What they don’t teach you in college

This post was originally written in 2003. Things, sadly, haven’t really changed and so I thought that it deserved yet another airing.

For better or for worse, the vast majority of people entering the photographic profession are coming from college courses. I have no problem with that, I came from one myself and so did a lot of my favourite photographers. But…

I’ve been a working photographer since 1986 and based on a few things I have picked up since then I have come up with a list of things that they should have taught us that were not on the syllabus. A whole range of vital skills that go a long way to marking out the complete professional from the aspiring “not there yet”.

Obviously when it comes to choosing which lens to use, or selecting backgrounds and props – only experience and familiarity with your kit and brief will do, and colleges are good at telling their students that. There are, however, some skills that are never even mentioned that are vital.

  • People skills: The ability to handle anyone that you are either photographing, who have influence over those being photographed or who are just getting in the way.
  • More people skills: You need to be able to charm the ‘jobsworth’ security man and persuade the reluctant PR and to do it all without breaking into a fit of temper until such times as all else has failed and you have no other option
  • Even more people skills: As a news photographer you need to be able to communicate with anyone from a starving refugee to a pampered celebrity in a meaningful and constructive way – often on the same day! You have to get them to trust you, to do what you want them to do and achieve all of this with dignity and respect.
  • Advanced people skills: As a portraitist you have to have the ability to talk to absolutely anyone and to keep the conversation going at a light but interesting level whilst setting up equipment, making vital technical decisions and shooting the job.
  • Extended people skills: You need to have a sense of your own place in the scheme of things. It’s no use throwing a prima donna tantrum if you are not getting what you want and are never going to get it. It gets even worse when the person you are arguing with is a close personal friend of the editor. Know when to give in, to make another plan and get your shot anyway.

You are probably getting my drift by now. Once you have acquired all of the technical skills and bought all of the kit that you need all that’s required is to learn how to conduct yourself. I often refer to the photographer as the “Social Chameleon”, changing colours and attitude to suit their surroundings. This should be both physical – dressing appropriately so as not antagonize the people that you are dealing with, and mental – adopting the right attitude – be it meek or aggressive, as friendly or confrontational as the situation requires.

Maybe photographers should all adopt some of the techniques used by the best sales people and mix them with skills more common in the diplomatic service. I have watched charity workers running soup kitchens and marvelled at their ability to be both understanding and firm, and I have watched police officers and been stunned by the way that they get the information that they want whilst conducting an otherwise friendly conversation.

My biggest tip on this subject is to find some common ground with whoever you are talking to and work it. It might be sport, it might be the weather or the journey that you both had to get where you have met. If I’m in someone’s home I will often talk about a piece of art or furniture on display or their pet cat or dog. It doesn’t matter what you chat about, you are chatting and barriers are coming down. Avoid contentious subjects unless you are really sure of yourself.

So there you are, what they don’t teach you in college is how to handle people. It’s not just a skill needed by photographers – it’s a life skill. I think that’s why a lot of the greatest photographers have come from other careers where they have learned about people and use those skills in their new profession.

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