Last week, I gave a two hour lecture at Speos Photography School in Paris to their current students. As you may already know, I was a student there myself in the Creative Documentary and Photojournalism program with Magnum Photos from 2015 to 2016 so I was elated at the invitation. Did this mean I kind of made it?! Am I FINALLY famous?! Just kidding.
When I was a student, I went to maybe two evening lectures even though attendance was mandatory. Most photographers who came to speak to us usually just boasted about their work and accomplishments which absolutely did nothing for me (not to mention the EGO! Just so much ego.). I've only been a "pro" for 1.5 years so I am in no way an expert but I wanted to genuinely help the students. I wanted to tell them what I wish I had known so I spent weeks brainstorming what topics to discuss.
If you know me in real life, you know I am blunt. I tell it like it is so I decided to apply this to my lecture--I wanted to be 100% honest about my career and the industry (I also curse like a sailor so there was a lot of cursing involved, désolé). Because the students received the lecture so well, I decided to do a quick blog post to highlight my main messages (link to the actual PowerPoint slides below)! I hope you find this post helpful because I haven't slept in almost three weeks but here I am writing this out for you.
(NOTE: this lecture was catered to Speos students, as you can see in the slides, but I have framed the blog post to be relevant to ALL photography students.)
*I started the lecture with a quick overview of all the different types of work I have to do to make a living as a young photographer in Paris, France.*
1. WHAT TO DO NOW AS A STUDENT.
I think it's so so so important to take advantage of your education. I mean, you paid for it, right? I really wouldn't be where I am today if it weren't for my teachers at Speos so if you are a student there now, befriend your teachers/school staff (Leonardo, Bernard, Claire, Elise, Philippe, Eva, Anne-Claire, Pierre-Yves--thank you for helping me get where I am). All my teachers helped me bridge the gap between being a student and a pro. As a student, you need to master how to: compose, use light, shoot manually, edit, sequence, speak AND write about your work, and print. Don't leave school until you nail this shit down. It's also really important to have a SUPERB website and to kill it when it comes to portfolio reviews (Hi, Claire (image management teacher)). Also, don't call yourself a "street photographer." Being a "photographer" is good and hard enough.
2. PORTFOLIO REVIEWS!
Before you continue to the business module or graduate from Speos (depends on the program you are in), you have to do a round of portfolio reviews! First you have to figure out HOW you want to present. As a student, I decided to make borderless prints on my favorite "fine art" paper (Harman by Hahnemühle 300g). I found this paper after spending hours with Philippe's (printing teacher) little booklet of sample prints from Picto. Choose the paper that speaks to you. EVERYONE I show my prints to ask what paper I use since it works so well with my aesthetic. I personally print with Picto in Paris because they are fast (and up until recently, I had a pretty sweet discount) but there are a lot of boutique printers out there (for example, I plan to work with Diamantino Quintas of Diamantino Labo Photo next!).
I literally roll my eyes when people show me prints and ask to wear gloves but if that's the style you want to present in, you do you! When did photography get so pretentious? I also find plastic sleeves extremely tacky. There are creative ways to present your work without boring the viewer to death. My graduation portfolio was 20 borderless prints presented in a box decorated with stickers (few from Supreme, others from my sticker collection). I wanted it to be completely mine. I wanted my prints to be touched, the way childhood photos were touched. I wanted people to question, "can I really touch these nice prints?" I wanted to start a conversation with the viewer. I wanted my prints to get fingerprints the more people looked at them. BE CREATIVE, don't conform to the norm!
(SIDE NOTE: As a pro, you are expected to show 1-2 series MAX, each series being 15-20 photos. As a student, I showed 1 series.)
3. WHAT TO DO IN ARLES.
Les Rencontres d'Arles Opening Week is the best fucking week of the year. When I am depressed, my partner Anthony will bring up Arles and I will perk up. It's that good. There are two festivals taking place simultaneously, Voies Off and Les Rencontres d'Arles. It's just a week of nonstop photography love. The city itself is also fucking beautiful, I mean Van Gogh lived there (where he cut off his ear!). Basically if you are in photography, you need to be there. There are literally hundreds of exhibitions, Cosmos Arles Books (the best photography book event ever), and every photographer and photo editor you dreamed of meeting. I hear Martin Parr's voice on the streets when I am walking around, trying to digest the eggplant lasagna I ate at La Mama, and I turn into a fan girl. I even bought Harry Gruyaert ice cream once in Arles. *SIGH* Arles is a place.
Let me shut up and tell you what to do in Arles: Go to exhibitions (if you don't see every exhibition in Les Rencontres d'Arles, shame on you), visit your exhibition at the Speos house and stay there to present your work, buy books, explore, take photos, meet strangers and talk humbly about your work, have fun, eat at La Mama (reservations required), find me and say "Hi" to make me feel famous. It was during my Speos student exhibition at Voies Off that I befriended a lot of editors, photographers, and even got my work in Modern Blocks.
