musicians, photographers and new media artists is that technology enables us to take control and distribute our own work to the masses or a more targeted niche audience.  The bad news is that even though we are able to reach a global audience without giving the lion’s share of our profits to an agent or distributor – it’s a lot of hard work.

When I completed final production on my first feature documentary, Opening Our Eyes, I knew I was hardly finished with this film, not if I wanted people to see it. theater interioeIMG_0150Since most filmmakers make their movies to be seen, they need to decide how they want their movies distributed and marketed.  As a filmmaker, do you want to delegate this task to a distribution company or do it yourself?  Will you be one of the lucky 1% of filmmakers who get their films picked up for distribution?  If not, do you have a plan on how to do that?

1. Identify and build audience – Regardless if you decide to sign with a distributor or distribute your work yourself, the most important part of marketing and distributing a film is to identify and build your audience – and you should start building your audience before the film is finished.  As soon as I made a commitment to make a film, I started blogging about it.  I created a blog specifically about the film where my daughter and I talked about preparing for and taking a 99-day journey around the world. I also wrote about the making of the film on this blog where I talked about gearing up for it as well as the post-production process.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was building our niche audience.

2. Have a social media plan:

  • Decide on platforms – Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Google+, YouTube, Vimeo
  • Carve out the time to engage
  • Decide where the content will come from – behind the scenes photos or footage, blogs, podcasts?
  • Who and where is your audience? Find other Facebook groups or pages and followers who are interested in the same topic as yours.  Collaborate. Build your Twitter followers same way.

3. Finding true fans – Since most filmmakers will most likely NOT have a mega hit with huge profits, the best thing a filmmaker can do is build their “true fan” base.  First you should ask yourself how many “true fans” would you need to sustain yourself as a filmmaker? And by true fan, I mean people who are willing to buy whatever you are selling, be it a book, a DVD, a music download or a t-shirt.  The key to growing your core “true fans” is to engage them by sharing interesting content as opposed to just selling something.

4. Be consistent and stick with it – Like anything else, building an audience takes time.  Be prepared to constantly interact and engage your audience by sharing relevant and interesting content with them.  You’re building a tribe or a community.

5. Find likely partners – Making films is a collaborative effort.  Similarly, for filmmakers to be successful in marketing their films they need to find their core niche.  One great way to find your niche audience is to identify like minded groups and share links.  The non-profit my daughter works for partnered with us and we frequently share each other’s news with our followers.

10 Ways Photographers are Their Own Worst Enemies

  1. They talk themselves out of things.  – Telling themselves that it wouldn’t matter if they learned new skills or shot new images or whatever they didn’t want to make the effort to do.
  2. They try to “educate” their clients (sometimes a bit too much) instead of collaborating and possibly learning from them.  A lot of “older” photographers are like this when they are working with younger art buyers or directors. I think the energy needs to work both ways.House surrounded by construction site, Atlantic City, NJ
  3. They give themselves an A for effort for starting something but too many times their starts lead to nowhere if they don’t have an end goal in mind.
  4. They don’t open themselves up to networking with others by attending industry meetings or events.
  5. They treat their clients like their enemies where one needs to win instead working toward a positive outcome for both.
  6. They make the mistake of creating for an audience, instead of creating for them selves.  (Thanks to Seth Godin for that thought)
  7. They take workshops or pay for a service and then don’t utilize them. I’ve been guilty of this too many times.
  8. They don’t shoot for the pleasure of it.
  9. They rely too much on commissioned work instead of taking advantage of new opportunities and ways in which to market and sell their own projects.
  10. They don’t stay true to themselves.

Looking Back

Today, I’ve been looking back through two year’s worth of blog posts that I have written. Wow – I’ve written a lot!  I really surprised myself at just how much when I started gathering the content that I had written in regards to the making of my documentary, Opening Our Eyes. I’m putting together my 2nd ePub that will be a companion to my first ePub, recently published on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

My focus is centered on the “craft” and the making of the film, and I talk about everything from “the gear” I put together for our 99-day journey around the world to the distribution process for the final film. A bulk of the content has already been written with photographs ready to upload and links.  It’s just a matter of consolidating the information and presenting it in a more concise way.

Earlier in the year, I paid my dues in the learning department when I put together the first ePub.  After my experience working with a professional formatter, I quickly realized what not to do.  One big thing I learned was not to get too heavy with the images because the first generations of Kindles have only b&w displays.  I also learned not to create intricate designs in Pages because later I had to undo all the work I had done for a PDF version of the printed book.

