Ten things I’ve learned from a decade of Freedom.
Twelve years ago, on a regular run of the mill day, I got up from my comfortable corporate cubicle in a swanky office tower and handed in my resignation letter. I’d had enough of paperwork and politics and was ready to trade in my suit for sneakers, swap my posh Jaguar for a beaten up Land Rover Defender. I had little clue about the direction I was heading in, but deep determination solves all issues. Big dreams and real action fuels success. I was on fire and itching for freedom!
I now find myself a decade on. I must have passed Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule yet this is an industry that’s never matures. It is ever vibrant, dynamic and evolving… and as a result, I’ve kept evolving. Some clients have stayed aboard and others have left the boat. That’s the name of the game, I guess. Out with the old, in with the new. I value building long lasting relationships with clients yet I also love the pursuit of new ones. I’m generally not wired to do more of the same… I thrive on challenging myself, always chasing the next rung on the ladder. It’s all about the hustle. I found a great quote recently: “The dream is free. The hustle is sold separately.” Which sums is up nicely.
So in order to celebrate my 12 years of hustling, I thought I’d write an honest reflection of the lessons learnt and insights gleamed. I guess I’m reaching out to the young guns here, those transitioning towards their dream job and those corporate dudes ready to turn their back on that office cubicle.
TEN THINGS I’ve learned over a decade of DOING SHIT I LOVE
- Focus on your passion and don’t chase the money
A question I’m often asked is how to get started. That’s a big question but at the core, I always refer to passion. Everyone has a personal interest at heart and everyone can shoot their subject way better than anyone else. So start within your comfort zone, borrow or rent some basic gear and start to build a strong portfolio or show reel around this. Funny things happen after this. Doors open!
Forget about chasing the money. We really do deliver our best work when doing something we’re really passionate about. That driving force feeds enthusiasm which feeds creativity that leads to amazing work. It’s a powerful cycle. The opposite is also true… when I’ve stepped into jobs that have either physically depleted me or where interest is lacking, my output has been below average. For this reason, I only do gigs that I’ll love working on. I know that’s easier said than done at times yet my core message shall always remain… focus on your passion and don’t chase the money.
- Outstanding work leads to awesome opportunities
I’ve had some amazing opportunities come my way, doors that opened completely out of the blue. Shooting my aerial book on Dubai for example. And a client flying me around the world to shoot celebs or creating a cool destination film around Luxor, Egypt. These were fantastic opportunities that resulted directly from previous (unrelated) assignments… assignments where I busted my ass to produce outstanding work.
Sometimes it takes a while to connect the dots, but then you get that call, “Hey Wouter, you know four years ago you did that PR stunt in the desert with golf pro’s Kaymer and Donalds? How about recreating that look, feel and energy with Margot Robbie?” You can’t engineer great gigs like these. The reason I was called in for the golf shoot back in 2010 was thanks to my being ‘the desert photography specialist’… this, a credit earned by shooting and producing books for the four editions of the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge. Shooting Margot Robbie in The Empty Quarter, led to assignments in Hong Kong, Shanghai, London, Moscow and Milan. This is just one of many examples of how delivering wow work plants seeds. It really is that simple. But don’t forget that seeds take time to grow and mature. You can’t always control your inflow of work but you can decide to only deliver outstanding work… the rest will come.
- What you talk about is what you get
So create a portfolio around the subject you’re passionate about. That’s where it starts. You then want to share it, whether through social media, your own site, another portal or even a pdf you send to your wish list of clients. This work becomes your identity. This is how people store you in their brains; the work you do, your style and how you work. With people, I mean your mum and dad, your friends, prospects, editors, marketing managers, decision makers… everyone who sees your work. They’re the ones talking about you and they push new work your way, so they need to sing the right song, right? Let’s say your passion is food. You love making visual art around food. You share this in the hope of getting work that allows you to do more food projects. Those around you only know you as the food creative so logically word of mouth heads in the right direction. When the phone rings, it’s a job right down your alley.
Having said that, at the beginning, you do need to keep it real so if you get a call to work on something different (or not your specialty) in exchange for cold, hard cash, don’t necessarily turn it down because it deviates from your passion. If it’s a decent gig, think about how you might use it to grow and pay for new gear… take the job, deliver great work (no shortcuts), pocket the cash and then make little or no noise. We’ve all done this. Just stay low profile about it.
Now what if that work grows? You now need to think about some long-term implications. Cash may motivate but doesn’t rule all. How important is taking the gig versus spending your time promoting the area where your passion really lies? If you take the job, do you confuse your audience? One way to minimize confusion is to ensure your online presence is only filled with the work you’re passionate about. Where your energy goes, your focus goes. Again what you talk about is what you get.
