I’m trying hard to avoid legal issues, but this one is a financial one. You need insurance. What kind of insurance you need will vary, but it probably includes coverage in case of lost gear due to theft or fire. If you have clients on your premises—either your home office or studio—you need liability coverage. If you shoot weddings, you should probably have coverage in case something happens to your images on the way home from the gig. If you travel, make sure you check the coverage carefully; I traveled internationally for a year before checking my policy, only to discover that I wasn’t covered if my gear was stolen during international travel or from a vehicle. These are just examples, and most of us will require something beyond our home policy. Residential policies often will not cover you for professional gear, so look into a good commercial policy that gives you loss and liability coverage. I found mine through the agency that supplies policies to our local professional photographers association. I’m not a member, but I called and was given a similar rate on the same policy.
Years ago I was working at a youth camp teaching climbing and sailing during the summers. The day the main lodge burned to the ground and I lost everything was the last day I was without some kind of coverage. It was a devastating loss, and I eventually recovered, but my friends with insurance were back on their feet immediately.
Even without the threat of stolen gear, the issue of liability is greater. If a wedding guest trips over your tripod, breaks an ankle, and sues, will you be covered? Several times a year I get contracts from clients who specifically require confirmation of insurance in the form of a letter from my insurer. I call my agent and the letter is e-mailed immediately, confirming the required coverage. No insurance, no gig; it’s one of the realities of working in a society addicted to litigation. Make sure you are covered. One mistake or one theft without insurance could put your dreams on hold.
VISIONMONGER: Chase Jarvis
CHASE JARVIS has turned a passion for photographing ski-bums, snowboarders, and high-performance athletes into a tight, well-branded business as a respected commercial photographer shooting for clients like Nike, Reebok, Apple, Red Bull, Subaru, and Volvo. If there’s a photographer from whom I would take business advice without a moment’s hesitation, it would be Chase Jarvis.
It’s mildly disappointing, then—or wildly exciting, depending on how you look at it—to find that Chase subscribes hook, line, and sinker to the notion that there are no secrets. By that I mean this: Chase neither believes in keeping secrets themselves, nor in the existence of that one secret that will make or break a photographer’s career. I say it’s disappointing because if there’s one photographer I’ve met who might know the secret to making it as a photographer—in a tough economy or otherwise—it’s Chase, and he’s built a company with six full-time employees and millions in revenue without secrets. He’s also the most transparent and collaborative photographer I’ve ever met, and that collaborative, relational spirit is a clue to his success.
Jarvis was heading toward a career in professional soccer, taking pre-med courses at San Diego State, when his grandfather died and left him a clunky old Minolta camera and some lenses. Up to that point, his experience with photography consisted of looking at images his father had captured of Chase and his friends playing soccer. Something resonated enough that he took that camera on an eight-month trip to Europe, and in that time he played with it enough to discover a passion. He returned from Europe broke, with a newly discovered passion for photography, and moved to Steamboat, Colorado, to work off his debts and earn some money. He waited tables and worked at ski shops; on the side, he began shooting his buddies and other up-and-coming skiers and snowboarders. When their sponsors started buying Chase’s images for $500 and a bunch of free gear, Chase had a glimpse of possibilities he hadn’t considered—a chance to make decent money doing something he was increasingly passionate about and increasingly good at. “I thought, if I can do this once, I can do it a thousand times. The trick is not doing it 1,000 times for one dollar, but finding a way to do it 100 times for ten dollars.”
Chase returned to Seattle in 1996 to pursue a master’s degree in aesthetics, and in 1997 he sold his first large commission to outdoor gear store REI based on the strength of his work and being open to opportunity when it presented itself. Chase was still working a couple days a week in a ski shop and remaining active in the outdoors community; looking at the mural on the walls of REI, Chase thought, “I can do that.” When his path crossed with that of the marketing director for REI, he just reached out and asked, “Can I show you my work?” She liked it enough that she accepted it on the spot, bought a sizable license, and came back to Chase for commissioned work as well. Chase suddenly found himself a working photographer.
From there, Chase’s career accelerated. Where others usually get to commercial work on the strength of a career in editorial, Chase went backward and found himself shooting for commercial clients first, and only later pursuing editorial work. He called and talked to anyone who would listen to him—not to give a pitch, but just to introduce himself and ask for a chance to show them his work. He put together a print book and showed it to anyone who would give him a chance—friends, art buyers, and photo editors—and actively sought connections, saying, “If you know anyone who can use someone like me, I’d love to talk to them.” He was an insider in the outdoors community, and he brought an authenticity to his work and his efforts to find more work in the same area. That this approach works at all is because it’s built on two things—his passion and the quality of his work.
