When it comes to telling their own story in images, photographers often struggle. While their photos and galleries may be memorable and unique their websites and portfolios are too frequently dull, derivative and, to a buyer who sees one slideshow after another, instantly forgettable. Instead of showing who they are, the websites become a collection of what they’ve shot, a series of images with no connection to the person who took them or the photographer the buyer will be booking.
According to one expert, it’s only when photographers see their websites and their portfolios not as marketing devices intended to show their skills and range but as autobiographies — as an opportunity to tell their own stories and show who they are — that they stand out and win jobs.
“The best portfolios, to me, are materially self-portraits regardless of the subject matter,” says Allegra Wilde. “This is not about a romanticizing the suffering or narcissistic artist. The kind of imagery I am talking about is much less likely to be forgotten by the viewer, or in the case of the pros, the buyer.”
For Wilde, who started her career selling ad space at Workbook before becoming the company’s Director of Talent and Agent Branding, a portfolio (and now a photographer’s website) should flow. The presentation should have a rhythm, match the work and, most importantly, tell the story of the photographer.
It Takes a Hero to Be a Successful Photographer
That’s not something that all photographers want to do — or think of doing as they create a site to pitch for work. Building a website that doesn’t just show pictures but shows who you are means putting yourself as well as your images on display. The personal projects become more important as they reveal the questions you address in your images, the aesthetic that attracts you, the messages you want your photos to communicate and the way you want them to speak. Buyers are invited to judge the photographer and their interests as easily as they judge the quality of their work. It’s not a display that makes all photographers comfortable.
“The most successful photographers (or any other artists for that matter), always take some kind of leap into discomfort,” says Wilde. “Usually this level of discomfort is rooted in their own personal ‘exposure,’ or fear that no one will like their images or hire them. These heroes of photography, (yes, I call them ‘heroes,’ because it takes enormous courage to do this) make images from a very naïve place, usually self-reflective and quite emotionally ‘naked.’”
After operating a couple of private online forums — one for photography and illustration agents; the other for ad agency photo editors and buyers — Wilde now runs Eyeist, her own photography review service. The company employs a team of photographers, buyers and photography business experts to examine photographers’ websites and portfolios, and recommend improvements. Photographers can register and upload images for free then book a review when they’re ready. They’ll be asked for “tons of info” about their images, their aims for the review and their development as a photographer before they select (or ask for) a reviewer and choose the kind of review they want. The fees range from $100 for a basic review consisting of an audio commentary critiquing up to 30 images to $350 for help with editing and sequencing a series of images so that it showcases the scope and storyline of a project. So far the company has provided around 200 reviews for photographers who range from students, emergent photographers and enthusiasts to full-time professionals.
The reviewers look at whether the words the photographer is using to describe his or her images actually match the images they’re showing. Often, says Wilde, the two things differ so the reviewer will focus first on repairing that disconnect. They’ll then start thinking about suggesting ways in which the photographer can create images that help them achieve their goals, change those goals or address their presentations and marketing.
Reviewers Reignite a Photographer’s Passion
The result should be not just a plan that a photographer can follow to improve their appearance, but a renewed interest in creating images that have something to say.
“It wasn’t enough to give the photographer a road map for improvement. You have to ignite (or re-ignite) their passion about their own work,” says Wilde. “That way, they have a much better internal sense of how to make progress and become much more open to creative ideas that they might not have entertained before.”
None of these recommendations, says Wilde, compare to the sort of congratulatory comments that you’ll find placed by friends or family at the bottom of a Flickr set or a Facebook album. Those comments might make you feel good but they won’t point out the flaws that are preventing you from winning work.
Overall, Eyeist’s reviewers tend to find two mistakes in photographers’ presentations. The first is the tendency of photographers to aim at a particular market or follow a popular style in the hope that joining the crowd will bring success. In fact, says, Wilde, it just brings them more competition. And the second is not pushing their images hard enough or spreading them widely enough so that both the photographer and the photographs connect with the right buyers.
“I know this sounds crazy in this day and age of photo sharing, social and business networking with photographs, but many photographers either undersell their work by not marketing it enough, or, by overselling it — by first dumbing down the work (making it more generic to follow the marketplace), and/or by constantly promoting and posting their images and assignments without any personal context,” says Wilde. “This makes it hard for the viewer, and especially the buyer, to ‘invest’ in the work, and to engage with the photographer personally as a possible collaborator.”
At a time when social media has made branding personal, photographers are going to have to learn to step out from behind their cameras and put themselves on display. They don’t have to shoot self-portraits but the way they show their work has to be about them as much as about the subjects of their images.