How a desire to be a biologist helped me market myself as a photographer
by Barry Schwartz
IN MY TWENTIES I wanted to be a field biologist. I loved the idea of engaging with the elements and how naturalists develop broad conclusions based on specifics. Research never ends; there is always more to learn, deeper to look, farther to go.
In particular, I was attracted to a primary feature of the scientific method: that data could validate or deny preconceptions. The best and most successful scientists have open minds because data’s job is disprove preconceptions as much as prove them. That’s how science moves forward.
Chemistry is a requirement for a biology degree, but sadly, a neurotic disinclination towards algebra made passing chemistry an impossibility, so away went that dream. Still, I got to know a few highly accomplished biologists pretty well and have always been fascinated by how they study their subjects up close and in detail while simultaneously casting attention far-and-wide to confirm if their efforts — and their data — are relevant to their research. Context is everything.
Field biologists are on the lookout for failures, as well as successes, while aiming for the validation — the proof — that their preconceptions are correct. Scientist or not, it’s a nice feeling to be validated.
I try to operate in a similar vein to research scientists in my I hunt for clients. I photograph the built environment and people, so any article that mentions an architect or designer gets my notice: data.
Trade and shelter magazines and websites publish newsletters promoting their content: more data. Out in the field, architects conveniently like to put their names on construction sites, along with their contact information. Contractor’s websites, even though they are not my primary clients, sometimes list their design partners. Data is everywhere, and it’s mainly represented in websites.
Designer’s websites quickly reveal two things: if their work is any good and if they care enough to hire professional photographers to document it. Designers who don’t meet these criteria are unlikely to pay my rates, so they get voted off my private island. If the designer is not in my geographic area and all their work is local to them, they are not relevant to me. If their website is old (tiny fonts, small pictures, old-style design), they are not relevant.
If they meet my standards and have pictures of people in their architectural photography, even better, since I also produce portraits and documentary work, and sometimes get hired specifically because I do both, a particularly pleasing form of data validation.
I used to think the more data I developed — large lists of potential clients — the better, telling myself that even people with crummy websites were dying to get their hands on a clever professional like myself to bring their marketing to a higher level. That theory turned out to be a bad use of data for a simple reason: it was not true. Eventually, it turned to be (temporarily) useful employ of data because it cured me of believing that larger data samples would lead to more work.
When you’re self-employed, time really is money. I want to be sure I have enough free time to fall asleep on the couch in front of the TV like a normal person instead of contacting people who will never hire me.
Once I’ve sifted my data and located a possible client I click to their website to discover the person who hires people like me and call to introduce myself. If that information is not listed, I call the company anyway to suss out who I should be speaking with or sending an email to. I look for responses validating my preconception they need my services, testing my data. If they turn out to be my kind of client, great, I enter their information into a database. If not, off the island they go.
Then I start the process all over again, looking for data and validation. There is no greater validation than getting hired, and no way to get there without good data, which, hopefully, develops into something that allows me, later, to fall asleep on my couch instead of wasting my time.