This week’s Questions with a Pro features Susan Farley.
Susan is a New York City-based photographer who specializes in people. Her clients range from smaller private clients to large fortune 500 companies. She has won several awards from the New York Press Photographers Association as well as numerous other awards. Here, she describes how her photography career began, the marketing techniques that have been most successful for her, and how she handles the stresses of the industry.
We asked: Where did your photography career begin? What would you say really hit it off?
Susan said: While I was a journalism major at West Virginia University with a focus on Advertising, I learned that there was a work-study job opening in the Journalism darkroom. I was qualified as I had creative photography and darkroom experience in High School.
Fortunately, I got the job which changed my career direction, and I enrolled in the two photography classes offered and printed my photographs during the lab down time. I fell in love with the magic of creating images from ideas, composition and feeling to a print. I was hired as a staff photographer on the college paper and also on the town weekly paper. I found that creating images on a daily basis was an adventure and decided that I wanted to pursue a path as a professional photographer. I was able to suggest my ideas for photo stories while going deeper into the mini-worlds of people in and around the university.
There was a young married couple practicing Hare Krishna that lived in town they would host free Vegan meals, which was very popular among the students. They became the subject of one of my first photo stories. I asked if I could follow them with my camera beyond the free meals and photograph their daily lives. I even followed them to the main Krishna ashram in Moundsville, West Virginia. I was amazed how over a short period of time, they let down their public personalities and allowed me to depict their human struggles and joys. I photographed and wrote a story which depicted their true humanity, not just to depict them as strangely dressed people who chanted.
After graduating, I joined friends in Japan and photographed while traveling the beautiful country. While there, I was then notified by my WVU photography professor of a staff photographer job opening in Martinsburg, W.VA. I returned to do a three-day tryout at the paper and got hired. I was thrilled and so excited at the prospect of immersing myself full-time in newspaper work.
I am a native New Yorker, so getting into the world of a small town in West Virginia and engaging with new and unique people and documenting daily community activities like 4-H clubs, Apple Blossom Festivals, and local events and news was an adventure.
Also, being a native New Yorker (not being a driver) and having to drive to do the job, I had to rush lessons to get a driver’s license, barely passed, then bought a very cheap, used car. I proceeded to drive very cautiously at night 30 mph in a torrential rain storm to my new home and job, six hours later for what should have been a three hour drive, and being honked at by every truck on the road, I somehow arrived safely and ready to start my first staff photography job the next morning.
I was the only staff photographer at an afternoon paper and would get up at 6 AM to go to the newspaper darkroom and develop all of the reporters’ film (yes the reporters had to shoot their own stories and the budget was for only one professional photographer.) After I did all of the morning darkroom work, I would go out in the afternoon, shoot the main story of the day, and drive around searching for feature images in both black and white and high quality color chromes shot with a Pentax 6″7″ for high quality color covers.
I loved the immersion and the people I worked with and photographed in Martinsburg, yet after nine months working at the paper, I heard about staff job opportunities at AFP (Agence France Presses) in DC where they were hiring newbies to work the desk and also shoot. They preferred to hire bi-lingual photographers, as the desk was headquarters for both North and South Americas. I had the job experience from the newspaper and knew enough Spanish from HS and college studies. I was hired to both work the 24/7 desk and shoot assignments and spot news of the political and lifestyle world in DC on demand.
After almost two years in DC, I moved to NYC where I started as a NY Times freelancer which after a few months turned into a temporary staff job. This led to NY Newsday offering me a full-time staff position, which I took and remained for many years. I loved the energy of the paper and my photography assignments, as well as, the editors, fellow photographers and reporters’ passion to tell the stories of NYC. After Newsday, I returned to freelance for the NY Times and other photojournalistic magazine clients as well as medium format Hasselblad camera work for MTV programming. Currently, I photograph for industry and business magazines, portrait clients, university magazines, corporate/commercial clients, as well as, private portrait and corporate event clients.
We asked: How did you come to specialize in photographing people? What captivates you about this realm of photography?
Susan said: Every person has commonalities and differences, and I am driven as an artist-photographer to look deeply into personalities and connect with each person I meet and photograph. Connecting to something in a person unseen by the naked eye is what drew me to specialize in people photography.
This is true whether the person is president of the US, an Oscar or Grammy award-winning celebrity or a person doing all they can to be a hero in their own lives.
One of my favorite experiences when photographing a celebrity was Stevie Wonder on assignment for Newsday. He was an interesting celebrity to photograph plus he is an extraordinary person and a talent I have admired and revered my whole life. I went with a reporter to Stevie’s hotel room where he was practicing on a portable piano. I set up lighting and worked with different angles and lenses as he spoke to us and played us songs. I was in photographer heaven. He was even more wonderful and authentic than I could ever imagine.
