Monday, 15 June 2009

Photographers' self-branding

Catherine Gratwicke

An article for the current (June) issue of the Association of Photographers journal, Image:

What’s the point of employing a photographer? I’ve got a Nikon DX40. I love it. I need an image. I take it. Download onto the laptop. Into iPhoto. And there it is, ready to use - whether it’s just for a blog, an article, a report, a bit of packaging, an ad - what’s the problem?

Along with all the general cut-backs, downsizes and rationalisations going on - everybody thinks they’re a photographer. And on top of that, what about picture libraries? Do they just create a Getty-esque photo-soup where buyers can search, click and buy with no human interaction?  What can you do?

One approach is to ensure people know who you are and why they should contact you, in particular. We have two rules of thumb in deciding how to communicate a brand: Who are you? and Why should I care? The first question implores you to sum up your ‘brand positioning’, where you place yourself in the market, what you stand for, what sort of photographer you are. The second question ensures that you have an offer that is appealing to your target market - what is it you are doing that will improve their ad, design, exhibition, book, report - how are you going to make them look better - and how is this different from the next photographer (or any old bod with a Nikon)?

The good thing about brands is that they still work when you’re not actually there. There is a story, a point, a raison d’etre, that exists and lives beyond your physical presence. Your task is to communicate. There are lots of avenues to pursue, with varying cost/time penalties attached. An exhibition is great - but who, how, where, why? A bit of PR would be lovely. Lots of phonecalls to artbuyers. Using Shank’s pony to take your portfolio from glitzy ad agency to warren-like publishing house to too-often overly resourceful designers (who are quite good at d-i-y photography).

A relatively simple way of creating a shop window is a website that works for you. This helps because it gives you somewhere to refer people to if you meet them at a party, give them a card, phone them, leave details, drop in and leave a card at reception.  If you are one of the 1800 or so members of the AOP you can get a link from their website - the AOP Members Portfolio.

I’ve been commissioned to write this article from a position of knowing little about photographers these days, not being over familiar with their websites, but having a professional practice developing brands. I’m fresh to what’s out there and unbiased. I’m just going to react to what I see.

The first place I go to to look for photographers’ websites is the above mentioned AOP Members Portfolio. There’s lots of ways to search it - by specialism, by region, by country, by photographer’s name. 

I start by a few random clicks just to see what sort of things are out there. There’s two things you can do. Click on the photographer’s name and get a new little window open. This gives a mini-portfolio on white, contact details, as much info/biog as you want and a link to your website. Alternatively you can go straight from the listing to the website.

The first few I look at give me some clues to what works best. A good example is David Parmiter . His home page, whilst clean, fresh and uncluttered, includes a slide show of his photographs, his contact details and a straightforward proposition, “I specialise in the creative photography of commercial and domestic interiors and exteriors, working throughout Europe.” Others take too many clicks to get to a photograph, two clicks to get to contact details or lost me so that I couldn’t get back to the homepage. Another very elegant site was Sophie Broadbridge’s. You do have to click to get to contact details, but her portfolio comes up by default and looks stunning. So simple, white, show off your work seemed to be the first general hints.

My next ‘search criterion’ was people I know. First I looked at Edmund Clark’s site. A beautiful site, white, elegant, an intelligent mix of pictures and words. Ed’s site begins to articulate his position in the world of photography. He clearly communicates why I should care about him. He is a story teller - his documentary work has curious, moving narratives. This illustrates the next vital ingredient of the self-brand. Somewhere on the internal map of the potential buyer you must plot your space. What are they looking for? Narrative? Colour? Texture? Commercial and domestic interiors? What’s your thing? Ideally something people can’t do so easily themselves. Just look at the work of Martin Wilson, an intriguing designer/artist/photographer or Cenci Goepel and Jens Warnecke at Lightmark.

What’s the role of your website? Step one is to prove you exist. It’s a reassurance to any potential commissioners. A good example of a simple, straightforward website that can achieve this initial result, without too much financial outlay, is Richard Cooke’s  where he has created a simple online portfolio. He has the problem of having a namesake photographer so has had to be a bit more creative in choosing a domain name.

The next step is to use it as part of the relationship you build up with your client base. I talked to Catherine Gratwicke about her website. She didn’t think that it brought in work, but it did give people something to look at before calling in her book. It creates a focal point for maintaining relationships with the loyal clients that she has nurtured over the last ten years. Her original brief to the designers was, “Simplicity, no music, no flash plug-ins, quick access to the pictures.” Importantly for Cath, the website is just part of her toolbox. By refreshing her website, and then mailing her clients, she can renew contacts, remind people she exists and point them in the direction of her new work. She shies away from looking too flash and slick and likes to keep something textural and tactile in her work, and a personal touch to all her communications - redolent of her roots as a textile designer. When I ask what is her point of difference, her ‘why should I care?’ she’s very lucid, “My work is painterly, tactile - I’m known for rich colour, textural images.” A clear point on the commissioner’s mind map.

Relationships tend to work best when you are alive. A dusty website with images a couple of years old often worries a potential commissioner. A useful tool is to add a blog. Yes, it’s a bit of a cliche perhaps, but it does give you an effective way of communicating your personality, posting up your latest work very easily, show that you’re active (you can always talk about ‘personal’ projects) and create a two-way exchange with your audience. 

Another way to both create interactivity and keep control and ownership of your brand is to create your own archive. With people turning more and more to picture libraries, there is a temptation to take pictures specifically to sell to them. Yes, it’s an income, but there is a tendency for you to become anonymous and commoditised. With your own transactional offer you can retain your distinctive position. Tessa Traeger has a career’s worth to offer, but everyone has to start somewhere, and the potential of technology today makes things a lot more possible.

10 top tips to using a website to help build your personal brand

  1. Why should I care? What’s the thing you want to be known for? What can you be best at? That’s your positioning. That’s the start of your design brief.
  2. Simplicity
  3. The photos should be hero - have a look at Rankin's
  4. Build a relationship with your contacts - contact details on homepage, blog once a week, link to other sites - exhibitions, galleries, friends
  5. How are you driving people to your website? Get some good cards, try moo via flickr 
  6. Use your toolbox - anything you do on the website is worth telling people about - e-newsletter, postcards, phone calls...
  7. Keep control of your brand - think about your own picture library
  8. Make it personal - make sure you love your website, it feels like you and everything you send out has that little extra you-ness, tell your story
  9. List yourself wherever you can - AOP Members Portfolio for example
  10. Don’t let the dust build up - refresh, renew, re-energise