Photographer’s Q&A – Greg Locke
Newfoundland photographer Greg Locke started in news photography about 30 years ago and now shoots corporate, commercial, and industrial, photography and video. His assignments have taken him from offshore oil fields in the North Atlantic to civil wars in the Balkans to corporate boardrooms in North America. His photography has been published in three books.
His web site is straylight.ca
Corporate communications shoot for Cougar Helicopters Search and Rescue services. (Photo by Greg Locke © 2012)
How did you get started in photography?
I’ve been around cameras all my life. My grandmother was an avid photographer and always had a camera in her hand. She had everything from a plastic 126 to a 4×5 view camera. I had been comfortable with, and understood, photographs and motion picture for as long as I can remember. I can’t seem to remember not having a camera in my hand.
I eventually ended up working at the university newspaper and local magazines in the mid ’70s. I wanted to go to film school. Ended up studying anthropology but always used photography as a major part of my studies and field work.
My interests have always been in people and culture. There was no career path of wanting to be a news photographer, going to photojournalism school and getting a job at a newspaper. I just enjoyed storytelling and it turned out visual media would be my route.
Describe the path you took to get to where you are now.
Around 1980, while still in university in St. John’s, I was shooting freelance assignments for local features magazines and newspapers. One of those magazines was the keeper of the precious UPI 16S photo transmitter for United Press Canada (UPC). It was going to be my line to the outside world. This led to meeting Bob Carroll and that incredible team of United Press photographers. They were my teachers to the real and practical world of competitive news photography. After working with them on the 1984 Papal tour of Canada, I moved to Toronto looking for more fun stuff to do.
With the closure of the UPC office, I ended up at the Toronto Sun where everyone said, ‘freelance here and you’ll get a staff job when one comes open’. It didn’t so I moved on.
By now, I was lucky enough to get some valuable career direction and make some good contacts. I was soon shooting assignments for magazines such as Macleans, Equinox, BusinessWeek, Bunte and Time, as well as signing on with the First Light agency in Toronto and Marcel Saba’s agency in New York.
I soon had a fairly busy photography business going in a couple of years. While there certainly were some hard times over the next 20 years, I got to cover a lot national and international news stories. I was also able to get a number of stories, which I felt needed to be told, published or produced.
I was lucky that at each fork in the road, there seemed to be someone there who pointed me in the right direction and/or gave me good advice on how to survive as a freelance photographer and how to build and grow a sustainable and diversified photography business. Ironically, each step was taking me further away from the daily news business, which was fine with me. I preferred longer format work and the weekly cycle of news magazines.
After 10 years of living in Toronto and Ottawa, I moved back to Newfoundland semi-permanently in the early ’90s but was still travelling on assignments. The move was primarily to set up a commercial photography business similar to those I had seen in Toronto and New York. While the national and international editorial assignments still came my way, I was focused on a five-year contract to document the building of the Hibernia offshore oil production platform. This resulted in the publication of my first book and what was the beginning of the business I operate today.
Offshore oil rig “Henry Goodridge” on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland for corporate annual report. (Photo by Greg Locke © 2008)
In the ’90s, I got to do projects and assignments in Berlin, Turkey, Croatia, Bosnia, Haiti, Rwanda, Congo, Kenya, Somalia and the USA, as well as delve into the offshore oil exploration business for a number of oil companies. Corporate annual reports were my new love.
In 2004, I was back in Africa working on another large project and financing it by doing freelance assignments out of Nairobi.
A lot of this work was originally planned as personal projects which I “sold” beforehand and raised money to finance. First, I decided there was a story I wanted to tell. Then it was about putting together a project plan and pitching it around to my clients and through my agencies.
One of the big factors to me staying in the photo business was learning that there are a far greater range of clients, subjects and photography needs outside the news and editorial business. It also pays better and offers far greater creative flexibility.
What kinds of jobs do you shoot today?
Today, the editorial work is limited to a few assignments a year with Reuters, (it’s still fun and challenging and a great group of people to work with), or the odd foreign magazine looking for stuff from Newfoundland.
Editorial assignments are unreliable and the money is just not there for it to be a viable market anymore.
The majority of my work since 2000 has been advertising, commercial and corporate which entails everything from studio and location portraits to advertising shots of diamonds and jewellery to offshore oil rigs 300km out in the ocean.
Since the 1997 Hibernia project, I have developed a bit of a specialty for working on location in heavy industries, on construction sites and in high risk and harsh environments.
Besides the still photography, we (I have partners) also do digital imaging consulting for clients, remote camera installations, shoot video and do general film/video production and project management.
