Kenya's Return

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of welcoming Kenya back to my studio for a solo photo shoot. If you follow this blog, you may recognize Kenya from a fashion shoot that I did last year for Humanity, a boutique in Lowell, Massachusetts. Here she is with the whole team. (Kenya is the second from the left.)

Our recent shoot was one of my self-assigned shoots, meaning that it wasn't a fashion shoot, per se, nor a portrait, but rather my opportunity to do some creative lighting, posing and using materials other than digital cameras; things that are not always possible with commercial clients. So here's what we came up with. Thanks Kenya!

Networking and the Photographer

For a while now I have been working on a self-assigned project to photograph people in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire. One of several goals of the project is to show the work in an exhibit that I will be doing with painter and pastel artist Bill Tyers. That goal, along with the always-present desire and requirement  to expand my portfolio, has allowed me to meet and be introduced to many people whom I may not have otherwise met. For this I have utilized several of my networks. A few of my subjects were either part of, or were introduced to me by members of some of the business networking groups that I belong to in Lowell, Chelmsford and Westford, Massachusetts. Other meetings came about as a result of simply asking clients and Twitter contacts if they would pose, and if they could think of other people who might make interesting subjects and might pose as well.

One such person, referred to me in the latter category, was Fru Nkimbeng, originally of Cameroon, and now President of the African Cultural Association of Lowell. The association puts on the Lowell African Festival along the river each year, and which took place just last weekend. Fru works in Information Technology, so between our common experiences in that and our short conversation in French upon first meeting, I think the trepidations that Fru had in my photographing him were lessened. But being very active in the local African community, we both thought that he should be shown in traditional dress of Cameroon. For a photographer, the oranges, reds and blues in his garments were a gift.

If you are a photographer, and you like to photograph people, but don't know whom to ask, my advice is to just start somewhere. Ask that first person if they will pose and then ask if they might know other interesting people who would also be interested in posing. Keep doing that and after a while you will have a very long list. Networks work for more than just getting referrals for business in the traditional way.


Self-assigned photo shoots are really a necessity. Shooting for yourself keeps things interesting and on your own trajectory. When the paid jobs are not where you want to be or where you want to go, it's doubly rewarding. Sometimes, for one reason or another, those shots may not be ones that you can use or ones that fit precisely into your portfolio, and your portfolio needs to represent exactly the kind of work that you want to attract. This latter point took a long time to sink in for me, but it is one of the most important things that a commercial photographer needs to learn. We all want to show work that we are proud of and that shows the world we are versatile and capable. But you need to ask yourself if any given shot in your portfolio is the kind of work that you want to continue to do, and further, if it is consistent with a focused message. Who are your ideal clients? What do they look for? Show them what they are looking for! Chances are, if they are looking for that specific thing, they probably don't want someone who does that thing along with all sorts of other, unrelated kinds of work. I'm sure this is not news.

For photographers, as well as many other disciplines, self-assigned work is really magic. It's an avenue that is freeing, useful and necessary. If you're building a new portfolio, especially one that is heading in a new direction, or if you are unhappy with the alignment of the work you are shooting for pay with your goals, self-assigned work is the answer. It's freeing because the what, when, where, who and how are all up to you. It's your chance to create a world from play-doh, to appropriate a phrase that someone used last week who I unfortunately cannot recall.

But here's where it gets tricky, for me at least; that clean slate. Which way should I go? And when I choose, who will give me permission? There's that word: permission. I used to be a professional musician, and there was always an undercurrent of guilt when I was practicing or working on something that wasn't income-generating. That's a pretty debilitating way to be if you are an artist. I'm not sure what made me like that, but as a musician I was always wary of the people who I would encounter who had “real jobs”. Well, I am older now, and my coping mechanism has grown from the unwavering support of my wife and the fact that I have seen the other side, and I know now that I have it so much better. Now I can give myself permission to work on something that has no practical value at this moment and is not generating income. I can do that because I know that what I am working on is part of what I want to do to be where I want to be, so that I can be sought out by clients, to do that thing.

The essential factor in giving yourself permission to do self-assignments is structure. Where do you want to go? My friend, photographer's consultant Selina Maitreya, talks consistently about “vision”. Without that, where are you going? I am reading David duChemin's new book and he has almost the  identical message. In order to get where you want to be, you need to figure out where that is. Once you have done so, make it happen. And if you don't have enough work that leads you in that direction, create it. I find it very useful to get myself into a situation in which I must create such work. For me, it has been taking the form of art shows. I create the kind of work that I want because no one is really dictating content, and it gives structure and permission to do so. But whatever form the structure takes, make sure that it leaves you free to create the work that you want to keep creating.