I am amazed at how much I have written over the last few years.  It was interesting to look back through some of my blog entries, and see how I was “processing things”  at the time I was writing those posts.  I’ve never really kept a journal before, accept for a one year period in my life, between the ages of 19 and 20, when I was making my first journey around the world.

I’m really happy that I have archived these stories and records of my life, but that’s not what motivated me to first start writing. I used to wake up super early in the morning – my mind spinning with ideas and random thoughts, not allowing me to get back to sleep.  So, I would get up and I started writing down my random thoughts and I found it therapeutic.  It was like having a conversation with someone and sorting things out.

There are chunks of time in my life that I simply don’t feel like writing or that I have nothing to really say.  My mind seems to go into a dormant phase where I convalesce with other distractions – usually mindless ones. But then there are days when I just have the need to get my thoughts down on paper.  I’m grateful for those days – on days like this when I take the time to look back from where I’ve been.

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Why Did You Want to Become a Photographer?

That was one of the questions posed to me during an interview this past weekend. A young woman had asked to interview me for a college paper she was writing. The call and the questions started out somewhat clinical, most likely another task or paper that she needed to check off her list. She proceeded through the usual list of questions: “Did you go to photography school?” “What type of photography are you interested in?” So on and so forth.

I could hear her typing my answers and I paused to let her catch up. But then she asked a question that really struck me on many levels. “Did you get into photography because it was cheaper?” I asked her what she meant by that – did she mean the tools of the trade were cheaper? When she responded “yes”, I told her that was somewhat of a misnomer and that the first cameras I bought (mechanical ones) I had used for 10 years. I added that now, because of the exponential impact of technology on my profession, my cameras and the software I need on the post end, have to be upgraded at least every two or three years, and that was only part of the investment required in the “tools of the trade.”

As she typed my response, I felt myself getting a bit anxious and I started speaking rapidly. I told her that even if that were true – meaning that I got into the photographic profession because it was cheaper – that would have been the absolute worst reason for me or anyone else, to choose photography as a profession. I went on to say that you need to be passionate about some aspect of photography that makes you want to do it more than anything, if you want to have a chance of sustaining yourself financially in this profession. Pursue photography because it brings you joy and that if you are getting into it because the entry level costs were “cheaper” you’ll simply be competing with thousands or tens of thousands of button pushers.

I went on to tell her that I became a photographer as a means to an end. I had been studying architecture in college and after two years left school to travel. I traveled the world for a year and came back knowing that I wanted to pursue a lifestyle that would incorporate travel but more importantly fill my endless curiosity of people and cultures and exploration. I wanted to become a storyteller, and became a photographer as a means to that end.

As the interview progressed I noticed the typing started to diminish as I told her that I have never separated my business from my pleasure and that they have always been tied together throughout my life. Simply put – my business is my pleasure. I talked about my frustrations starting out as one of a handful of women in a man’s world and for the most part a man’s profession – at least in the early days. I talked about the endless stream of rejections and the “wins” that seemed to pop into my life when I needed them most, rescuing me in the knick of time, just when I was thinking of quitting and moving into another career. I told her that unless she really wanted to do photography, she wouldn’t survive in this profession. I talked about my mentors when I was her age and how grateful I am that I had those people in my life. I relayed a couple of anecdotes about things my mentors had said to me and how those words had been pivotal moments in my life and that when things got tough, I drew upon those words of wisdom to get me through the day.

Then there was a very loud audible sigh, followed by a long period of silence and my mind raced through the various things that I had said to her. Was I too harsh? Did I paint too bleak of picture? Or worse yet – did I make it sound too easy and that all she had to do was “just do it”. I felt this overwhelming sense of responsibility that maybe I said something that was going to dictate the rest of her life and I kind of panicked in that moment of silence. And then she said “thank you so much for talking to me today, I started out just wanting to write my paper, and I’m going to have a great paper, but you have no idea how much talking to you has helped me.” She went on to tell me that she had been struggling with a decision that she was trying to make between going to law school and going to film school. I told her that she needed to make that decision all by herself and that it wasn’t a decision that anyone else could make for her – not I – not her parents – not anyone else. I told her to dig down deep into herself for the answer, beyond the influence of others, the dogma of the day and all the noise. And most importantly to remember that it was her life and that she got to choose how to live it and that she had every right to change her mind along the way.

Quite honestly, it has been one of those “onion” months for me, with layers of setbacks and second-guessing myself. I got off the phone feeling good about paying forward what I have learned along my way and in that moment, I realized that this might be my “purpose” at this point in my life. The day had turned into one of those sweet “strawberry days”. She didn’t know it, but she had helped me as much as she said I had helped her. It’s those conversations and those little moments that keep me going, and come to my rescue, just in the knick of time.

