This week’s Questions with a Pro features, Eric Politzer.
Eric is a Los Angeles-based editorial portrait photographer, who focuses his work around music, dance, fitness, hospitality and higher education. He has worked closely with non-profit organizations to give voice to those who would not normally have one. Here, Eric speaks to how he gives voice to individuals through his photography, how he handles stress in the industry, and his thoughts on the future of photography.
We asked: Please describe how your work gives a voice to those who do not usually have one. How did you figure out that this is what you wanted your work to focus on?
Eric said: I came to professional photography a bit later in life, having worked previously for about 20 years in a variety of management roles for community based, non-profit, social service organizations. Whatever my title may have been at a given time, the one constant thread was that I was an advocate – for the clients we served, for my staff, and for the communities we represented. My job always was to make sure that everyone I encountered was able to have their personal story told – either by creating the opportunity to speak for themselves or by being entrusted to being a vehicle for them. When I turned to photography professionally, my purpose was to continue to work with many of these same communities; and to have my work driven as much as possible by a form of story telling in which I am there to help the subjects be seen in a way that they had not been depicted before or in a way in which they had wanted to be represented. My work is fundamentally collaborative with my subjects: I spend as much time as I can building a trust with them, and I treat every subject with the same type of respect and sensitivity as I formerly would have with a client in need.
We asked: How do you typically choose to take risks in the industry? Give an example of a risk that paid off?
Eric said: At the, uh, risk of sounding dramatic, I believe that anyone trying to make a successful career as a full time photographer these days is already taking a big risk. I remember one of my first teachers, a very esteemed photographer, sharing at a workshop that there is not a day he wakes up not doubting himself and wondering where the next job is going to come from. So I salute everyone who continues to follow their passion and grind it out day after day. Perhaps the greatest risk I have taken choosing to be a generalist, instead of picking a specialty that might have afforded more reliable and profitable work. But this has given me the freedom to shoot in a wide range of fields and to have the flexibility to approach each shoot in the moment and on its own terms without the constraints of what the industry expectations for a particular speciality might be.
An example of how this has benefitted me is my work in Cuba. After doing a 3-year project on the transgender and female impersonator performers in the gay cabarets of Havana, I used my support system there to gain unique access that allowed me to do a multi-year project on the legends of Cuban baseball. These projects were noticed by the Cuban National Ballet, which engaged me and my Cuban colleague, Ramsés H. Batista, for the last three years to do major exhibitions for their anniversary celebrations and festival openings.
We asked: How do you ensure that you have enough time for personal work? What does this personal work do for your business as a whole?
Eric said: I remember in the first few years as a photographer, I thought that engaging in personal projects meant engaging in large-scale projects. The prevailing wisdom was that within an industry that was becoming more saturated and competitive by the day, it was critical to do personal projects that would allow you to stand out in the crowd. And I bought into the mindset that most, if not all, of your personal projects should be in the service of developing your brand, your style, and your place in the market. Accordingly, I dedicated a large amount of time to personal projects. Although I no longer have the luxury of doing larger immersive projects, I still believe that any down time within my regular work schedule should involve shooting, especially types of subjects or topics that are not within my comfort zone. I now believe that personal projects really should benefit artistic growth more than brand enhancement. The latter will follow if your areas of interest and artistic skills continue to stay fresh.
We asked: How do you cope with stress in the industry? Do you have any tips and tricks for other photographers working through stress?
Eric said: I believe that it essential that you continue to live all other areas of your life to their fullest with the time that is not dedicated to work. And the first step to that end is to establish clear and realistic boundaries for how much you will work—and when you actually work. Pursuing your other passions and interests allows for physical and mental stress relief, and those other activities also will often generate ideas for what kind of projects you want to take on, as well as influence how you interact with your subjects in the future. Also, I think it is vital to have some kind of professional network, no matter how small, with whom you can debrief on a regular basis. This helps to keep you form feeling isolated or from believing that you are the only one dealing with these kinds of stressors.
We asked: What are your thoughts on the future of the industry? Where is it headed? What are some challenges you foresee?
Eric said: Ah, the subject of so many articles, books and conferences!! Clearly the industry is changing at a speed never seen before. I truly wonder if still photography will continue to be a freestanding industry as we know it at some point in the future. I believe that to have market viability and financial stability, most photographers will need to integrate other services into their practice–for example, videography, graphic design, web development, social media consulting, teaching, and so on. I also fear that it will become increasingly difficult for truly outstanding images to be appreciated widely for both their artistic excellence and monetary worth. That said, I am very heartened that access to technology is giving vastly more and more people the ability to tell their own stories–and to have the world listen to them.
Find more of Eric’s work on his website.