Building Blocks: Time to Update the Rules of Engagement with Skip Cohen

Building Blocks: Time to Update the Rules of Engagement with Skip Cohen

Building Blocks: Time to Update the Rules of Engagement with Skip Cohen

Want more information on this article? Get access to video content and additional supporting images. Launch the December issue of the magazine by logging in or signing up for a free account by clicking here. Shutter Magazine is the industry’s leading professional photography magazine.

I’ve written blog posts about the rules of engagement for professional photographers. A few of the rules are unique to imaging, but for the most part, they apply to any business. Many go back to our roots as kids, things we were taught that, sadly, too many people have forgotten.

One glaring change over the years is how the anonymity of the Internet has empowered people to act so viciously toward one another. Trolls hide behind the anonymity of their computer screens and send out a barrage of negativity they’d never have the nerve to share face to face.

The late businessman and educator Stephen Covey made a statement that covers this challenge:

“I’m convinced that we can write and live our own scripts more than most people will acknowledge. I also know the price that must be paid. It’s a real struggle to do it. It requires visualization and affirmation. It involves living a life of integrity, starting with making and keeping promises, until the whole human personality, the senses, the thinking, the feeling, and the intuition, are ultimately integrated and harmonized.”

Every year there are more and more new companies, products and photographers coming into the market. The market is constantly growing and the challenges make us stronger. At the same time, because of the Internet, the world is getting smaller. Artists all over the world can easily share ideas and interact with each other, but it works only if respect is one of the ingredients of this powerful communication tool.

The following Rules of Engagement is also my personal wish list of how I’d love everyone in the industry to interact with each other as we wrap up 2016 and head into a new year.

1) Smile more, bitch less. It’s that simple. Everybody has challenges, and there will always be somebody who can top your story about being miserable. Even more important: If you’re miserable, start thinking about a plan to change whatever it is that’s dragging you down.

2) Don’t be a troll and don’t engage trolls. There’s nothing wrong with disagreeing with people, but trolls serve no purpose. They have too much time on their hands and hide behind the anonymity of their computer screens. They might not even know they’re trolls, but that doesn’t change their persistent harping on a point that has been beat to death.

3) Surround yourself with people you respect. Photography and business are just like playing tennis with somebody better than you. Your game gets better. Look for people to bring into your network who complement your weaknesses. It’ll give you a stronger game.

4) Follow through. Stephen Covey probably hit on it first, but that doesn’t change its important place on my list. I’m tired of people and groups who promise us one thing and then never follow through. We’re all guilty of it once in a while, but there are a few out there who just never stay focused. There’s a big difference between forgetting to do something and never following through on what you promised.

5) Stay focused. You know how to hold focus on your camera, but there is no auto-focus button for your career—or life, for that matter. You’ve got to stay with your plan and make the necessary adjustments along the way.

6) Call people back! If somebody has left you a voicemail, they deserve a response. Even better, use your phone now and then instead of email. It’s called the “back to your roots” plan. A phone call rather than an email to a client, or just about anybody, can have incredible impact.

7) Never use the word fail. Don’t be afraid to admit you screwed up, but know that fail, failure and failed are all self-fulfilling negative words. You’re dead meat the minute you use words like this. If you tried something and it didn’t work, all that happened was that it didn’t work. If you hadn’t tried anything at all, then you’d be a failure.

So, strike these words from your vocabulary and get your internal spell-check going so that all derivatives of the word fail are simply removed. Success is all about taking chances, and failure is just part of your journey. As long as you learn from each situation, nothing can ever be a failure.

8) Recognize when you’re on overload. Anybody with kids knows the signs of a sugar low. Adults are no different. We never really outgrow that sugar-low mood swing. What does change is that as we get older, we’re not only susceptible to a real sugar low, but we react the same way when we’ve got too much going on. You’ve got to take a break now and then, stay grounded with those things most important in your life.

9) Never show somebody else’s work as your own. This includes images you captured while standing behind an instructor in a hands-on workshop, and anything you write in a blog post.

There’s been a lot of talk in our industry over the years of pretty well-known photographers who have been caught using other photographers’ images and text. If you can’t come up with a concept on your own to write about in your own words, then either ask for permission and attribute the source, or forget it.

