1.13.2011

A meeting of the minds. Working pros meet academia.

For the last few years I've been a member of the advisory board for the photography program at Austin Community College.  Once a year all the members of the advisory board meet and exchange information with the chair and the faculty of the program.  This exchange of information helps the faculty by supplying real world feedback to make sure that their offerings reflect the industry.  Since the working pros come from different sectors of photography their points of view are all a bit different and that helps to smooth out the outliers.

The program yields an associate degree and, per Texas rules, is very much a vocational program aimed at turning out people who can go to work in the field.  It's not a fine arts program that doesn't need to take income earning potential into consideration.  It is also the second largest associate photography program in the country (USA).  The quality of education is very good and the facilities would leave many working pros panting in envy.  State of the art Macs abound as do Epson 3880 printers, high end film scanners and a king's ransom in Profoto Lighting gear and accessories.  It's a good school and they make a point of pulling in guests to do evening lectures on a wide range of topics.  In a short space of time I listened to presentations from Jack Reznicki, Vincent Laforet and Will Crockett.

Austin is already a heavy duty photo town with UT's art and photojournalism schools turning out their share of students as well as a great program at St. Edwards University.  There's even an Art Institute just up the road that churns out photographers.  But the ACC program does a better job than any of them to prepare students for the business aspects they will encounter in the real world, and they do at least as good a job (I'd say better) teaching the nuts and bolts.  You want a big dose of art history or art theory or visual rhetoric with your technical knowledge?  Not going to happen at ACC.

But back to my point.  What did we discuss and what was our consensus?  To a person, from real world experience, we've come to the conclusion that in a second tier, regional market like Austin, jammed packed with aspiring newcomers who drive the market down, anyone wanting to make a living and earn $60 to $80K per year will likely have to become more than "just" a photographer.  We will have to be flexible enough to create, or for us veterans, rebrand ourselves as multidisciplinary content creators.  I spoke with two of the leading photographers who service the wedding and portrait markets and their sales are way down.  The corporate guys have seen their budgets cut in half.  We agreed that we'll all have to look beyond the traditional role and create new profit centers in our businesses.

Some of the avenues we talked about were obvious.  Most of the corporate shooters are already knee deep in becoming video producers for their existing and new clients.  One wedding photographer is branching into wedding planning.....and that's a natural and organic extension.  I spend as much time writing about photography and supplying the copywriting for many of the ads I shoot as I do behind the camera.  Others have gravitated into one-on-one teaching, group workshops and workshops that offer experiential entertainment.  A glamor photographer is busy creating apps of his most popular work for people to load onto tablets and laptops for a modest fee.  In nearly every niche photographers are stretching out to find natural adjuncts to their basic skill sets.

As a side note we talked about rationally identifying whether or not what we are selling is what the consumers want to buy.  The consumer side of the business was always monetized around the idea that people wanted to have prints.  And that the print represented the value source. But a whole new generation gets their hit of family photos, wedding photos and more on a 50 inch LED TV or an iPad or a phone screen.  They're just not interested in prints and if they do buy them they are looking for small and manageable, not big and framed.  So, why aren't the photographers upselling the shooting part of the equation and then delivering it on a customer friendly platform?  Why shouldn't wedding couples look for their coverage to be delivered on a tablet, with a back up on DVD?  Why should they have to want prints if they don't?

And in commercial photography why do we keep aiming all our focus on advertising agencies if they are the prime users of cheap stock?  Why not also go directly to the clients and put our selling proposition to the final arbiters as well as their de facto gatekeepers?

Even in marketing we've gotten pushed into a narrow structure.  At some point everyone decided that all marketing could be done electronically.  We abandoned post cards and print ads and shows on the walls of chic coffee houses and bars and we made everything virtual.  But everyone did it at once and now we have a billion needles in one really large haystack and most of the people who come to the haystack aren't even in the market for our services.

Interesting to me is that everyone talked about how much market share of holiday shopping ended up at Amazon.com.  But, reality check, e-commerce only accounted for about 9% of total holiday shopping.  The other 91% of the money walked into the stores.  And we need to understand, as working photographers, that while the allure of "free" advertising and marketing on the web is a powerful concept it may not be effectively reaching the people who write checks to us.

If I had the budget to experiment (and fewer pressing projects on the schedule) I'd look for local advertising the reaches my market (executives and upper tier marketing folks) and I'd probably do well running radio spots on news and talk radio during drive time.  I'd also do well with a few quarter page print ads in the business journals.  Wouldn't be sexy web marketing, and it sure wouldn't be free, but I bet I wouldn't have a single competitor crowding the airwaves and I'd have a pipeline straight to the likeliest buyers instead of everyone out there who has enough time on their hands to cruise the web and drink coffee.

So, will the curriculum change to register these new directions and thoughts?  If it does I think it will be more glacial than the speed of business and in a year or two we'll be identifying new areas to concentrate on.  But it does remind me that all of this (photography, marketing and business ) is a moving target and the sooner we deal with it the more successful we'll be.  The web?  Maybe.  Postcards?  Definitely.