ASMP — American Society of Media Photographers

Board Members Give Back: Working with Celebrities

Before becoming an ASMP Board Member and Photographer/Director, Michael Weschler originally started his career in the arts studying architecture, but the spontaneous nature of photography was what always struck a nerve. He used it as a tool for achieving better drawings and recognized its significant contribution to the bigger picture. He realized he was unique in his ability to combine the use of light and space with his love of creative collaboration and connecting with people. As a kid he was always able to make portraits of his friends to tell their story. The work he later did with the LA Times, NYTimes and national magazines naturally led to him being given access to higher profile personalities. He has found his niche capturing people in spaces. His story will prepare other photographers for the pressure of the spotlight and help them resist intimidation and become more confident.

Getting Comfortable

Michael will tell you that by the time he was the guy holding the camera on a big shoot he had done enough assisting for publications like Rolling Stone and GQ that he had moved beyond being star struck. “Eventually, every photographer is going to be confronted with a subject who may or may not be famous – but has a large ego, like some CEO’s for example. I’ve learned to check mine at the door and just treat them with respect and connect with them as regular people” says Weschler. He will tell you that making a fuss is the worst thing you can do. The photographer’s job is to help the subject (and their entourage) be as comfortable as possible.

“I don’t attack them with the camera right away. People react to the lens in their face and then they aren’t themselves” says Weschler. His advice is to walk up, shake the person’s hand, treat them with respect and start talking about regular stuff. With Richard Gere, a photography buff, it was lighting. Sometimes it’s a mutual friend or a mutual interest. Many famous people, especially actors, are uncomfortable with still photography as they tend to hide behind the characters they are playing and are reluctant to give you who they are. The photographer can help by letting the subject know they are in a safe place.

He’s also aware that until they get to know you, famous people will be wary of your intentions. When you walk into a shoot, people may or may not know your work, and certainly don’t want to be captured in an unflattering way. “I’ve never been a paparazzi and ‘taken’ a picture. I’ve always been invited to make it. This is a fine line that you don’t cross. And if you do, the publicist or the publication will react and you won’t get access to high profile people anymore” says Weschler.

Weschler confided that the person he “dorked out” on the most was Ken Burns which ended up being ok because it helped Ken relax.

Gaining Confidence

When you are first starting out, people will try to take over until you demonstrate that you’ve got a plan and good ideas. Understand that the role of the publicist is to influence a project in the best interest of their client so they might be resistant or have different ideas they want to try. One strategy that Weschler has used when working with a new client is to expect a ‘no’ out of the gate. He’ll save his best idea for later in a shoot and start out suggesting something a bit “outlandish” at first. So when people say no to his first idea, he’s got another idea up his sleeve that’s easier for them to say yes to.

Weschler has learned to trust his inner voice. “I don’t go in with my own agenda that will override anyone else. I will always capture what they want and then make my suggestion. Then everyone gets what they want. You can’t hesitate or be insecure or you’ll get steamrolled” says Weschler. After getting a few good suggestions under your belt, your confidence will increase as will the confidence of those around you.

Being Prepared

Weschler says “As soon as you can, you have to learn how to do a five minute portrait”. Sometimes that’s all you will get with a busy subject. He takes nothing for granted. Everything is set up in advance so the subject can just walk onto the set and he can go to work. Weschler uses a stand-in to check lighting and usually has three or four ideas pre-lit in anticipation of the first no.

He always creates his own “natural” light so nothing changes before the subject walks in. If a shoot requires three lights, he’ll bring five. You can’t be late – ever. Have backup power. You have to anticipate as many issues as possible but when something does go wrong, you have to remain calm and be resourceful. “Once I had to build a tripod out of a stack of books and use window light for a shoot because my luggage didn’t arrive” says Weschler.

Working with an Agent

Agents provide support for the business end of the transaction so the photographer can focus more on fulfilling the creative role. While at the start of his career, with a portfolio of mostly fine art and editorial work, Weschler joined a new agency in Los Angeles with a small roster of photographers. He is now represented by WSW Creative in New York and Chicago, expanding his commercial marketability.

While there’s sometimes a large amount of money to be spent on a campaign, the photography budget is often just a portion of a large media buy. In his proposals, he always makes a distinction between the creative fee and the usage fee because the creative ideas are what get you hired. It’s important that you know your value and can articulate it. It’s also important to understand all aspects of the business side of a project and over-deliver to your clients.

”Now that the technical stuff is mostly taken care of with digital equipment, it really is about what you will do creatively for a client as well as your relationships with art buyers. There is so much nuance and subjectivity embedded in visual messaging. When we get a creative brief from an ad agency, I’ll respond with a five or six page treatment, explaining my vision. That goes alongside our estimate that my agent has mostly worked on, but we all have to be in alignment. So, when the project is awarded to us, there’s all this built in trust” says Weschler.

Many of the larger ad agencies won’t hire a photographer if they don’t have an agent; the rationale being that the photographer has been vetted by the agent and their production company. If you don’t have an agent and are competing for business that might require one, Weschler suggests contacting an agent and asking them to represent you in exchange for a percentage of the project fee. Photographer agents expect you to be marketable with a signature style and have your own roster of clients. While there are many benefits to having a team representing you that allows you to focus on the creative, keep in mind that your higher profile could cause some of the smaller projects to go away.

Weschler’s Tips for Successfully Working with Celebrities

  1. Be yourself
  2. Assist on large shoots to gain confidence and make connections
  3. Trust your inner voice and advocate for your ideas in a respectful way
  4. Anticipate what can go wrong and have a contingency plan ready
  5. Be able to articulate your creative value
  6. Never steal a picture – your reputation depends on it

Michael Weschler can be found at michaelweschler.com. Media and images ©Michael Weschler Photography.

If this article was of interest to you, check out some of the other articles in the Board Members Give Back series.

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