- Personal work is powerful
Big clients or brands rarely book you to do a project that allows you to experiment with anything new. Why? Because the bigger the production, the more clients and different agencies get involved and all too often, decision makers want to play it safe. It’s a game of risk management. So don’t bet on the call for an experimental gig. Instead, go out and create those opportunities yourself. This is what I call personal work. No clients, no brief, just collaboration with amazing people and the freedom to explore. I love my personal work. It allows me to experiment with new gear, build relationships and strengthen my portfolio. I sometimes do it to support an agency pitch or sponsorship proposal. It definitely helps when knocking on doors, with the aim of producing similar (and paid) work for clients. Forget fake it till you make it. Rather, create it to promote it.
Doing personal work should be fun and stretch you both creatively and technically. It calls for high energy and laughter on set. For those on the other side of the lens, it helps them build some nice visual content and tell stories of their own. My ‘Project Pause’ and ‘The Curiosity Film Series’ are personal projects where I share interesting stories. Project Pause is about inspiring people to spend more time in nature, away from the digital rat race we life in. Curiosity Series is about creating short films allowing interesting people to voice their stories and share their passions. I’ve no clear plan on where they’ll lead to, but I really enjoy the process and it feels like the right content to produce.
- Be fair in business and with people
What is your driving force to get up every morning? For me, it’s about creating impact and value, to produce art and share stories that move people. And I’m blessed to make a good living doing this. Yes … we should make a living from the skills we offer in exchange for a fee that is fair. Value your work. Your art should come with a price tag. Quality clients understand that. How much you charge is up to you but consider the product you offer and its market value. Don’t compete on price but rather compete with unique work, your style, your vision and how you deal with people. Again, quality clients appreciate that. Over the years, my fees have increased as productions got bigger and artwork more complex. Some clients have stayed on board, others haven’t. I would far rather lose clients due to my fees rather than poor delivery and if budget is a real struggle, I’d rather do a gig for free and work on my own terms than come in crazy cheap and be at the client’s mercy. Chase Jarvis wrote an interesting post here about decision making… how to validate (new) work by using three criteria, of which at least two need to be matched. It’s a good read.
I’m a big believer in teamwork. Productions can get insanely tough with long days, tight deadlines, chasing best light and hauling tons of gear around. The bigger the production, the bigger the crew. Amongst all that chaos, be fair with your team and look after them. Smiley faces, hydrated bodies and filled bellies still work the best… Perhaps this is a good opportunity to thank all the amazing heroes I’ve worked with over the years… You’re awesome.
- Connect with people not brands
As a creative, you have relationships with people not brands. Someone who says I do work for brand X actually says I have a relationship with someone at that brand, so that relationship is sacred. Look after them. You’re not married to a brand, you’re in a relationship with someone who represents that brand and gives you the opportunity to collaborate and have fun with it.
When that person leaves the company, so does your ongoing work with them and you have to re-apply with his/her replacement. Having a strong brand history helps but is no guarantee for future work. The new person might bring in someone he already has a relationship with, he might have a totally different vision and your style simply doesn’t match. Anything can happen so your best bet is to present your work, share that you’re keen to explore new ideas, discover his philosophy and take things from there. People come and go. So do brands. If all goes well, you stay with the brand and you’ll transition with the departing person in his or her new role and start collaborating with their new brand too. That’s a great way to organically grow your network and client base.
Pro actively reach out to those you want to work for and build relationships with marketing people, art directors, creative directors, brand managers and editors. Try to book in facetime with them and present your work. Don’t forget that there are 10’s or 100’s of others also knocking on their doors but if you’re hungry enough and bang the door for long enough, they do open…
- Curiosity rocks
Be curious about life. Travel the world, discover new places, immerse yourself in nature and breathe in fresh mountain air. Keep developing professionally. Grow personally and spiritually. Break old habits and seek new patterns. Curiosity keeps your fire going. It’s the fuel that get’s you out of bed at 4am to create magic.
Travel is my greatest source of curiosity and I’m fortunate that I get to travel for gigs. A particular favourite was a gig in Hong Kong to recreate a British Airways vintage poster in celebration of 80 years of Asia flights. We shot David Gandy on a jam-packed corner near a busy night market, where the backdrop of neon lights just framed perfectly. With a crew of 20 and just thirty minutes to shoot four options, I suspect we fed the curiosity of the on looking crowd too!
