“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is a well worn statement with a large dose of truth within it. The creative industries rely on personal recommendation, friendship and connections to find and employ photographers. However, few of us are born with that social network, we have to build it. That network is our database, an evolving source of contacts based on a specific area of practice created through research. This is a process available to all, one that is not dependent on your economic situation, school or perceived privilege, but defined by your ambition, dedication, imagination and resilience.
Now, I am not going to say that nepotism does not exist, I have worked with many people who are the sons and daughters of successful people who have found their journey to success considerably easier than my own, but that is life. I don’t have an issue with this. Is it fair? No. Do I resent it? No, because I know that it is possible to get where you want to go if you understand how to play the game, and it is a game.
I see the word ‘privileged’ used to describe those who are successful in the game and assertions that it is only wealth and family contacts that have created that success; that give access to the creative industries. To accept this we would also have to accept that every person from a ‘comfortable’ background has friends throughout the creative industries and the media, happy to put in a ‘good word’ to make the wheels of employment spin. It happens, but it would be naive and blinkered to think that it is the only way. It was not the way for me, my wife or anyone of my friends, colleagues or collaborators. This is not anecdotal, but fact.
If you are reading this and have built a career within the creative industries, have you achieved what you have through hard work or family friends? And do you find the assertion that ‘privilege’ is the only reason for your achievements offensive?
We make friends through life, some within a work environment and others outside of our chosen careers. Friends are a vital support mechanism for our lives and are chosen, not given, unlike family. Those we collaborate with as photographers can also become friends, it should not be an aim, but it can be a result of shared experience and mutual respect.
It is only natural that we will want to work with people who we like and admire, but photography is a business and friendship can only take you so far. Whoever you know, the reality is that good work is expected.
So, how do you build a network if your family and friends do not have connections? Well, I do not believe that your background should be a defining factor in your career ambitions so here is my template* for how to build your database and how to make friends and influence people.
1. Decide on a database format. It could be hand written or typed using a software package such as Microsoft Word or Excel. Whatever is best for you is okay, but the template you create must have distinct columns with clear headings. These are: Name, Company, Address, Role, Telephone, Email, Social Media, Contacted, Notes/Comments.
2. You should try and fill out these columns as well as you can. The phone number maybe a switchboard number and that is okay. If you can’t find a number try and find a direct email address. Include social media tags and platforms as potential contact information. The contacted column should have the date first contacted and subsequent contact attempts. If you don’t get a response to two attempts, move on to someone else. Don’t see contacting purely as sending an email. Consider cards, letters, phone calls and social media DMs. My wife, the editor of a magazine receives approx 800 emails a day!
3. To find people when you first start look at the front of magazines for the masthead (sometimes called the ‘flannel panel’) and make a list of the people who commission (usually art directors, art editors, stylists, photo editors and on smaller magazines editors). These will be the foundation of an editorial focused database. If you want to consider working with brands and agencies look at the photographers you admire and research who they work for and who handles those accounts, the art buyers, art directors and commissioners. This will mean some time Googling, but as part of the process you will find additional names and clients to consider.
4. Research social media accounts of the people you want to work with or those photographers who work in a similar area to you and see who they follow. Follow them and start to build your social media network on this basis, then add those you consider worth contacting to your database.
5. Continually add to your database and update it as people get promoted, change jobs and move companies. It is a living breathing thing and the more work you put into it the more beneficial it will be to your progress.
6. Each month put some time aside to contact people on your database, let them know you exist if it is a first-time call, update people with examples of recent work and news if it is someone you have contacted previously. Just like any friendship your network will require work to get established, but also to keep going. Always be polite, respectful and empathetic in your communications and never come over as being needy, aggressive or pushy!
The idea behind the database is to help you build your own network, to provide you with introductions and help you get established. The simple truth is that that anyone can contact whoever they wish, you will not always get a response, but that should not be a reason to not try. Never forget that the secret of getting ahead is getting started and that the best way of making new friends is to speak with people you don’t know.
*I have written this template and used it in my teaching for the past ten years based on my forty years working within the professional photography industry as a photographer, art director, creative director and editor. It has proven to be very successful for my students whom have come from a broad range of social and economic backgrounds.
Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com. He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.
© Grant Scott 2023