Discover, Unravel, Redefine Your Future: Chase Jarvis on new marketing strategies for photographers
Photographers hoping to flourish in the uncertain years ahead will need to adapt to numerous changes, including the rapid and ongoing developments in camera equipment, technology and social networking. Photographers also must have the willingness to learn an entirely new way of thinking when it comes to the marketing and distribution of their work.
That's the prediction of Chase Jarvis, considered by many to be a visionary in the photographic industry, who has built his successful business by embracing change. His work includes not only still photography, but the direction and production of short films, commercials and music videos. He has also created a leading iPhone photography app, published books, helped Nikon launch the D90 (the first HD DSLR) and co-founded an online company aimed at transforming education and learning.
For our 25th anniversary issue, PhotoMedia caught up with Jarvis recently to discuss what he sees ahead for photographers in the next quarter century.
PhotoMedia:You have built a hugely successful business. What's your secret?
Chase Jarvis: If you're actually doing something that you love, then the opportunity to make immeasurable amounts of money or achieve immeasurable amounts of success is really right there at your fingertips. But fundamentally you need to be incredibly passionate about what you want to do, have a creative vision and set yourself apart from the competition. Positioning things around you as the center of the unique vision has been absolutely the key to all of my artistic creative success. I see the world in a way in which other people don't. I think that's mission critical.
PM: From a business perspective, did you start out with a business or marketing plan?
CJ: When I started, I didn't have a business plan. This was back in the '90s. The risks were very low for me because I had very low overhead. I didn't owe anybody any money and I was mostly following my passion. Having a firm business plan wasn't a primary concern.
PM: Did that change?
CJ: I did enact a business plan at some point. It didn't read like an MBA's business plan. It was really like, "How do you want to stand out in the marketplace? How much money are you going to spend in a month? Who's your target?" It could fit on a page or two. Now, every year at the end of December or the beginning of January, I have a very intensive planning period to create a road map for the coming year. I have a vision of the world where you need to say where you want to be in three or five years, but trying to map it out [for that long] is foolish. We do it for one year. Those plans are subject to change, just like any business plan, when competition enters the marketplace or the marketplace changes. You don't want to behave like a Fortune 500 company because you're not. You want to be nimble.
PM: What types of things should photographers include in their business/marketing plans?
CJ: What's your monthly overhead? Studio costs or office rent, the gear you have and insurance to cover it — that gives you a clean target of what you need to earn. Also, identifying and writing down what kind of specific pictures you want to make and what kind of clients you want to have.
PM: Have professional organizations such as ASMP helped you craft those plans?
CJ: I think participating in professional organizations ingrains in you the realization that you are an entrepreneur and you are running a business, and there are real business considerations behind your actions.
PM: What advice would you give to other photographers about promoting their imagery?
CJ: I think the independent and individual nature of the photographer or visual artist of any kind is really about getting your work seen. If your work is not out there in the marketplace, it's going to be hard for people to find you because there's an increasing number of photographs and photographers and people in the marketplace. So finding a way to raise your work above the din of everyday popular photography is going to be the biggest challenge.
I always go back to the mantra "Be different, not better," specifically with regard to marketing. The average photo editor probably gets 100 mailers a week, so are you going to be 101? Or are you going to find a way to present yourself that's outside that traditional approach.
If your work is good and you can present yourself outside that, that's the winning combination. … Being different is actually the thing that's going to help. Getting someone's attention is increasingly going to be outside of the traditional channel of putting a stamp on something and mailing it, or hitting send on an e-mail blast. Both of those things are arguably moving quickly into the past.
PM: What about the use of social networking tools?
CJ: The social networks are so flooded … but I believe very strongly that the social channels are a very, very powerful mechanism and you have to be in that game… To not be there is like not having a website. It's like not having an essential tool in your toolbox.
You have to put good stuff in those channels often and participate in the discussion. That's the other thing that the tools give you now, in addition to scale, in addition to new channels of delivery and distribution. It gives you the opportunity to talk about your work, to defend your work, to talk about the work of other people and to show an interest in your community and connect with other people.
The web in some regards is a meritocracy. If photography buyers are looking for good work, they can find it online. The good tends to come to the surface. So participating in that actively is a must.
But I'll cite my earlier point: You need to be different, not just better. Making great art and sharing it through the democratization of the social channels and social web is going to be the name of the game.
I advocate the massive production of work and sharing it. Shoot, edit and share, share, share, share, share.
PM: Speaking of areas that are flooded, what about the viability of the stock industry? Can photographers expect to make money there?
CJ: It's going to continue the dramatic commodification of the individual image, resulting in a race to the bottom. For the average independent photographer, it's not something to chase because the life of an independent artist is not supported well in a business that goes toward a commodity.
PM: What percentage of your business comes from stock? How much comes from other areas?
CJ: Stock is less than 2 percent and [consists of] legacy images in the marketplace. Approximately 80 percent comes from commercial endeavors, with the remainder coming from such things as app development, talks, etc.
PM: Where do you see income opportunities for photographers in the future?
CJ: I think light-and-fast video — maybe a three-person crew — is going to continue to be an emerging market. I think audio is going to be really important as well.
If you can tell a story with a video camera or a still camera and you can make multimedia stuff, and you know how to direct, and you can act as director of photography, and you know how to be a gaffer and a grip, you're going to be better off. That's just a natural sort of progression of acquiring skills.
There are numerous opportunities to participate in the industry and not be the person actually holding the camera. Lots of photographers go to school and become art directors, for example.
PM: What role will those schools play in teaching those skills?
CJ: Traditional schools need to realize the way people want to learn is changing dramatically. The problem is the schools aren't adapting to this lifestyle. These large expensive schools can cause students to incur grotesque student loans. Students aren't willing to walk out with $80,000 in debt. That sort of thinking is outdated.
PM: What do the schools need to do?
CJ: They need to create a more dynamic learning environment … by giving their students an opportunity to learn in real time — in the classroom, in the streets, through self-study, through online education. The school may not necessarily be able to get a Pulitzer Prize winner to come in and teach a class, but students can sit there and interact with some type of online education that would dovetail with the rest of their education.
PM: You're a co-founder of creativeLIVE, which offers this type of online education. Are there other institutions that are on the cutting edge of photography education?
CJ: There's a plethora of online learning opportunities. … You can learn more from those things in many cases than a lot of quarters in schooling. I'm not saying they replace school. I'm just saying they are a component of it, which the photo schools are pretending don't exist right now.
PM: It sounds like some areas of the industry have a bleak future, but others seem to hold promise.
CJ: It's rife with opportunity. It's the most exciting time in history to be working as a photographer because things are changing so fast and there are so many opportunities. I just think it's going to require a continuing expanding skill set. There's more money in the industry now than ever before. It just comes in different-size packets and in different forms, and it's up to us to discover, to unravel and redefine our own future.
PM: So photographers will have to figure out how to redefine themselves and unravel the market?
CJ: There used to be one path, and now there are 50. A lot of interviewers ask me for a formula. But there is no formula. You have to run and bump into a bunch of walls and find your way. You look to your left and right and see what other people are doing. … People are looking for a magic bullet, and there is no magic bullet. That's what you've lost in the last 10 years: the path. People want it so bad. It doesn't exist, so stop looking.
Start taking pictures and start finding a way. There are ways to make millions of dollars, and there are things that will be dead tomorrow. That is the uncertainty of the future. It's what is so unsettling to everybody. If you can keep your knees bent and live with that uncertainty, then there's going to be a place for you and you're going to be able to prosper. If you can't, then there are 100,000 other careers.