Another favourite was right here in Dubai. I’ve lived here a long time but rarely venture to the historical part of town, to the old souks and the vibrant areas around the creek. A few years ago, I wanted to experience true Old Dubai so I booked myself into a heritage hotel on the creek for three days. Just me and an old Hasselblad, with no brief other than to wander from sunrise to sunset and long after. I just wanted to be present and feel the energy around me, without rush or urgency. To feed my curiosity! I would encourage everyone to experience their home town as a five year old child. Big eyes, lots of questions and a great sense of wonder.
Feeding your curiosity goes hand in hand with making a commitment to never stop learning. Here in Dubai, you have Gulf Photo Plus, which is a great photography community, and online, Creative Live, which has tons of content. I‘m also a big fan of podcasts. I follow Rich Roll and Lewis Howes’ School of Greatness but there are many many more. I listen to them during downtime, especially during long commutes.
- You are a brand
Building a business and a brand takes time. Twelve years ago, I (foolishly) started my brand as Orange Expressions, partly to shy away from using my own name and being insecure about what I would deliver. I quickly re-branded into Wouter Kingma Productions (adding productions gave me the baggage to go after bigger gigs and book productions). Now my brand is just my name, Wouter Kingma. Clients book me for my style and what I have produced based on my portfolio. If you’re a creative, your brand is YOU so I think your brand should be your name.
Get a website and only upload your best work and the work you love to do more of. Your online presence should only feature the stuff you really want to do. I seek help from the team at Wonderful Machine, who help me select what goes online. It’s good to get feedback from fresh eyes. When it comes to social media, ensure you only post value, I repeat only post value. Don’t join the crowd of junk, fake and useless content that clutters cyber space. Instead be real, be inspiring and be yourself.
Making noise about your work is a must. That’s how you get recognized and book new business. How and where to share stories is different for everyone. I’m perhaps a little old school writing my own blog, but over the years it has become my diary of sorts. It’s filled with real life experiences, my best work and behind the scenes videos and as it’s a blog rather than a social media channel, I own the content. I work with an amazing copy editor Tori, who turns my jagged words into words that flow. I often pull out posts to share with prospects… a handful of images, a video and a short captivating write up about what happened on set sells much better than a few jpgs at the end of an email. The blog also feeds my newsletter and the work I do in my Canon ambassador role.
- Surround yourself with creative brilliance
Success is a team sport and becoming who you are, is a collaborative journey. No one makes it alone so surround yourself with the best creative people you can afford. This applies equally to the established brands and the fresh ones. Sure, when you start out, affordability is an issue, but bear in mind that some work for cash, some just for love and others will put in their time in exchange for something you can offer them. When it comes to meeting new creatives, it pays to attend regular gatherings, art shows, agency awards and talks. They can, at times, be hit or miss but they’re often a great place to source drive and contagious energy.
How I see it, every single day, we start with a fresh jar of energy, one jar with no refills. We all choose how to spend it so we need to be wise and spend it on the good stuff. If we surround ourselves with positive people who creatively inspire us, we have the right mindset to make the right decisions. So, pick the people around you wisely.
Surround yourself with inspiring work as well. I have a folder on my desktop called ‘creative by others’ and every time I see something that moves me, I screen grab it to add to this folder. It’s now full of stunning photographs, ad’s, artwork, quotes, interesting video’s, cool fonts, case studies, unique locations, brand books, strong design, articles and short captions. I go back to when I’m stuck with a brief or pitching for a new project. Follow in Picasso’s footsteps, who said, ‘Good artists copy… great artists steal’ so seek inspiration from others then build from it and twist it into your own.
- Only Karma. Trust the process and believe in yourself
People land on your path at the right time. Phones ring and emails ping when you’re ready. Life unfolds just as intended. When I speak about this to my age groupers… the 40ish kids amongst us… they get it… so to the Millennials out there, just be cool about the journey you’re on. Everyday, people cross our paths and valuable lessons land on our laps for a reason.
It’s taken me a lifetime (or at least the recent dozen years) to be where I am today, comfortable with what I do with a body of work I’m proud off. Being a self taught photographer and filmmaker comes down to vision, dedication and believing in yourself. If I can do it, so can you. So please, quit the mundane and follow your heart. We’re surrounded by people addicted to their comfort zone, where not much happens… Precious time just slips away like water through your fingers. What might seem a giant leap isn’t as intimidating as it seems. It’s up to you to make it an exciting new chapter… bumpy at times, no doubt, but thrilling nonetheless.
I hope these words have planted seeds in those dreaming in their corporate cubicle. Feel free to follow my sporadic blog and irregular newsletters. Through the soon to launch Canon Academy, I’ll be running classes on making the big leap and following your dreams as well as some advanced tech stuff. Announcements will be made on Instagram.