Product photography for jewellery retailer ad campaign. (Photo by Greg Locke © 2012)
What is your most memorable assignment(s) and why?
The fall of the Berlin Wall and communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 was simply incredible. To watch a whole political system collapse and see how it changed the various European cultures so quickly was fascinating and remarkable. I didn’t actually have an assignment but tagged along with a journalist friend who was going. I made a few calls to let people know where I was and ended up with a couple of magazine assignments and a lifetime of valuable stock photos. Berlin led to assignments in East Germany, Poland and Turkey which rounded out a three-month trip.
My first trip to Africa in 1996 was by far the most memorable and had the greatest impact on my life and career. It was a hell of an adventure that arced from Somalia, through Kenya and Rwanda, and into the eastern Congo with soldiers, refugees, international aid workers, truck drivers and missionaries. It changed completely how I look at western lifestyle and our relation to the rest of the world. It also gave me my first major book publication deal. It was followed up with another extended visit in 2004 with funding from a fellowship. This time, Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan. I don’t know anyone who has spent any time in Africa and not been affected profoundly by it. Everyone one I’ve met who has ever worked there says the same thing. It changes you.
What’s the most important business skill(s) that a self-employed photographer has to have?
Remember that it’s a business first. You are selling a professional product or service that is valuable so get paid accordingly. Get paid for your time, craft and creativity. Never do it for the glory … ok, maybe a few times for the glory. It’s still a bit of an ego-driven profession but don’t ever give it away for free.
Act and conduct your business like a professional if you want to be taken seriously. Don’t be sloppy. Have clean and well-designed business documents and packaging that reflect the type of business and client you are trying to attract. The flowers and hearts on your business card are great for your wedding clients but the VP of Communications for Big Corp Inc. is not going to take you seriously.
Don’t be afraid to negotiate. Don’t be afraid to say no. NO can be the most liberating of responses when you feel you are being taken advantage of or you just KNOW you are going to get screwed.
GET AN ACCOUNTANT!!
Oh yeah, always remember that today’s annoying production assistant is tomorrow’s editor, art director or producer. Be nice to them now.
Ad shot for a community services organization. (Photo by Greg Locke © 2011)
How should a self-employed photographer market themselves?
This has changed so much in the past 20 years it’s hard to pin down. We live in the time of The Self-Promoter. However, I still think that at its core, it’s all about connections, connections, connections and keeping in touch with them all. I used to do a lot of mail-outs in the early days and make sure to visit clients when I’d be in their city.
Of course, with web sites, Facebook and other online media today, it’s so much easier to keep in touch and show new work. But the key idea of “stay in touch” remains the same.
The best self-promotion and marketing ideas are often featured in Photo District News magazine. A must-read for self-employed photographers. I’ve been doing it for 20 years and still find clever ideas. However, getting the time to do them all is another issue.
After a few years in the business, you will end up with a couple of marketing plans that cover attracting new clients, keeping your current ones and maintaining overall public profile.
Finally, keep your work off Flickr, Instagram and such. Facebook is great for connecting with people but you don’t want it as your only online portfolio display.
Nothing says “amateur” like using free web services. Get your own domain name, professional web site and blog. This is the gateway though which clients will find you and the place where you display your wares. First impressions do matter.
What was your biggest photo mistake?
I once left quickly on a short-notice magazine shoot without checking my bags. Just grabbed and tossed them into the car and took off on a three-hour drive to the location. Pulled up, unloaded the car … no cameras! They were still on the shelf by the battery chargers. So, I pulled my Olympus Stylus from the glove box, loaded it with Fujichrome 400 and shot away.
What was the silliest photo gadget you ever bought?
A white balance disk for placing in front of the lens to supposedly help set white balance. Still haven’t figured out how to use it. Couldn’t even sell it at the flea market.
One of a series of musician portraits for the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra. (Photo by Greg Locke © 2012)
What’s the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you about being a photographer?
There was “This is a lighting kit and a light meter. Learn to use by tomorrow morning”, “Don’t bring me back crap!” and “Get the hell out of the news business”.
One thing I was told early, but it didn’t kick in until years later, was “go your own way.” Basically, the conversation was: learn from others but don’t try to be like them. Make the pictures the way you see them and be unique. If it’s good, people will buy it. If not then get a good-paying job and do your photography on vacations.
The one bit of advice I didn’t listen to, and was thankful for that, was “develop a style”. This is not going to work if you want to run a successful commercial photography business for the long term. You have to be able to shoot anything in any style and execute an art director’s or photo editor’s vision. Photography “styles” are usually fads which go out of fashion. Better to just make damn good pictures your entire life without gimmicks. At least be remembered for that.