The NY Times Business section assigned me to photograph Helen Gurley Brown who was the editor of Cosmopolitan and a unique figure in women’s history – this was a couple of days after she was asked to step down and sent to another, smaller division. I established a rapport with Helen and we discovered that along with disappointment, there was joy with a life well lived and a continuing future. This was reflected in a portrait that may have changed the tone of the article from a sad departure to a celebration.
For a recent assignment, I photographed a twenty-year-old father of two in The Bronx, who was enrolled in a young father’s support group and was trying his heart out to be the best father possible, even with his struggles of working on his own advancement and education. I was able to follow him for a day and got powerful, loving photos of him playing with and caring for his two sons. The joy the children spontaneously shared with their dad was touching to me and to those who saw the photo story.
When it comes to photographing people, it’s an exciting challenge to morph from the fly-on-the-wall photojournalist for some stories to creating a relationship of lively give-and-take communication as a stylized portrait photographer.
We asked: What, if anything, changes when working with extremely large-scale clients versus smaller scale clients?
Susan said: The biggest change with working with an extremely large-scale client is the collaboration with a larger group of a creative team and all of their ideas and input which need to be respected without losing your own vision.
While working on a large scale commercial shoot assignment for an upscale national assisted living home for seniors, the job was huge and needed a producer, production assistants, camera assistants, wardrobe, hair, makeup, and of course, catering. Within a team, each person brings their expertise and adds to the final images.
When working smaller projects, I put on all or most of the creative hats. One of the challenges with large scale shoots is sharing creative vision and work with others and being open and willing to blend ideas to create the final production, where most of my work is done as an individual photographer or with just one fabulous lighting expert assistant.
An example of a smaller scale portrait project is one where I photographed for a NYC Chamber Music group where I went on location to ten different homes or offices where the benefactor and their “Chair” i.e. the musicians posed in a fun and humorous way together to create large portraits which were displayed at the reception. The creative director communicated that the key was to emphasize the relationships in a warm way and then myself and my lighting assistant created the images. It is the job of the photographer to bring the creative director or project manager to life whether working with a team or on our own.
We asked: How do you go about marketing your business? Is there any specific technique that has really paid off for you?
Susan said: The best marketing I can suggest is to keep in touch with your clients via personal emails (instead of mass marketing), hand-written cards and networking in person whenever possible. Of course the best reference is word-of-mouth and to notice when your clients are on the move. I have had good luck with following up on successful relationships and working with clients at their new positions.
Also, always carry your business cards with you. An attractive card with photos on it is best. Even now when people use electronic cards, a hard copy shows you take the time and care about your business and your photography.
If you have an idea for a show or can participate in a group show or enter photo contests like the ones offered through ASMP, you can promote your work and market it with a genuine reason to reach out to current and future clients.
I currently live in Manhattan, yet for several years I lived on City Island, a small nautical community in The Bronx. I created a personal fine-art portrait project called “Faces of City Island” and produced a one-woman show with 50 framed portraits features at a show given at the Focal Point Gallery. My goal was to pick a variety of members of the City Island Community, all ages, all walks of life and backgrounds, as well as, mixture of careers. I created a photo studio and shot everyone with similar attractive, dramatic lighting as if they were stars of the community.
I sent invite postcards with photos of the show to a large group of clients and potential clients and got a great response, including new assignments. I also ended up winning the BRIO (Bronx Recognizes Their Own) grant, which retroactively paid for my expenses for the show, plus it gave me a second opportunity for a shout out to clients to share the news.
We asked: What is your biggest stressor when it comes to photography, and how do you handle it?
Susan said: I happen to be reading a book right now called “The Upside of Stress:” by Kelly McGonigal. The basic context of the book is: If you care about your life and activities and they are meaningful to you, there will be stress. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
When I have my camera in my hand I become focused on creating in the moment, and I forget about the stressors in the photography business, yet the reality is that the competition for work, especially in NYC, is steep and one must always be searching for work. Navigating the business is stressful because yes, I care deeply for purposes of creating impactful images while also staying financially afloat and paying bills.
It’s important to remember that so much is out of our control. Clients change companies, new people bring their people in and you are out. A fellow photographer will underbid you, and the company is on a tight budget so your higher bid is immediately eliminated.
Instead, the question to ask yourself could be: What is in your control? Some answers are the quality of your work, keeping and building your relationships and taking care of your health, creativity and energy. I have made physical fitness a priority, alternating between spin classes and yoga, plus loads of walking. The results are more stamina, energy and positive outlook. Certainly a bonus while I’m carrying my equipment up and down subways and navigating New York City.
Photography is three pronged: physical, emotional and technical. Being in the top physical condition you can be greatly enhances your ability to enjoy and employ your career. To mix things up creatively and explore, I also enjoy learning and practicing comedic improvisation, emphasizing “Yes-And” relationships, which translates into looking for agreements where you can and then building upon that as well as the importance of fully listening to and responding to other people. This ultimately leads to better communication and more joyful storytelling.
I would advise photographers to find their own healthy, creative and beneficial ways to balance with the inevitable demands we face in our exciting and creative careers.