Strength in numbers - My experience with Inspire Photo Retreats

Kate-McElwee-IPR-Mon-132Image by the amazing Kate McElwee


Picture this - I'm in the car, driving home from my fourth year at the Inspire Photo Retreats.  Wait - what is Inspire?  Well, it's a photographer's conference but it's more than that.  It's a retreat, it's a networking event, and it’s a party!  Something I look forward to every February.  The first time I attended I was just entering my first serious year as a wedding photographer.  It was amazing.  The second year I went, it was much more than that.  The first year I knew no one, but when I returned home, my Facebook page blew up with friend requests.  My business started to grow and so did my connections with the New England photography community. So the second year was a time to let go, be vulnerable and really get down to business by working on myself and who I was as an artist.  My third year a miracle happened - I was accepted as a speaker!  I spoke about my personal work with autism photography and how it affected my business.  I also was a mentor to four photographers, and I think that was the most rewarding part.  I wasn't planning on attending this year, as I hadn’t allocated the funds or the time to speak. But a miracle happened again and a dear friend, Jocelyn Mathewes of Studio Mathewes gifted me her ticket. She had just had a baby and couldn't attend.  Knowing how much I wanted to go, she was kind & generous enough to give it to me.  Surprised?  Yes! But not really. Why? Because that is the kind of community that exists in photography in New England.  That's the kind of thing that happens at this amazing place called Inspire.

So back to I'm in the car driving home after my fourth Inspire and I'm streaming my dirty little secret, Howard Stern. He is interviewing Donovan.  If you don't know who Donovan is, sorry... click on his name cause you should know.  (He was a very famous musician from the 60's and 70s). Anyway, Donovan was talking to Howard about how musicians in the 60's helped each other.  They played on each other’s albums, and they inspired each other in ways that affect us today as we listen to their music.  He spoke about how Jimmy Page played on many of his songs for something like $25 bucks a session.  How they all would go and support one another as they played live all over Europe.  He talked about how he went to India with the Beatles, Joan Baez and many other important artists to meditate, become one with their consciousness and become closer as friends and colleagues. Donovan and these other artists defined a generation forever.  They inspired one another!  They worked with each other.  They stuck up and brought each other a long for the ride, so they could be in it together!  They changed history and the music business as a whole by standing together. Thinking of this, I asked myself, what would happen if photographers did the same thing? What if we stick together?

One thing I have learned is to try to never to be your own press but always be your biggest fan. Meaning it is so much more impressive for someone else to talk about you to another person than it is to talk about yourself. But it's hard to do that when you are an artist. Why?  Being an artist is difficult because you have no tangible way to show people how you're doing successfully. If you don't talk about yourself you sometimes feel like you're not marketing yourself well. Because otherwise how would anybody know? Well, retreats like Inspire let the connects happen organically, and by building community, you are building a fan base, a group of other artists who will help promote you.

As artists, there's very little (if any) room for failure.  If I was a lawyer, and messed up a case I would probably still have a job. Being a weatherman is probably the only job you can get wrong almost every time and still have a job. But not an artist! People don't see that as a real job. They think we putter around with paints or with the camera, or we dance for fun. I’ve found that anything involving the arts isn’t taken seriously. But believe me, it is a job. And artists are human. They can screw up from time to time. But during someone’s ONE wedding day, as a wedding photographer that can't happen. You need to hire an artist that skilled at his or her craft so that that doesn't happen. An artist that has spent thousands of hours honing their craft, making sure that they get all the mistakes out on their own time, not on your wedding day.

True story: I was on my first big album cover shoot in Los Angeles, photographing a group called People Under the Stairs for Urb Magazine. We met and scouted out a location. I loaded my Pentax 67 film camera. We shot a lot. But the energy between the three of us was just okay. I took the film to the lab got it back a couple days later and realize that I had underexposed the entire shoot & I freaked out. My best friend Dari told me the theory of how artists don't have room for any error. So I lied to the label & told them that the lab had messed up the film and I needed do a re-shoot. Luckily, they agreed. So I met the guys again and the vibe was much better and we had a blast. The images came out amazing, the label loved them and so did the artists. But what if I had told the label what really happened, would they have ever used me again? See - no room for error. I learned from my mistakes, but the one thing I was missing when I was a photographer in Los Angeles was that I had no support group. No peers to encourage me, to teach me, to help me technically or emotionally.

The photo business is becoming over saturated and we need to help each other. We need to stick to our pricing. We need to explain why we cost what we do. And we need to help each other get leads. We should be second shooting for one another. Inspire is the conference that photographers help and support each other. It allows us to cry with each other, share information, critique our work and be cheerleader for one another.

We cannot clap with just one hand. We are all partners in this biz. And we need to treat each other as such. Thank you Inspire for creating that.