Thursday, May 26, 2011

Photographer Shannon Fagan Answers The Question: Why China?

China stock photo of a laughing man by Shannon Fagan.
Photo©Shannon Fagan
 Shannon Fagan Reports: ”I’m an interesting character in China when I shoot. I wear gloves, I wear knee pads, and I cover myself in the white ghosting of 70 SPF sunscreen. I laugh with my models to get them to laugh.  In China, this is often met with a stare and occasionally a smirk. But for this gentleman, we had a downright belly-roll.”

Friend and fellow photographer Shannon Fagan recently relocated from New York to China. Shannon is one of those people that are referred to as "thought leaders" and has been very active in the photography world. He is a past president of the Stock Artists Alliance, and has had leadership roles in the American Photographic Artists, the American Society of Media Photographers and the Young Photographers Alliance. I could go on...but I won't. 

I recently fired off an e-mail to Shannon in Beijing asking him "Why China?".  His answer was pretty cool, so with his permission I am sharing it here.

Shannon, why China?

  • Alongside the recession and economic changes for online image licensing, my stock photography earnings declined rapidly from late 2008 to mid 2009.  I reassessed what I wanted out of my business, and out of my personal life.

  • I had burned out of managing disinterested parties on photo shoots for production outlays that were taking longer than I felt was wise to break even.  I found that I could not cut costs further and still forecast an adequate income; nor could I maintain a happy and healthy lifestyle as I squeezed the expenses whilst raising my crews’ stress to unnecessary levels. I chose to stop, take profit on my royalties, and change what I was doing.

  • I found, through a lot of personal introspection and external research, that I was no longer interested in shooting stock imagery nor assignment work within the current market conditions. I wanted a new challenge, and as I assessed that need in my life, I found that there had been indicators to that end for some time.

  • I looked analytically at the industry and at my options.  I knew commercial photography was permanently changed and knew that my interests as a person within that were quickly migrating to other areas of visual communication and business.

  • This all leads me to late 2009, when I went to China to do research on relocating.  I formulated the basis of that investigation from the continual pull that I had felt to the emerging marketplace and success that I had had working in China from 2006 – 2009.  Several very close, intelligent, and long term friends also put the bug in my ear.  By spring 2010, I returned to China again for another test trip; and by late 2010 I had closed out my operation in New York and was ready for relocation.  I knew that I was moving for the right reasons; even if not all reasons had manifested yet.

  • I did not move blindly.  During a period of 18 months, I worked on the ground in Beijing, Shanghai, and in New York to establish and refine long term contacts and relationships that would fuel me upon arrival.  I did a lot of business coursework.  When I arrived to Beijing in December last year, I hit the ground running with a multitude of projects carefully orchestrated in China and abroad.

  • The economy in the US assisted my decision. Our industry has consolidated and as you’re likely aware, there is a prejudice for photographers interested in shifting into business roles. In one way or another, I not only felt that prejudice, I experienced it enough to understand intelligently that there would be no easy nor efficient movement for me in the US from a role of photographer to the business side of the industry.  Instead, and quite literally, recruiters and big picture thinkers told me “...go to China, it’s where all the new action is.”

  • Moving forward to the present; I am glad that I moved. My happiness and daily fulfillment is at an all-time high recently, and I hope (fingers crossed...) that the opportunities for me here will continue to grow. It reminds me of my relocation to New York City post-graduation from college ten years ago.

  • I am acutely aware of the converging economies of the US and China; and it is clear that this market will grow robustly over the next 50 years. It is also clear that it is under-served. China is not an easy place to live; but I wasn’t looking for easy. I knew all of the back story  going into this decision, and I am daily reminded of just how difficult it is to live and work here.  For entrepreneurs in China, we tease that we “I love it and I hate it”....which is to say that we feel neutrally pragmatic about it.  I’m lucky.  If September 11th, a blackout, two economic recessions,  and a fiercely competitive market in New York didn’t chew me up and spit me out, well then, hopefully my new digs won’t do so either.