I would love to hear from you all – why did you want to become a photographer?  Something you say or write just may help someone and paying it forward is the best feeling in the world.

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The Problem With (Most) Video/Motion Workshops

This has been something that has been weighing on my mind for months now – ever since the seemingly “overnight sensation” of people giving video workshops as well as the growing number of still photographers that are feeling the need to take these workshops.

The biggest problem that I see with all the video/motion workshops that are out there is that they oversimplify video production and take the approach that the single independent still photographer can learn and do it all – produce, operate the camera, capture good audio and manage the post-production and edit.  I suppose to be fair – while it may be true that the independent still shooter can learn all facets of video production, that is not the best approach as far as setting up a viable business model for a video production company.

Video is a collaborative medium.  While I may be able take just about any video production from soup to nuts single handedly – I know that the production would suffer if I did.  I learned a long time ago to build a team of good sound people, editors and even camera operators that I can draw on to hire on a need be basis.  They make the production and me look good and that’s what keeps my clients coming back.  It also allows my business to grow because I can take on more projects. If I’m not entrenched in all aspects of the production. It frees me up to start production on another project while still in post-production of a previous project.  If you are a one-man band, you not only don’t have this option but you actually make yourself look small in the process.

Video and motion have many facets to them.  I advocate that the best business models are when one positions themselves at the top of the content creation ladder by overseeing the production of the whole and hiring the appropriate crew that will facilitate the process.  By recognizing the differences between this business model and the “solo” model that most independent photographers work under, you’ll have a much better shot of maintaining ownership of your work and creative vision as well as having the potential to grow your business beyond your own singular capabilities.

The other problem with workshops that over simplify the process of video production by promising that you will be up and running after a one day workshop is that they are centered around learning the gear and the software which changes by the month.  If you learn just the gear du jour and not focus on the business of video production you will be in competition with other independent dabblers and that’s a quick way to the poor house in terms of sustainability.

A week doesn’t go by when I don’t get at least a dozen calls or emails from still photographers who feel they need to get into video and are overwhelmed by the learning curve.  I tell them that the best thing they can do is NOT to try and learn all these skills themselves and that in fact that will only delay their entry into the video production, business if that is what they are after.  A better way is to keep your focus on your vision, apply that to a sustainable business model that will incorporate video and collaborate with others who will make you look good and help you grow your business.

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There Are No Prince Charmings or Overnight Successes

I think we all buy into a lot of crap in our American culture – in a lot of cultures actually.

Let’s start with “Prince Charming”. Young girls grow up believing in the fantasy that there is ”the ideal man” out there who is perfect in every way. And young boys grow up with their own version of this fairytale.  It’s really too bad because it’s all those flaws and differences that make us all human and drive us all crazy, that are the very things we should embrace. In our expectations for perfection and our intolerance for less, we often see only the “blemishes” or the cons and overlook the overall person.  We fail to see that it is all of those things that go into the make up of a person’s character. It took my husband and I many years to figure out that the very things that annoyed us about one another – our differences – made us stronger as a couple.

There is no such thing as an “overnight success”.  We believe that because in our culture we only hear about the successes.  For some reason we don’t look at the big picture and everything that led to that recognition. Success is an interesting concept to me anyway.  Many people define it by winning or attaining financial wealth.  Ultimately, it’s defined by a final destination rather than the journey.  Is it really about the final destination? If so how does one determine if only one win is enough or how much money is enough?

Talk to anyone who has risen to celebrity status and they will talk about the ups and the downs and the constantly evolving journey. A lot of musicians, who have had big hits and have gotten rave reviews, don’t always get the same glory the 2nd, 3rd or 4th time around. Their careers are made up of the highs and the lows and everything inbetween.

I’ve had my share of highs and lows.  Last week I got my rejection notice from the Sundance Film Festival for my film, Opening Our Eyes.  Rather than be despondent about it, I will frame this email rejection as a reminder to myself that I entered and had the courage to try.  There were over 11,000 entries and only 16 documentaries will be shown this year. I am proud to be in this 99%. This rejection is but one of many that I’ve had over the years of my career.  I’ve certainly had more rejections than I’ve had successes, but the failures have only made the successes that much sweeter.

