You suck: My first professional assignment

PART 1

How do you find someone to pay you to take pictures? Do you search a job site? Write a letter to an editor? Put together a resume on fancy textured paper, with a college degree or assistant history in bold block letters? It's perhaps the most perplexing question of all time. Maybe the reason 99% of hopeful photographers jump off the wagon within the first year. I can tell you this about college training in my field, not one single client has ever asked to see my college degree. As my buddy Rich would say," it's like frosting on a cake, it's delicious, it's ATTRACTIVE, but once you get past that frosting, then you find out what that cake is really made of." And believe me, JS has got some pretty sweet frosting on the cake, but I can tell you, it's the cake itself that separates the professionals from the prosumers.

Alright so let's get to the story. I went to one of the most renowned photography college programs in the world (i'm pretty awesome right?). But when it comes to creatives, often no one really cares, since it's all about your work. Naturally, being the naive 23 year old I was, I searched for jobs on Craigslist. Why? Because i'd tried everything else, and everyone knows all the best photography jobs are on Craigslist right? No, actually not at all. I filed thru them carefully, i'd guesstimate 90% of any creative work advertised on craigslist goes something like this:

Title: Successful, growing, and up and coming corporation looking for experienced photographer to shoot fall catalog!

Details: We need 200 different professionally lit photographs of our products. You must supply all your own professional equipment. We figure the job will take 2 days max (16 hours). Unfortunately, due to budget restrictions, we can't pay you anything, but it would be great experience and you can use the photos in your portfolio.

This is how I read into ads like this. Essentially, you are an up and coming "successful" corporation that can't even afford to pay an "experienced" photographer $1.25/hour to perform what essentially amounts to 40-60 hours of work? Come on! They spend more than that on a pizza for lunch! If you told an investment banker from Harvard to work 2 minutes for free, they'd probably faint and go into convulsions. Don't get me wrong, working for free rarely (emphasis on RARELY) is only okay when it's under the right circumstances, with a person you trust, etc. Even though my peers still say, never ever ever ever ever ever ever ever work for free. So I was smart enough to stay away from the old, get something from nothing hat trick.

One day, 2 months out of school, and after 3 months of job searching, a legitimate ad came up. It was a jewelry store willing to pay "good money for photographs," so I sent over my portfolio. A day later, I got an email and they asked me to come in to discuss the job. The feeling was exhilarating! Like the first time seeing the ocean, or gliding a beautiful woman you love across the dance floor, or...okay, enough comparisons. I think you get it. The next evening, I went down to the store, and rang the buzzer. The door unlocked and I went in. An old man was leaning back in a stool, sound asleep behind the counter. "Is this a joke" I thought to myself? Did I just get duped on Craigslist? Just as I was expecting to get hit over the head with a frying pan and robbed, a man with a frown appeared towards the back, signaling me to follow him. I would be lying if I said I wasn't a little creeped out, a "hi good to meet you" would have been nice. Once we reached a small lunch area, the man finally introduced himself. "This is my family's jewelry store, we make the best jewelry in the world. Our clients come from every corner of the globe." I saw your work. You're very creative...I like that. I think you'd be perfect for the job." RED FLAG #1: Let's be honest here. If they made the best jewelry in the world, with clients flying in on private jets, why were they hiring a kid off Craigslist to shoot the jewelry? He pointed at a frayed national jewelers catalog, firmly demanding "I want you to make our jewelry look exactly like this," ripping the page out and handing it to me. It was simple enough, rings on a black background, a little sparkle in the diamonds, nothing too dramatic, piece of cake right? My confidence kicked in, "no problem" I said. Suddenly he looked up, shutting the catalog, staring at me terrifyingly before cracking a weak smile, "but you obviously know what you're doing, so I want you to have complete creative freedom on this project, do whatever you want, make them look beautiful. Use that creativity of yours." RED FLAG #2: This man just told me he wanted the photos to look exactly like the ones in the catalog, yet he wanted me to have complete creative freedom to do whatever I want. For those of you who just got lost, he told me he wanted one thing and then told me he wanted an entirely different thing. It's the equivalent of telling me he wanted chocolate ice cream in a cone, and that same chocolate ice-cream in a bowl, simultaneously.

