I had the weirdest day today. Via the comments on another amazing photographer friend’s shared post, I had the most brief of interactions with Kirsty Mitchell. Yes, the Kirsty Mitchell. Wonderland Kirsty Mitchell…
After I finished fangirling, I found myself reminded of something I deal with on a regular basis. This age-old comment: Grethe, you’re only good because you have models, makeup artists, costumers, props and locations that do everything for you.
I hear that at least once a year and if I’m honest, a part of me is always bummed out not just because it’s a rather insulting to my skill as a photographer, but also because it completely oversimplifies the craft of photography and the creative process that’s required to see a styled editorial of any kind through from concept to execution.
I started out in 2013/4 with crazy concept shoot that were, for the most part, inspired by Kirsty’s amazing Wonderland series.
These are super old, but here are the first of the “Grethe-shoots” that many of you may be familiar with from when you got to know me and my work:
(While I still really like some of these shots, there are some that make me cringe big time – but that’s the nature of the game, isn’t it?)
This morning, my friend shared this amazing shoot by one of my hero photographers, Benjamin Von Wong: Nike challenged him to walk on air and he did an incredible shoot with his models suspended from abseiling equipment, hanging off a skyscraper in Manila. (I’ve linked to the BoredPanda site above, but here is the link to VonWong’s blog.)
So, what the hell does this relate to me? Well, in the comments, the subject of budget came up.
The argument presents itself in different forms:
• If I had the budget, I could do amazing things too.
• My work would look better if I had more money to spend on shoots/if I had better equipment to shoot with/if I had a team to work with.
Their work is only that good because they have a team of professionals who does everything for them. All they do is click buttons and it all magically falls into place – I could also do what they do if only I had an army of makeup artists, fashion designers/costumers, professional models, a truckload of lighting equipment and a full-frame camera.
Don’t beat yourself up if it does. (♥♥♥)
In my Good Fucking Advice blog, I mentioned a particular thread in a photography forum from way back that posed a question so profound that it still sticks with me today: are South African photographers imitators/followers or leaders/innovators?
Yes, I understand that budget is a real concern and one can only DIY up to a point – I even commented in my friend’s post that I do not lack the imagination, I just lack the budget. However, are you not following your dreams because you can never do the kind of shoots you want because reasons? No matter how simple the shoot?
LISTEN UP. No, seriously.
As a makeup-artist friend of mine always says: “a team makes an image”. She’s one hundred percent right, but – and this is super important – at the end of the day, you as the photographer make out a crucial part of that image.
Without you, there would be no image!
Trust me when I say this: it doesn’t matter how good the styling team is, if the one clicking the buttons have no idea what they’re doing, the shoot doesn’t reach its full potential. Or will straight-up fail.
This is not to be discouraging, this is to enforce that your skill as a photographer should be your number one responsibility and the execution of the images should not be something that you neglect because at least there’s cool makeup or a pretty model in the shot to save my skin if I screw up.
Your skill is what makes or breaks an image – not the makeup artist, fashion designer, model or set stylist. Yes, those people do help – they help a tremendous amount but lighting and your understanding of lighting and photography is as important a part of the concept as the concept itself.
It’s important to note that your images should not be good only because of the styling team’s work – they should be good because of your shots and ability to translate their work into an image.
Never understimate your own impact: you may sometimes feel like you’re doing the least amount of work on a styled shoot because you’re not arranging flowers or sewing dresses, but your contribution as a photographer is absolutely vital.
Ask yourself this: are you shooting what you really want to shoot? Are you finding a way to make it work to the best of your abilities, despite the challenges?
If no, what’s holding you back? Why are you running from the challenges instead of meeting them head-on?
Are you afraid that nobody will like what you do/did?
Simple answer: who cares?
Shoot what makes you happy – if you’re going to pursue photography for Facebook and Instagram likes alone, then you’re going to have a bad time. Sure, those platforms play a vital part in marketing and I’m absolutely not dismissing that, but ask yourself honestly if you still would’ve considered becoming a photographer if social media did not exist.