10) Keep in contact with friends. We all get busy. We all lose touch. But it’s so worth the effort to keep in touch with friends and people who share the same passions.

11) Don’t be greedy. Price your products and services in line with your market. Share the profit and the accolades with those who have helped you grow. If you want to be a miser, you’ll spend most of your life alone, even when people are acting like they’re with you. At the other end of the spectrum is the issue of undervaluing your work. Always keep all your costs in mind, and price your work with a respectable margin.

12) Listen to your staff. As your business grows, you’ll bring on more people. You might outsource to other vendors. All of these people, whether directly or indirectly employed by you, become your “staff.” Include them in business discussions and listen to their suggestions. You don’t always have to incorporate their ideas, but let them know their input is valuable and is being considered.

13) Be realistic with your deadlines. Deliver on time or even early. Nobody is interested in your excuses if you deliver late.

14) Be on time. It’s pretty simple: Show up for meetings and phone calls when you’re supposed to.

15) Never compromise quality. Whether it’s an image being posted on your website or just one of hundreds in an album, if it’s not your best work, don’t show it. Nobody ever hired a photographer because of the number of average images in their galleries.

16) Make your handshake mean something. My father and his father did business their whole lives on a handshake. I realize there are thousands of attorneys out there who will tell me I’m nuts, but for the most part, I’m still doing business the same way. Sadly, we live in a litigious world, and you need contracts, but the symbolism of eye contact and a solid handshake still speaks volumes.

17) Don’t be afraid to experiment. One of my favorite quotes is by the late motivational speaker Zig Ziglar: “If you wait for all the lights to be green, you’ll never get started on your journey.” Every now and then you’re going to have to go with your gut and try something new. If it doesn’t work, change and start again. But if you wait until everything is just right, you’ll never get going.

18) Get to know your vendors. A photographer needs a great lab, an album company, a frame company, a reputable equipment retailer and a marketing/planning resource. And within each of these vendors there are additional resources, people who can help you succeed in virtually every aspect of photography.

19) Never stop learning. Technology is constantly changing and consumer trends are only a short step behind. Attend every workshop and convention you can. Watch webinars and listen to podcasts and read everything. You’ve got to be on top of every change in your profession to be the very best.

20) Be careful what you say—and to whom. We’re a relatively small industry. We all go to the same rubber-chicken dinners. You never know how many degrees of separation there are between the person you’re talking to and the person you’re talking about.

21) Unless you’re willing to accept responsibility for a rumor, don’t pass it on. Sometime around year six in my 12 years at Hasselblad, I heard a rumor from a retailer that I was about to be fired. When I confronted the retailer directly, he refused to tell me his source, but he passed the rumor on to one of Hasselblad’s salesmen. The rumor wasn’t true. I found out later it was started by an employee who was mad at me. I was there another six years, and made it a point to remind the retailer every year I was still onboard.

22) Be involved with a charity and your community. I’ve written about this extensively: If you want your community to be good to you, you have to be good to your community.

23) Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s one of the most important points on the list. You’re part of an incredible industry, and there are so many people out there willing to help you through the challenges. But we can’t help if you don’t ask.

24) Act like your grandmother is watching. It’s a great quote from a photographer and good friend, Levi Sim, and I use it when people can’t seem to be nice to each other in Facebook forums.

25) Don’t just shoot for clients. Another good friend, Terry Clark, wrote a few years ago:

“Take pictures for the love of photography. So many photographers I know only pick up the camera when a paycheck is attached. What a shame. You need to keep your eye fresh. Musicians practice so they’re ready for the performance, and athletes train for the big game—why in the world would a photographer not take pictures to keep their eye inspired and in tune?”

The list isn’t all-inclusive. There’s plenty more I could add. It’s December, and a new year is right around the corner. Let’s make 2017 a year of peace, goodwill, growth and fun. Remember fun? It’s too often lost under the stress and baggage of running a business. With very little effort, we’ve all got the potential to make next year a sweet one.

Want more information on this article? Get access to video content and additional supporting images. Launch the December issue of the magazine by logging in or signing up for a free account by clicking here. Shutter Magazine is the industry’s leading professional photography magazine.

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