  • I can be entrepreneurial here in manners inaccessible to me in the US economy.  Being a creative business in the West was getting more and more expensive for me, but here, I can put my expertise in visual communication and entrepreneurial strategy to ready use and it is met with great interest.  I’m an outlier.  My business interests are much more readily fueled by access to key meetings with top level individuals whom would not be available to me back home.  I am absorbing immense amounts of local knowledge daily and I am getting quicker and quicker on my feet in an economy that is elusive to foreigners.

  • Lastly, to seal the deal, was a terrific full-time Chinese Operations and Project Manager here; Gan Chao. She and I are not only great friends, we also work extremely well together. She is my eyes and ears to China. She is in every way the bridge link that many foreigners have and need to access the Chinese daily personal and work life.  Her can-do-it and aggressive attitude is rare in this marketplace. I believe we’re on to something in this market.

  • I’m now China’s Top Selling Stock Photographer, the only industry consultant with a core expertise for China, Director of the Young Photographer Alliance’s China Mentoring Program, an ASMP liaison to Asia, and more to come!
Glad I asked...thanks Shannon!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Under the Radar, Or In The Spotlight?

A speaker is bombarded with rotten eggs and vegetables in a stock photo about the risks of putting yourself out there!
Putting yourself in the spotlight has risks and rewards. In my experience the rewards have been much, much greater!"

Ideas, Techniques, Photos and Theft
Over the years I have met, more than a few photographers and artists who are afraid of people stealing their work, their ideas and their techniques. Some of them have refused to put their images online, some keep their images at ridiculously small sizes, and some won’t even show their work at all. I kid you not, I have known a handful of photographers who are “building their body of work” and are so afraid of someone stealing their ideas, style, whatever, that they have gone years without showing the work to anyone.

Playing It Close To The Vest
In a similar vein, there are a ton of photographers who jealously guard their models, their locations, and how they execute their work. I have heard of photographers who make their assistants sign non-disclosure statements! The first time I ever gave a presentation to a photography audience on how I was using Photoshop to create stock images, back in the early 90’s, a stock agency owner approached me afterwards and warned me that I was making a mistake in sharing what I was doing.
In fact, over the years there has been no shortage of people urging me to play my hand closer to my vest.

Copycat Fears and Best Selling Images
I can certainly understand those fears of revealing too much.  I can’t believe how blatantly people rip off other people’s images.  With the speed, at least on microstock sites, with which images can be online, I agree that copycat image-makers are a royal pain and no doubt have a significant negative fiscal impact as well. My fear of having my own images copied keeps me from sharing which of my images are best sellers.  The same fear nags at me every time I put another stock photo online…oh well.

Staying Under The Radar Isn’t The Answer
One thing I have learned over the last twenty years is that staying under the radar isn’t the answer. The courage to share your process (within reason), to get your work out in front of everyone, and to rise above those very reasonable fears of seeing your work, ideas and techniques stolen in so many ways, brings with it rewards that cannot be denied. Do you think the benefits Chase Jarvis gains from sharing his world online out-weighs the risks of being copied and the threat from competition that is enhanced by the information he doles out?

The Benefits of Sharing
In my own experience the benefits of sharing have been enormous. The rewards have ranged from free gear (I was once given a $45,000.00 Leaf Digital Back on the condition that I share my results with the camera at trade shows…duh!), to important contacts (in the long run more important than gear), free film, and all manner of opportunities. If I hadn’t been open to sharing I would never have been invited to join Blend Images as a founding partner…probably the biggest opportunity in my career. The latest reward for putting my work and ideas out there is in the form of traffic to my website that continues to increase weekly. Yes, I get ripped off all the time, but my rewards are definitely greater than my losses.

The Risk of Sharing
Of course, along with the risk of theft, putting yourself out there brings the chance of rejection, embarrassment and, of being ignored…ouch! I once fell off a stage while not paying attention to where my feet were taking me, have been corrected by the audience more than once while demonstrating Photoshop, and have had my share of rejection.  But again, the highs are way higher than the lows.

Expansion, Contraction and The Spotlight
Sharing your work, your process, your thoughts and opinions all help integrate you into the photography community. Sharing expands you; playing it close to the vest contracts you. Sharing is a path towards greater commercial success as well as the rewards of appreciation from individuals whose lives and careers you touch. So if you find yourself tempted to stay under the radar, let me suggest that being in the spot light, while sometimes uncomfortable, is a far better approach.