Friday, October 06, 2006

Papa's Talk

John has been invited to give a talk to members of the Wedding and Portrait Photographers of the Philippines (WPPP) tomorrow. Since he is neither a wedding nor a portrait photographer, he suggested that his talk should be on "Passion and Profit."

He gave me a one-page draft, which I fleshed out. He won't memorize it - he just needs to go through a finished "speech" and then he'd adlib as he delivers it.

He has not read this draft yet, so he may disagree with some of the points raised here, or the way they were presented.

Here's his proposed talk on Passion and Profit:

Passion and Profit
by John K. Chua

This afternoon, I am not here to convince you to be an advertising photographer - we have enough trouble among ourselves. You are better off where you are right now – as portrait and wedding photographers. All cash and no credit… pag sineswerte ka pa - pag naghiwalay ang mag-sweethearts, pag hindi tuloy ang kasal - keep pa ninyo ang deposito. Correct?

Instead, I am here to talk to you about Passion and Profit, and I hope to lead you to look into yourselves for answers to three questions that hopefully will keep you passionate about photography, as well as bring you profits from photography.

Passion and Profit - this is the slogan of PhaseOne, the company that makes the digital backs that I use, but it could very well be every photographer’s slogan.

There are three groups of people here – those with passion for photography but no profits yet, please raise your hands. Those with profits but no passion – maybe sawa na? May I see your hands? And those who have succeeded in combining passion and profit? Hands up please?

Passion and Profit - nice to hear, di ba? Pero sa totoo lang - passion muna bago profit, and then hopefully later, they go together. Sometimes, matagal ka munang magpapasyon bago ka magka-profit.

How many of you started photography as a hobby and later you became a professional? How many of you started it as a business first – maybe minana ninyo, and only later did you learn to be passionate about photography?

There are three questions that we will try to answer today.

First Question: Is this your passion?

How do you know that photography is your passion? Simple. If this is what you’d rather do more than anything else, then it’s your passion. When you would rather do photography than eat or sleep, then photography is your passion. When you don’t even care if you got paid or not, then it is your passion.

Most of us started as hobbyists, and I am no exception. Without my brother-in-law knowing it, I “borrowed” his camera and started shooting anything and everything in my line of sight.

I was fascinated by the fact that I could forever capture certain moments. I spent all my money on rolls and rolls of films. I practiced controlling all the moving parts of the camera, until I could feel that the camera was part of me.

My first break was having a photo of a cat published in Asia Magazine, in the Photo of the Week section. Harvey, my girlfriend at that time, now my wife, encouraged me to send more photos to that magazine. The editor decided to run an article about me, entitled “The Magic Eye of John Chua.” I knew then that my life would change forever. I would be a photographer, and I would do everything to be a good one. That’s passion.

I love to shoot, and I like to discover new things and places. In 1970, my passion took me to the mountains of Ifugao, and I learned to do documentary photography. For many years, in-between advertising jobs in Metro Manila, I was passionate about learning the Ifugao way of life -their culture and traditions. I had my first one-man show in 1978 and it was, as expected, on the people of the Cordillera Mountains. Just to get to Banaue every weekend, I would volunteer as a tour-guide for Pantranco Tours. Absolutely no pay. I also volunteered to organize festivals of ethnic games festivals for the Ifugaos. Still no pay. I still go there whenever I can, and until now I continue to fall in love with the mountain people and their terraces. That’s passion.

My other passion is flying. For various reasons – like poor eyesight and no money, I could not be a pilot when I was younger. But when I was 48, I discovered that I could fly – not the regular planes, but an ultralight. Everyday, I would wake up at 5am, spend four hours driving from Manila to Pampanga and back, just to have a 30-minute flying lesson. I would be back in the studio by 9am, ready to greet my client. It was a fantastic experience, fulfilling a boyhood dream to fly. When I turned 50, I flew cross-country on an ultralight, and held my second photo exhibit – that time on Aerial Photography - at the Glorietta.

But, all that I have shared with you so far has been about passion. Let’s get to the profit part.

Since passion alone will not put food on the table, or pay your children’s tuition, you have to find a way to turn your passion into profit, and so we come to the

Second question: How do you turn your passion into profit?

When I was just a hobbyist, Harvey used to complain about the high cost of photo equipment and supplies.

She suggested that we worked together as travel writer and photographer. She would write and I would take pictures, and we would sell the articles to magazines. So we approached Sunday Times Magazine and asked how much they would pay for a travel article on the Moriones Festival. (we were really planning to go there with some friends). The magazine editor said – P100.00 for the article and photos and you take care of all expenses. We didn’t need a calculator (wala pang calculators then, only adding machines and abacus) to know that lugi ‘yon. So we junked the idea of travel photography and looked for something else.

Do you know that there was a time that I contemplated going into wedding photography? I know there’s more money in wedding than in advertising. I didn’t go into it for two reasons. One - I had only bad experiences when I was just starting. A friend of mine asked me to shoot his wedding. During that time, the camera was very sophisticated equipment. It had M or X sync. So I put my flash unit on M and guess what happened. Nothing came out. No Images. No friend, either. At another time, also at a friend’s wedding, I dropped my lens. I felt so bad that I left the wedding. I lost another friend. That must have been a sign for me not to go into wedding photography. Another big reason is that I don’t feel comfortable wearing a barong or a suit, and if only for that reason, I am, today, not one of your competitors.

So, I went into commercial photography. I did car insurance shots and photo coverages. I was the best car insurance photographer in town- I could make car dents bigger than the actual damage. They loved me for that.

