The Day I Changed my Mind about Authentic Portraits (thanks, Seth.)
The Story starts in the Library, not the Photography Studio
I’ve been a great fan of keywords pretty much since forever. Long before my photographer and commercial portraits days, or even my adult days, I would spend hours in the library flipping through the card catalogues. I can remember the physical experience with startling clarity – the smell of oak and old cardstock, getting your finger caught in the curved drawer pull, the whump of a large stack of individual entries hitting the front of the drawer as you flipped through in your search for your perfect book – it was pretty cool, believe me.
Anyway. What’s important about that is that every card would have, at the bottom, a series of numbered words called subjects or subject headings, which categorized the book in any one of a number of ways based on the major topics covered in the book. These words were a key to finding books that aligned with your course of inquiry.
Key. Words. Keywords. Get it?
From the basic (Science, Art, Humanities, Archaeology, Cuisine) to the obscure (Chipmunks–Drama, Ontology of Holes, Biographies of Travel Agents), the subject headings were a gateway into a whole world of speculation, imagination, and occasionally actual pursuit of knowledge. Thanks to my obsession with the keyword, it has almost always broadened me, even as it sought to classify.
Flash forward to now, when keywords have become the way not only to find a book, but to find just about every thing else you might want or need on a daily basis. And as a result I find myself – as many of my clients do – searching for the perfect keywords to describe my commercial portrait photography business in the hopes of finding people whose livelihoods and lives can be changed by the photographs I take. For a while, I spoke from the heart about taking “authentic” portraits, saying that photographs showing your “authentic” self were the way into your client’s heart, that I’m great at doing that, and wow, look at how easy it all is! That keyword, I thought, summed it all up nicely. Authentic Photographs = Success.
“Authenticity is a Trap!” Seth said, with a confident smile that make me choke on my coffee a little. Say what now? He proceeded to explain:
“I don’t believe in authenticity, I believe authenticity is a trap, and here’s how I know it. If you need knee surgery, and you go to the surgeon and on operating day she says ‘yeah, I had a fight with my family and I don’t really feel like doing this…’ No! Just keep your promise, be consistent, do this for me. The drama in your head…not my problem. Be a professional. If you are a professional, make a promise and keep it.”
– Seth Godin, This is Marketing
I am photographing portraits of professional promise.
Reader, I didn’t panic. But I did step back. Maybe “showing the authentic” is not an accurate assessment of my goals as a taker of portraits that show business innovators at their best. Maybe, like Seth said, I am photographing their professional promise to their potential clients. The things they will give, consistently and confidently, that create abundance for the people who avail themselves of their talent, drive and expertise. That promise, yes, is authentic, but it is first and foremost a deep commitment. To quality. To professionalism. To making things better. To reaching out, and rising above, and showing up, even when it is hard.
A photograph of all that is so much more exciting than plain old authenticity, I think. And I know for a fact that a portrait of who you intend to be can set you on a course to embody every positive thing you believe about yourself. I’m going to prove that this theory is solid. Stay tuned.