As I sit in my office today, subject of an unintentional silence, I am forced to reflect on the importance of communication in my ability to perform my job as a photographer.
That word comes up a lot when I discuss photography: communication. Whether it be verbal or non-verbal, audible or digital, face-to-face or thousands of miles away, nothing is more important to photographic success than clear communication. Obviously, there is mass communication. Me writing this article is a form of that. But even in more local ways, our skill level when it comes to transferring our ideas from the abstract painting in our heads to another person can often be more difficult that it may first seem. Allow me to go back a moment to explain why it is that I’m thinking about this topic today.
I just returned to Los Angeles from an out-of-town assignment working for one of my favorite clients, a large activewear brand. I shoot for them often, and I absolutely love it. Not only do they have fantastic art directors, but the rotating band of production crew, talent, and executives I get to work with are all awesome people. Going up there to shoot for me is like a family reunion.
Of course, it’s also a lot of people to keep track of and a lot of people to make happy. Not that I’m complaining. I love working with my client and creative team. I feed off of their energy and ideas and view my role not only as the dude who pushes the button, but also as the quarterback of the team. It’s my job to maximize everyone’s skill set to ensure the best possible end product for all involved.
In order to do that, I partake in a series of endless conversations, sometimes multiple conversations simultaneously, in order to keep the ship sailing in the right direction. I’m asking questions to make sure I’m headed in the right direction for the art directors and executives. I’m communicating constantly with the talent to make sure they are comfortable and also translating and reconfirming the concept to elicit the appropriate reaction. I’m soliciting opinions from my assistants and then making decisions on lighting adjustments. I’m talking to my stylist to figure out ways to amplify their already amazing work. To put things simply, I never shut up.
Of course, were you to cross my path off set, you might not jump to the conclusion that I was capable of such verbal gymnastics. Off set, I am what is most commonly referred to as “The Strong Silent Type.” OK, maybe, in my case, it’s just “The Silent Type” but still, you get the point. I prefer not to speak unless I have to. I don’t spend a great deal of time on the phone. And I’ll never opt for two sentences when one will suffice. Lucky, or unlucky for you, my tendency towards the verbose only rares its head while perched above a keyboard.
Speaking of twinkling those digital ivories, as a matter of practice, I always send thank you notes to my team and client following a shoot. They work hard and I want them to know that I appreciate it.
Following this round of thank you notes, my makeup artist emailed me back with a very sweet note. She mentioned that one of the reasons she enjoyed working with me was because of the constant communication on set and my ability to set the talent at ease. Since any commercial photographer knows that the hair and makeup team on the set is almost always the keeper of the set gossip, I considered this to be a great compliment.
I don’t mention this to pat myself on the back. Instead, I bring that up as an example of why constant communication is to your benefit. It is precisely why the normally muted Chris turns into a motormouth every time I step behind the camera. And it is why, after a long day of shooting and traveling, it was so unsettling to land back at LAX and find that I had completely lost my voice!
The sore throat leading up to shoot day should have been my first indication. The diminishing volume I exerted throughout the day were the warning bells. So, by the time I got home, took the shuttle to long-term parking to collect my car, and was presented with a simply ridiculous parking bill for just a two day turnaround, I literally didn’t have the power to argue.
By the next morning, my voice was completely gone. My throat swollen. A quick trip to the doctor sent me home with a prescription of silence and a dose of codeine intended to subdue my constant coughing.
Upon opening my schedule for the coming week, it immediately hit me that this newfound silence might have ramifications beyond the set. After all, despite the job title, only about 5 percent of my working life is spent taking actual photographs. The other 95 percent is running a business, setting up meetings, securing new business, and nourishing new contacts. I had a conference call with a production company, a face-to-face with another large client, and a phone call to pitch an editorial to a publication in NYC all set up in the coming days. None of those meetings were particularly easy to obtain. Yet I couldn’t quite see how any of them would be adequately effective considering it would, by definition, be a very one-sided conversation.
Of course, no matter how much I hate to do so, meetings can be rescheduled. And my lack of voice is only temporary, so I am incredibly fortunate in that respect. But it is precisely at times like these, when my cold calls are put on hold, and I am forced to try to communicate with the plumber via hand signals the tragedy of my leaky faucet, that I realize just how incredibly important one’s voice can be.
As a photographer you hear that word “voice” quite a bit. Whether it be in reference to finding your aesthetic style or in terms of letting your own voice be heard. Be sure to cherish it. Your voice is one of the most important tools you have in your kit.