Naturally the next step was talking money. In school they teach you to always draw up a contract, carefully calculate the price, the usage fees, terms, and any details the client wants. Naturally, I rambled off the canned lines, just as I was taught. "Oh how professional I must look!" I thought to myself. The man looked at me suspiciously. "Listen, i've barely got 8 months of law school left, so don't f**k with me. I'm not stupid. I don't do contracts, I don't mess with that usage crap, and I want the images forever, they'll be mine, no conditions whatsover. So don't waste my time with this contract usage garbage. Just give me a number." Oh god I should have walked out that door, right there and then and never looked back. For those of you wanting to become a professional photographer, print his exact words out at Kinkos, make a banner and put it on your wall. Hey, go all the way and tattoo it backwards on your forehead so you can look at it in the mirror in the morning. Just make sure you remember it. You have just vicariously read the most blatant RED FLAG of all time (RED FLAG #3 to be exact). First of all, the fact he was in law school had absolutely 0% to do with anything we were discussing. It was an intimidation tactic. Second of all, he shot down every proper business practice I knew at the time, before I could even blink. Third, he wanted the whole shabang. Unlimited usage, my image copyright, no contracts, no guarantees. I felt naked and wounded, as if my spine had been ripped out by a grizzly bear in the gym shower. Take in mind this was my first professional shoot. At this point, everything, I thought I knew, had exploded against the sides of my skull. Intimidated and too scared to disagree, I just gave him a number. You all know by now what happened next. He told me that number was ridiculous. If I wanted to charge that, then I could leave his father's store now, and he could do it with his own point and shoot camera for free. Before I could even process what was going on, he offered me 1/5 the money I proposed, shook my hand, and told me he'd see me the next morning. I walked down the ramp, past the old man still sleeping at the counter, opened the door and walked out. The night had fallen, the deafening sound of the "L" train shook overhead, as I peered upwards, thru the hazy urban streetlights at a black starless sky. My heart was racing and my confidence shot. My first negotiation had failed miserably, my client was terrifying, and the thought of what the next morning had in store for me, was enough to make me sick right there on the street.

PART 2

The next day I showed up with all my gear, ready to get down to business. They set me up in a 6' by 10' concrete room, basically a large storage closet with a lunch table. It wasn't the size that bothered me, rather the fact that if a single piece of glass from one of my flashes touched the wall, it would shatter the $700 bulb. They have a saying in our industry called "Murphy's Law." Basically, it says whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. Pretty pessimistic to say the least; however, it's not a bad rule to follow, as a preventative measure. As I meticulously set up the lighting, the jeweler's son brought in 5 diamond rings, 4 valued at well over $10,500 dollars, the last one coming in at a whopping $26,500. As I pressed the camera button for the first time, none of the flashes fired. Again and again I tried, but nothing worked. It was two hours into the day and I hadn't fired off a single picture. In panic, I took out 12 LED flashlights I had in my bag. They give diamonds a great sparkle, but not much light. Miraculously by using the right manual settings and a tripod, I was able to get some incredible shots. Crisis lockdown mode had been averted. When the 10 hours of shooting were up, I packed up, he took a look at the pictures on the back of my camera and liked them. I was paid, and sent on my way. I retouched the images that same night, and emailed them over around 10 p.m.

I will never forget my cell phone ringing an hour later, picking it up and hearing screaming. The kind of screaming that didn't stop, as if I was in the crowd during the final seconds, of a tied match at the World Cup. The jeweler's son berated me for up to 2 minutes. You can guess by now, he didn't like the pictures. To roughly quote him "my four year old nephew could take better pictures, it would take a real f*#k up to ruin a photo of my jewelry." My response is fuzzy in my memory, but I remember calmly asking him why he hated them so much. The problem, he claimed, was they didn't match up with the catalog he showed me. Essentially, there was no thought given to the quality of the photos. If they weren't dead on to the catalog's depth of field, lighting, etc., they were an utter failure. To quote his exact words from PART 1: "He pointed at a frayed national jewelers catalog, firmly demanding 'I want you to make our jewelry look exactly like this,' ripping the page out and handing it to me. Suddenly he looked up, shutting the catalog, staring at me terrifyingly before cracking a weak smile, 'but you obviously know what you're doing, so I want you to have complete creative freedom on this project, do whatever you want, make them look beautiful. Use that creativity of yours.' Essentially, I followed his directions to a "T" but the directions were confusing. What he really meant to say to me, the day before, was "I want the photos to look exactly like this, nothing more, you don't need to be creative or use a spin. Just give me exactly this." Never make assumptions, the word creative is not literal, the offer to "do what you want" really means "do exactly what I want." Needless to say, he demanded I come back the next morning, or else he wanted his money back. Other photographers would have walked away, but i'm a brutal perfectionist. Even if his logic was flawed, if he wasn't happy I wasn't happy. I agreed to come back in, but only if he agreed he wanted the photos to look exactly like the one's in the catalog, nothing more.

I hung up the phone, about half an hour later, jaded and disappointed, but determined to satisfy and make things right. Suddenly it occurred to me, that amidst all the commotion of the day, I hadn't eaten a single thing. So I went to the freezer and pulled out some frozen hamburger patties. A stack of four was frozen together and wouldn't budge. I don't remember what I was thinking, maybe it was the urgency to eat and sleep, perhaps it was a lack of judgement based upon the stress and constant criticism. But I picked up a brand new meat slicing knife and proceeded to try and ply apart the frozen patties with it. You know what happened next, the knife slipped on the frozen surface and sliced open my left index finger. By slice, I mean literally filet, leaving a 1 and 1/2 inch gash. The shock set it, I felt no pain. Within 50 seconds, I wrapped the badly dismembered finger in a paper towel, and proceeded to walk 4 blocks to the nearest ER. Alas, after a 1.5 hour wait, they said they couldn't fit me in, more serious cases had to be attended to. I borrowed a band aid to put over the wound, along with my paper towel knot to stop the bleeding. I recall trying to hail a cab, walking quickly down the empty streets, to take me to the closest hospital 2 miles away. Apparently cabs don't like to pick up people with a bad injury, I don't blame them, my hand was wrapped in a paper towel covered with blood. It felt like 30 cabs must have passed me by, 2 actually pulling up and looking at me before speeding off. Honestly I don't blame them, I was bloodied and tired. I don't blame the small hospital either, of course more serious cases demanded attention. So I walked the 2 miles to another hospital. I found myself in emergency room #2. It was 2:15 a.m., my re-shoot was scheduled for 8.

