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Insights from Another World: Jason Gardner

ASMP members talk about how their previous careers led them to a life behind the lens.

ASMP: Please describe your first career path. In what capacity did you work and for how long did you do this?

Jason Gardner: I was a marketing and sales person for Internet companies, mostly startup service-based companies (ISP and Web developer). I did this for about 4 years. I got to a Director level, managing a small team of reps. It was an exciting time (mid-90s) but at some point I was unfulfilled.

All photographs in this article © Jason Gardner

ASMP: For how long have you had an interest in photography? Did you study photography formally or are you self-taught?

JG: Since high school. I studied it one year in high school and took a few short workshops at ICP and SVA, but I am mostly self-taught.

ASMP: What made you decide to take the leap, leave your first career and pursue photography as a business? Did you make any specific business arrangements to address the risk of going out on your own?

JG: Traveling was my first love and gateway into photography. I took a round-the-world trip after leaving the Internet jobs, and my initial plan was to be away for about 3-4 months. I ended up living and working overseas for 2 years. When I returned to New York, I started looking at my landscape and travel photography and realized that was what I wanted to pursue.

ASMP: What would you say was your strongest attribute in your first career path? What is your strongest attribute as a photographer?

JG: I learned how to hustle and how to work hard to get meetings and get noticed. This helped me in playing the game of contacting people and getting in front of them. My strongest attribute as a photographer is not getting noticed, blending in the background when I need to work in that way, or covering an event in a non-intrusive manner.

ASMP: Are there particular skills or contacts from your first career that have been especially helpful or have set you apart in pursuing your photography business?

JG: The skills I still rely on are my focus on customer service and the ability to manage the communication and expectations of clients. That and having a good marketing sense, having an idea of the communication goals of the images I create and the audience that will be viewing them, has helped to build a strong foundation for my photography work.

ASMP: In your current photography business how much do you depend on the contacts cultivated through your first career? What methods have you used to cultivate new clientele?

JG: Some, although now a lot less then when I started. A contact is a contact, and at first it was a struggle to transition them, but as more of my contacts saw how my passion for photography grew into a business, they accepted it and started to contact me for work. For new clients, it’s been mostly word of mouth and being on the scene and meeting new people all the time in many environments.

ASMP: Did your first career prepare you for negotiating contracts or image licensing? If so, are there particular strategies you learned then that have been helpful in your current business?

JG: No, my first career didn’t really prepare me for licensing, nor negotiating.

ASMP: What was the most significant investment you made in setting up your photography business? In hindsight, would you do anything differently in establishing yourself if you had it to do over again?

JG: My most significant investment was in my personal work, and specifically my project in one area of Brazil, having visited there four times in the past five years. While the financial burdens were difficult, I did get some rewards. The work has resulted in photos published in Rolling Stone, articles in the world music magazine Global Rhythm, assignments with Associated Press, a photo license contract with Putumayo Records and an exhibit sponsored by the Brazilian Consulate in New York.

In hindsight, I should have gotten out there earlier with my work.

ASMP: Were you aware of any particular support services or specialized training from your first career that you have availed yourself of in establishing your photography business?

JG: No

ASMP: Have you taken advantage of real world opportunities for education, mentoring or assisting (distinct from opportunities through academic institutions) in jump-starting your career?

JG: The only way I’ve been educated is in the real world. I started by contacting anyone I knew who knew any good photographers. I basically cold-called them and asked to be their intern, which was tough as I was competing with kids 8-10 years younger than myself out of school. Eventually I connected with a few photographers who took me in, one day a week, and I started getting more knowledge, feedback on my work and some informal mentoring.

ASMP: What has been the biggest challenge in making the transition from your first career?

JG: I’ve been freelance this whole time, so obviously the income swings are pretty wild. But I’d say the biggest challenge is that developing your photography career is somewhat non-linear, compared to my first career. There is not just one or a few obvious things to do, there’s no one clear path like in the corporate / marketing world.

ASMP: Is there any one thing you find to be most difficult about running a photography business?

JG: The combination of technology, creativity, business systems (accounting, accts payable / receivable, record keeping, file management), and other areas, where each area could be a full time job, sometimes results in me focusing on one or two areas to the detriment of the others. I’ve fallen into the classic problem of getting a bunch of work and then not having the time to pursue new work, so when it’s over I’m back to square one.

ASMP: Can you identify specific lessons learned from your first career that members who have spent their entire careers as independent photographers might not be aware of or lack?

JG: Take the long view with any relationship you have the opportunity to build, because that is the most valuable and intangible asset you can build — those contacts you know to call and rely on in a time of need.

ASMP: Looking at the photography marketplace through the filter of your experience from the other side of the table, are there any particular skills or behaviors that you feel are most lacking from other independent photographers?

JG: Clear communication (written and/or verbal), account management, and marketing.

ASMP: What is the most important thing you hope to accomplish as a photographer? Where do you see your career in three years time?

JG: To tell stories that are true to the people, culture and places I try to document, and to have that reach a wide audience, and change the conversation about what is valuable to a society. I see myself doing more long-form documentary and editorial work.

ASMP: Is there anything about your transition to photography from a past career not addressed in the previous questions that you’d like to point out?

JG: One of the best things that has helped me grow my business has been a regular communication with everyone. Right now it’s an e-mail update that’s sent out every month or two that tells people I know about my recent projects. I will eventually transition this to a blog. It’s helped to generate referrals and to stay in front of people. Even if it’s friends whom I haven’t seen in a few months, they are up-to-date with recent photo shoots so when I catch up with them it’s more of a conversation piece than having them ask me what I’ve been up to.

I also loved the ASMP’s SB2 Conference, as I was able to finally see the convergence of the business of photography with the creative/fun aspects, which is of course why I chose this career path in the first place.