We did not have any equipment. I remember that my wife would brag to the ad agencies that she visited that I was good at available lights- to hide the fact that we had no lights. I shot my first food set up for a food company – Pork Adobo - under the noontime sun with side reflector. How crude my set up was. Of course I also remember how cheaply they paid us.

As we moved up and began acquiring better clients, we had to improve our equipment. To do certain jobs, I would be borrowing lenses and cameras from friends and Harvey hated borrowing things – she still does - so she would save every peso we earned and invested in the equipment we needed.

At this point, let me remind you, passionate photographers are rarely good businessmen. It takes a good partner to have a successful business. Better still, a wife to run the business. I worked very hard, but Harvey managed the business. I owe her for turning my passion into profit.

There are many things to learn about the business of photography, and my wife is probably the better speaker on this topic. Nevertheless, let me share a few pointers with you:

1. The difference between a hobbyist and professional photographer is not the level of talent or skill. Sometimes, hobbyists can be better photographers. But a hobbyist produces great images when he is in the mood, while a professional has to, whether he is in the mood or not. When you go into professional photography, you are going into photography on demand, and the quality of images and services must be consistently high. So before you turn pro, ask yourself if you would still want to do photography day after day, even when you are not in the mood.

2. The business of photography is a very wide, open field – with lots of landmines, so be prepared to get out of it alive. What are the pitfalls out there?

a. Most clients and customers have little or no respect for photographers. Have you ever been called “pssst” by people who want you to take their pictures?

How to raise respectability for photographers and yourself?

Remember that nobody will respect you unless you respect yourself first. Dress well and act well. You don’t have to be rude to point out the behaviors, or the terms in the contract, that are not acceptable to you. Don’t accept crappy treatment. Stand up for your rights. This means not accepting crappy payment either, because rightly or wrongly, people look at us with respect on the same scale as how much they pay us.

b. Competitors with no ethics. They will try to kill you by spreading all sorts of rumors about you.

How do you counteract this? Keep your own actions and words above board. Have a strict code of ethics and resist the temptation to bring yourself down to their levels. Also, follow the saying, “keep your friends (and may I say, customers) close, and your enemies closer.” Call on your clients frequently and mingle with your fellow photographers regularly.

c. An expensive, ever-changing technology. Watch out for temptations to buy new gadgets to keep up with the Joneses. One of our banker-friends advised us to “Keep on the leading, not bleeding, side of technology.” Control your impulse to buy. Do some pencil pushing before you do.

3. A final pointer - when the money starts to come in, you need to learn how to manage that money, or it will leave you. The only way that you can manage is to keep records, and to analyze them so you can find the best way to price your services, how much money to spend on your equipment, facilities and staff etc. Run a tight ship. Enroll in seminars called “Accounting for Non-Accountants.” Know where you are losing money, whether it’s funds already in or lost opportunities. Raise your skills and improve your services so you can charge more.

I’m not the expert on the business of photography, my wife is, so let me leave that to go to the third question:

Third Question: How do you keep the passion, year after year?

Now, I have been an advertising photographer for more than 33 years, and while it has been mostly going up for the business, my own feelings about photography may rise and wane like the moon. Sometimes, I am just burnt out. So how do I keep myself passionate about photography?

Once, after weeks of long hours at work, tight deadlines and demanding clients, I declared to my wife that I was tired of doing photography. I told her that I wanted to quit. Nonchalantly, she said. “Sure, John. Anything you say.” Then she added, “Remember that I told you that we are in this business because you love photography; that there are easier ways to earn a living and that we would quit the business anytime that you are no longer in love with photography. So, just tell me, what would you now rather be?”

And, of course, I was stumped. I didn’t know anything else that I wanted to do or to be than being a photographer. I love photography. It’s not photography that was causing all the negative feelings – it was all the other issues – deadlines; pressures; sometimes, incompetent staff or faulty equipment. After we addressed them, I was happier doing photography again.

So, let me share with you some pointers on how to keep the fire for photography burning in your heart and in your belly:

1. Take creative breaks. Break your routines. Do something else, every now and then. Rest when you need to. Holiday once in a while.

2. Fix the other issues that wear you down.

3. Sharpen your saw. Attend seminars and workshops. Read books. Attend conventions. Listen to other photographers.

4. Learn a new skill – like Photoshop. Recently, I learned how to join web forums and write emails. One of these days, I will learn to blog.

5. Push your limits. Raise the bar. Give yourself a challenge – whether that’s in terms of photographic skills or business acumen. Or do a photo exhibit.

6. Use your photography, or resources earned from photography, to support your personal advocacy.

I am 58 years old, probably the oldest young advertising photographer around. Do I still have passion? Of course!

I would like to offer you the fruit of my passion for photography.

The re-development of R Hidalgo as a Photographers’ Haven was inaugurated the other day. Just four months ago, it was crowded and no longer attractive to many photographers. But I had a dream, a vision. What I saw in my mind’s eye was R. Hidalgo as a place or haven for Filipino photographers –where aspiring photographers can buy equipment at reasonable prices; where photographers can exhibit their works; where you can have all digital camera service centers located in one area; where new products can be launched; and most of all, where young and old photographers can spend time over a cup of coffee, sharing experiences in photography and renewing each other’s passion.

That dream is now a reality. As I end this talk, I would like to extend my invitation for you to visit R. Hidalgo. Go there and enliven your passion.

Thank you very much for listening and giving me the opportunity to share my passion for photography with you.

Show visuals:

John 2006 Folio
Shots of R Hidalgo
Behind the scenes at our studio