I sat down in the waiting room and asked the guy next to me what he was there for. "Got hit by a cab" he said. "I blacked out, the next thing I remember is opening my eyes and seeing a police officer. They dropped me off 2 hours ago." Suddenly the reality kicked in, "you got hit by a cab and you've been here waiting for 2 hours?" I said. My god I thought to myself, i'll be here forever. It was about 2.5 hours later and they called me back to the ER. A doctor looked at the wound and called over a first year medical resident. The kid had scraggly blonde hair like a surfer. "I'll put in the first few stitches, and you can finish it off" he said to the resident. The resident sewed up the wound, managing to make 2-3 mistakes with the threading and having to retry thru another patch of skin. As he repaired the injury, he kept talking about how his passion wasn't in medicine and he wasn't sure if he wanted to be a doctor like his father. For future doctors, that's probably not something you want to say to a patient, while sewing up their wound. Needless to say, he stitched in up and sent me on my way. I got home around 7 a.m., grabbed my camera gear and waited outside the nearest rental house, to get some flashes that actually worked. At that point, this diabolically insane chain of events, hadn't been fully comprehended. My brain was still in shock.

PART 3

After a fruitless first day of shooting, a madman berating me into the ground, and an 8 hour medical adventure yielding 13 stitches on a left index finger, I was ready to go. That 2nd day of re-shooting was a particular nightmare, not because my equipment malfunctioned, or because my wound hurt, but because the jeweler's son was over my shoulder the entire 8 hour day. He approved each photograph as I went on, re arranging every one of my setups his way, before deciding to revert back to my original setups. It was like dancing with the devil in a concrete room. It wasn't until we ended the shoot he noticed my finger. I told him I had a cooking accident, "you should be more careful" he said. I nodded my head, talking wasn't worth the effort.

That night I sent over his approved photos, waited, and again an hour later he called. This time, during the screaming rant, he pointed out the jewelry wasn't positioned correctly, they looked too much like the catalog and they needed to be a little more unique. I wasn't surprised at all, I just didn't know why he had to scream. I was certainly listening, despite being deliriously tired. He demanded another reshoot or his money back. This time it had gone too far. It seemed like a twisted sick joke, nothing made sense anymore, there was simply nothing logical about what he was saying. I agreed to come in the next morning and bring him the DVD of the files, so he could "hire a more competent person" to fix them. At this point, I wasn't willing to settle. I had dedicated 16 hours of shooting and 12 hours of retouching to a lost cause, to a person incapable of pleasing. I was in the hole $600 for medical bills and rental fees, taking into account what I got paid in the first place. Needless to say, sometimes you just have to know when to walk away.

The next day I brought in the DVD of the files, the jeweler's son was at lunch, but his father (the man who had been sleeping behind the counter in part 1) called me into his office. He put the DVD into the computer, and went over each photo. As they loaded up, he scrolled and spoke with a thick accent, "No, no, no, unusable, crap, what is this?" He asked about the 5th photo, pointing to the screen. "That's dirt on the monitor sir" I responded. "Doesn't matter" he said. "They are all sh*t" ejecting and tossing the DVD at me. At this point, it was hard not to smile, after everything I had been through, the emotional outbursts, the hospital, the complete misdirection. It was as if fate had it in for me, the photo gods were laughing at me. As I walked out of the store, the son came through the front door, stopping me, and taking the DVD. I will never forget the next words he uttered for the rest of my life,

"Listen, I think your work is crap, but if you ever need a reference for being a hard worker, tell them to call me."

PART 4

It's been a while, initially I checked in and saw they had used my photos for printed fliers, their internet site, and their facebook page. Strange...Since then, they have went out of business and had to rebrand elsewhere. The reason? According to yelp, it was horrible customer service. Hard to believe...

Since that debacle I have achieved a 98% cliental retention rate.

I wrote this entry for YOU, the aspiring photographer!

Why else would I share such a difficult, challenging, ironic, and borderline insane experience? You're not going to wake up one day and be on top of the world, in any industry. As Rocky says "it's not about how hard you can hit, it's about how hard you can get hit!" So take my horrible experience and put it under your pillow at night, so one day you can wake up and say, wow that sucked. So keep doing what you do, let nothing detract you from your goals or your dreams.

JS