When you come back to Les Rencontres d'Arles after a few years of working, you can THEN start doing portfolio reviews. Doing portfolio reviews as a student in Arles is the biggest mistake you can make. I thought I was ready and I am so glad Pierre-Yves (Director of Speos) told me to chill. Also, get to know Pierre-Yves. He's a very successful photographer and he will buy you beer.
4. DON'T FUCKING WORK FOR FREE.
The industry is fucked because there's someone with a camera willing to work for free (aka "exposure"). A French editor I admire asked me why I was still in Paris, "The French Press is dying if not already dead." The market here (and basically everywhere) is extremely saturated that editors/clients know there is someone out there who will do it for free. Do you ask your lawyer or doctor for free services? Do you go into Chanel and ask for a free wallet on chains? We also have bills to pay, rent due every month, taxes to pay, etc. If you are good, people will pay. You will work towards a point where you can turn away work and be selective. Trust me, I didn't see it at first but I am slowly getting to that point now. I recently saw a book titled, "Real Artists Don't Starve." Keep telling yourself that.
If you start getting a reputation in the industry for working for free, people will never pay you for your work. The photography world is surprisingly very, very small. We can fix what's broken as long as we stand together--DON'T FUCKING WORK FOR FREE.
5. WHAT YOU SHOOT WITH DOES NOT MATTER.
Even I find myself asking myself if I should finally invest in a Leica M10. Why? I have so many cameras, both analog and digital. My Sony A7 works great. It's like we are told by society to have the most expensive and newest gear.
Honestly, it doesn't matter what the fuck you shoot with. Whether it's a Ricoh GRII, a Canon 5D Mark whatever, a disposable camera, your dad's vintage Pentax, or your iPhone. It's your eye that matters. It's not the camera, it's your fucking eye. I personally use kit lenses even though I have Sygma fine art glass (you try getting attacked by a crazy person in Paris and having super expensive gear on you). I also actually love shooting with my cropped sensor Canon EOS 7D (full frame is great but don't hate others for using cropped sensors). Other photographers don't take me seriously when I'm backstage at fashion weeks and they see my kit lens but let's let the photos speak for themselves ;)
6. WHAT TO DO AFTER SCHOOL.
Brand yourself. Figure out how you want to die (what do you want to be remembered for?). Calculate your rates. Build your portfolio. Take workshops every now and then. Go to portfolio reviews. Enter free contests. Meet people. Know the media (read the newspaper everyday, buy magazines). Meet with editors via informational interviews (Figure this out! Don't just email them, try to meet them in person but be good enough that they actually want to meet you). Learn how to write a fucking email (I cannot stress this enough, I got emails from Speos students after this lecture that had me cringing). Figure out your niche. Stay inspired by going to exhibitions, reading books, looking at photo books, watching movies.
What I did won't work for you. But I will tell you how I built my network. I try to do lunch with a stranger every single day. I genuinely love meeting new people and this has helped my career immensely. I also kept in touch with almost everyone Speos has introduced me to, including my teachers. Facebook groups are a great way to meet people (I have one with 600 members called Creatives in Paris), I also message people randomly on Instagram. Moreover, I visit exhibitions religiously and have a huge photography book collection of my own. I'll leave you with a list of my favorite books, museums and book shops in Paris, and films to help get you started!
Films: Il Sorpasso, anything by Federico Fellini, La Grande Belleza
Books: (First three* taught me composition, the last two I always go to for reference)
The Decisive Moment* by Henri Cartier Bresson
Roma* by Joseph Koudelka
Read This if you Want to Take Great Photographs by Henry Caroll (PLEASE BUY THIS!!)
Bookshops: 0fr, Le Bal, 7L by Karl Lagerfeld, Mona Lisait (discount store but I ALWAYS find treasure), Artazart
Museums: Jeu de Paume, The Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Le Bal, Palais de Tokyo, Fondation Louis Vuitton, Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson,Polka Galerie, in)(between gallery, Centre Pompidou, Magnum Photos Paris Gallery
BONUS! BEST KEPT SECRET: Magnum Photos Archive (just fucking look, it's free!)
7. MISCELLANEOUS FINAL THOUGHTS
My three favorite quotes that keep me going:
“You get in life what you have the courage to ask for.”--Oprah
“Get a good pair of walking shoes and...fall in love.”--Abbas
"Be so good they can't ignore you."--Steve Martin
Hustle but have fun. Have faith in your work. Be human first, photographer second.
If you are interested, you can check out my lecture slides here.