This film in particular has been an evolving journey for me – with no destination in sight.  While it may never be a “success” in terms of how some people define that word, for me it has already brought many unexpected rewards to my life. For example,  I’ve just returned from Sao Brazil, Brazil where I had been invited to do a TEDx talk. It was one of those weekends that gave me great hope for the future as I dialoged with amazing people who were doing extraordinary things with their lives and for the lives of others.  The next evening I was given the opportunity to screen my film at MIS, a beautiful museum in Sao Paulo.  During the Q&A, a man asked me if making this film had changed my life.  I didn’t have to give it a second thought before I answered “yes and it continues to do so in amazing ways.”

I will continue to embrace the entire journey – the lows as well as the highs.

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Burning Bridges

I used to have a friend who would tell me that my life was made up of circles, each one completing the ring like segments of my life.  The truth is that’s not unique to me – that’s life in general.

It’s Photo Plus Expo week in New York City, when photographers from around the world gather at Javits to look at new gear, take part in seminars and network.  I don’t think I have missed an Expo since they began over 30 years ago. A lot has changed in the photography business over the past 30 years, but one thing is for certain and that is – it’s a very small world as far as the people who are part of this business.

Last night, I went to a couple of parties where I ran into quite a few people that I’ve met over the span of my career.  Some I had done commissioned assignments for, some I had met through seminars that I had given and some were just old friends that I hadn’t seen in a very long time.  But a couple of folks who approached me last night, and struck up a conversation, were people who had totally blown me off in years past – people who had simply ignored me.  In every instance, these had been people who had recently experienced a shift in their own lives and now had a sudden interest in me and in what I was doing – to further their own gain.

I know that I have burned a few bridges in my lifetime and I’m sure there are some I’m not even aware of. (Anyone who tells you that they haven’t burned bridge is just simply not aware.)  Some of those bridges, I have tried to rebuild and have succeeded. and some were beyond repair.  What I have learned – and wish I had learned 20 years ago – is that everything comes around in your life, no matter how much you have grown or changed – the past is always present. And it seems easier sometimes to change the past – but of course that’s not possible.

What I’m finding now is that due to profound changes in the photography business as well as the lingering lousy economy, that the same people, who had ignored me or dismissed me a few years ago, were now acting like my “best friend”.  I’m sure they didn’t remember how dismissive they had been to me – in fact I doubt that I was even on their radar at the time.  But circumstances had changed in their lives and now they were taking notice of me and even asking for my help. I suppose I could say that they had burned a bridge with me but then again in most of these situations there had never been a bridge to burn to begin with.

The point is, you never know how your past will affect your future.  You may think that you are in a position where you have no need for certain people in your life and be dismissive.  But nothing lasts forever and if there is anything that I’ve learned by getting older – it’s just that.  Our lives are made up of circles, each one connecting our past with our future.  Consider that when dealing with people who come in and out of your life – because nothing ever stays the same.  Many times you’ll find out that those people that you thought  you had no use for in your past – may be key in your future.   Hindsight is the best sight and you always get the best light from a burning bridge.

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What to do When in a Slump

There are all types of slumps – creative, financial, relationship and personal. I’m sure there are others, but those are what come to mind – I’ve experienced all of them. I think that comes with living the kind of life I lead. There are times when it seems like I’m on a never ending roller coaster ride with lots of ups and lots of downs. The one thing I try to do when I’m in whatever kind of slump I’m experiencing,  is to focus on the areas that seem to be working in my life.  I’ve learned to take the bitter with the sweet.

Here’s some other remedies I have found that help get me out of a slump:

  • GET OUT – I mean that literally as well as figuratively. I break the pattern of what I am doing that doesn’t seem to be working and “get out” of that place. I also literally – get out – I change my environs – I get together with friends.
  • TRY SOMETHING NEW – I do something that I may have been thinking about, but I usually talk myself out of with every rational reason I shouldn’t do it. So, I follow my irrational instincts.
  • WALK AWAY – This is especially true when you are dealing with something technical and you just don’t “get it”. There have been days when I have struggled with something that wasn’t working – like when editing in Final Cut Pro – and I need to give myself some time away from the problem. But this only works if you aren’t up against a tight deadline. I try not to force a learning curve into situations with tight deadlines.
  •  FOCUS ON WHAT IS GOING RIGHT – There is always something to be grateful for – focus on that.
  • BE STILL – I think this is perhaps the most important remedy that I have learned to embrace and that is – to give something time and not  force it. If something is meant to happen then it will – and in its own time.

Every one of these “remedies” is pretty much centered around the same thing,  and that is to recognize that there will always be slumps in one way or another – but they will make those sweet times that much sweeter.

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