If you answered no to that, then maybe you should realign yourself with your craft and the best way to do that is to go and shoot something that nobody will ever see, something that’s not for clients, something that’s purely for yourself and your own enjoyment.
Cockblocked by circumstances?
Do you struggle to find collaborators? (Use those networking skills, ladies!)
Do you not have enough resources – money, time, energy, props, etc?
Do you not have inspiration?
This may sound counterintuitive, but shelve it. When the time is right and the stars are aligned – and they will! – the shoot will happen and it will be better than anything you could’ve imagined.
James Cameron famously waited a decade to make Avatar. Why? Money and ambition.
What he realised at the time when the inspiration for the film struck him was that the technology and budget was not available to tell the story the way he wanted to. So he waited and chiselled at the idea until its eventual release in 2009 when it smashed box-office records.
If you have a bucket-list shoot that for some reason cannot happen the very second you want it to, file it in the Ideas Bank and get back to it when the universe presents you with the opportunity. Chances are, it will be everything you dreamed and then some!
Don’t be afraid to DIY!
If you’re crafty, try your hand at making your own props!
Kirsty Mitchell builds all her sets, props and garments for her shoots by hand, no matter how long it takes because she knows the outcome will be worth it!
Get your hands dirty and try making it yourself – if there’s something you want custom made for a shoot, someone’s going to have to build it anyway and it may as well be you if you’re capable of doing it.
But be realistic and know your limits: I know very well that I am in no way crafty or handy – I once tried making something for a shoot and I superglued my hand to my face in the process. Now, I sincerely wish that this was comedic hyperbole but alas, I had to go to my neighbour and beg for acetone because I don’t paint my nails so I didn’t even have nail polish remover!
If building shit ain’t your jam, refer to the previous point! 😉
Don’t be snide or bitter!
Yes, yes… but hear me out.
Don’t deny someone their success because they’ve worked hard to get to where they are and because you may be comparing the beginning of your career to their five, ten or even twenty years in the business.
People aren’t born good.
Some photographers have raw talent, but hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.
Yes, some photographers get to work with a professional team on a regular basis, but it’s because they’ve put in the legwork to build the relationships with their various team members. They’ve sat day-in and day-out brainstorming concepts and going back and forth between moodboards and drawing boards for weeks, sometimes even months on end. They’ve been committed to this process for years upon years and they’ve made countless mistakes and had countless failures and rejections along the line.
Don’t think that the final product (sometimes the only thing you ever see) on their websites and social media pages always came easy and without glitches and hitches. Sometimes you get lucky and it does, but most of the time there were several hoops to jump through… and some of those hoops may or may not have been on fire.
(Side note: it’s worth paraphrasing from Neil Gaiman that the harder you work, you luckier you get… but there is luck and it helps.)
Just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it was easy to pull together – we all curate our social media presences, so why should it be different for any photographer you admire?
What you put in is what you get out.
At the end of the day, photographers who work hard to be good photographers and artists are the ones who succeed – the photographers willing to be resourceful, who take the no’s as much in their stride as every yes and roll with the punches as they come.
It has preciously little to do with how much money you have and how many people are on your set. Don’t underestimate what you bring to the table at a shoot – it takes a team to make an image and you’re part of the team, not a spectator on the outside.
I’m ending this piece off with this, written by Kirsty Mitchell herself:
“I started my series Wonderland with nothing, absolutely no money. I didn’t have any assistants, I didnt have any budget, I’d never worked with models or make-up artists before and I was self taught. I spent 5 years creating every single element of my pictures, the costumes, props and sets because I had no money. I made things in my kitchen and back garden on the weekends and in the evenings while I worked a full time job during the day.”
“Saying ‘It’s easy to be “one of the best” when you have all the equipment you need, and teams of people helping you’ is simply not true and is really unfair on the people who break their backs to follow their passion. Having a hundred assistants and a tonne of kit, doesn’t make you a brilliant photographer and doesn’t give you the imagination and drive to succeed.”
HERE ARE SOME EXAMPLES OF KIRSTY’S INCREDIBLE WORK AND READ MORE OF THE STORY OF HER WONDERLAND SERIES HERE!