What accounts for Chase’s success—beyond his sizable talent and ability to meet client expectations—is his passion for exceeding those expectations. Chase believes in overdelivering for every client. To him, that means understanding the client’s needs as deeply as he can and executing the brief as it’s presented, but it also means carving out time during the assignment to interpret the brief his way, to elevate the concept and put it through the filter of his own creativity. In so doing, Chase gives the client much more than they asked for; he’s training them to hire him for his unique creativity and vision, not merely for his ability to produce a shot and press a button. He’s moving his value from being just a photographer who deals in the execution of a shot to one who deals in the ideation, and a photographer who can do both is far more valuable to the market—becoming not merely a commodity but a brand.
If there’s one thing that strikes me about Chase, it’s his focus. Chase knows why he does this, knows what he wants out of it, and knows what he has to offer that makes him unique. Out of that has emerged a keenly delineated brand. The brand serves Chase powerfully. He knows who he is and who his market is, and he isn’t distracted by seeking work outside his market. Chase was never satisfied with taking pictures just to fill a bucket for a client. He’s true to his core, and that’s kept him on track and given him the freedom to do what he’s passionate about—creating and sharing. I know this sounds thick on motivational mojo and low on business wisdom, but that’s the thing about photographers who are truly succeeding—their passion, focus, and courage to stay on track are the most powerful, and rarest, of business assets. It simplifies things. Used well, the logos, branding, and websites support that; used poorly, those same things become a distraction from it.
Chase’s perspective has created a paradigm that excludes the notion of competition. When you sell your vision and the unique package that makes you who you are—in this case, it’s Chase’s experience in the industry, his passion, his vision, his uniquely talented crew, and his expertise in the active and urban markets he serves—then who do you have to compete with? Certainly not the photographers who bring nothing more than their technical abilities to the table, and not with other photographers who shoot from their own unique vision, either. This freedom from the competitive paradigm allows Chase to work on his own terms, serve clients in a highly relational way, and create work with others that is collaborative in nature and feeds the creativity that he offers back to his clients.
The model Chase came back to several times was one in which the vocational photographer is concerned with three things: creating work, sharing that work, and sustaining the work of creating and sharing. His commitment to art and the process of creation is core not only to his brand but to himself as the artist that brand represents. Creation is not only the means of his business but the reason for it, and that can’t be overstated. Sustaining that work is the chief concern of anyone wanting to make the transition into vocational photography, and Chase’s perspective is much like mine—though I use a back door/front door metaphor and, somewhat oddly, Chase uses juggling. It’s important you do whatever it takes to keep those balls in the air, and the transition from hobbyist to vocational photographer is not unlike moving three juggled balls from the left hand to the right. You move them one ball at a time. You keep waiting tables while you shoot and find clients. You keep doing whatever it takes to sustain the creating and the sharing—to keep those three balls in the air—while the right hand gets used to juggling one ball, then two, and finally three. However long it takes to move those juggling balls from the left to the right, you have to keep them in motion. To abandon the metaphor, you need to sustain it. “If you don’t like what you’re doing, quit. Quitting and failing are our allies; they open doors to the things we do want to be doing. Figure out what is the bare minimum you need to sustain yourself, and do that as you move over, but when you’ve got enough to sustain yourself, quit. Life’s too short.”
Once you’ve made the transition, you just keep those balls in the air. Chase doesn’t do it with cold calls or slick marketing. In fact, he doesn’t use mailers or slick gimmicks at all. He’ll send a custom portfolio when it gets called in, but his efforts go to maintaining client relationships and to creating and sharing new work—that’s his marketing engine.
He’s using social media and the internet to astonishing effect, not as part of a well-conceived marketing plan but because he loves to create and share. The hidden brilliance in this is that those efforts pay off because the market sees not a representation of his creativity, and not a sales pitch, but the actual results of his creativity. The best way to sell your creativity to a market hungry for creativity and excellence is by exposing them to your work. Chase doesn’t merely talk about creativity on his blog or Twitter or through his viral videos; he engages those media in his creativity and clients see the results, not the talk.
All images on pages 225-231 © Chase Jarvis