For decades, David Peters, M.Photog.Cr., F-ASP, ran a successful portrait business in Marin County, California, just outside of San Francisco. As he advanced into his 60s, Peters wondered if there might be a more profound purpose for him and his work, something to refocus his efforts and allow him to continue his career on renegotiated terms.
Around the time he was contemplating questions that would potentially alter his life and career, Peters met a woman doing charitable work in Brazil with victims of human trafficking. Inspired, Peters traveled with her and was blown away by the people he met. He resolved to use his talents to tell their stories and raise awareness of the problem. With photographs he made in Brazil, Peters created a documentary-style film. An Indiegogo campaign helped him raise funds to launch the nonprofit Passion Voice, which would be the vehicle for getting exposure for the film’s message.
In the process of promoting Passion Voice and speaking about it at events, he connected with people who were moved by his efforts, many of whom were affluent philanthropists. Before long, Peters was receiving portrait commissions from new clients throughout North America. Even while his number of sessions decreased, his average and total sales skyrocketed, with single sales extending well into the five figures. Peters found himself and his business tansformed.
Peters sold the studio space he’d occupied for 45 years and reinvented himself as a location photographer. The new clientele he developed allowed him to continue a life’s work that always focused on creating artistic images. The difference was that now he could spend more time with fewer clients, which let him home in on the emotional connection between his subjects and his art. That connection, he believes, is what creates the true value of the work and keeps his portraiture in high demand.
“The most important thing is what I stir in people’s hearts, not what I put on their wall,” he says. “As photographers, the most powerful thing we do is not the photograph. That is a commodity. The real product is the underlying emotional gratification represented in the image. My advice to younger photographers is always the same: Don’t focus on the thing; focus on what the thing represents.”
To uncover that underlying emotional gratification, Peters aims to express values that resonate with clients. To do that, he helps clients find and express those values through pre-session consultations he calls “intimate interviews.” During these meetings, Peters asks a few questions but mostly listens. He lets clients talk about their lives, what they care about, what inspires them.
Then he shows them how photography can represent all of those different elements. He educates them about art. He explains form, line, color, and expression. He uses photographs from his collection to illustrate why some images work and others miss the mark. Finally, Peters describes the mechanics and vision necessary to transform a photo into an insightful portrait.
“It’s important not only to talk about all of these factors but to help people experience them,” says Peters. “You have to show them if you want them to remember. By educating my clients in this way, I am creating a sense of value. That’s what I want to do—create value, not volume.”
Ultimately, Peters is trying to help shift the current paradigm in professional photography. Photographers are competing not only with each other but also with the idea that anyone with a decent camera can be a professional photographer.
“To shift away from that misunderstanding,” he says, “we have to create a higher sense of value. We have to show people the difference and educate them on the artistry that goes into a great image.”
To photographers who are struggling to express this higher level of value, Peters suggests starting with your own Why. “Go deeper than just, I’m good at photography and people pay me for it,” he urges. “Do you love to move people? Do you love self-expression? Do you love to tell stories? Figure it out and then announce it to people. Be open, be vulnerable. Show your passion. The reason why should be the most important thing you promote; it’s the most powerful tool you can use to get people to understand and relate to you. If that reason—and your underlying values—resonate with the client, then you are on track to making that vital personal connection.”
This is certainly true for Peters, who connected to so many new clients through his Passion Voice project—clients who share his underlying values and have come to him with minds open to a higher level of photographer-client interaction. This situation opens the door for Peters to elevate the experience and then delight his clients with something unexpected.
“When people leave one of my sessions and say, ‘This is nothing like I thought it would be,’ I am thrilled,” says Peters. “Because I just shifted the paradigm. I took them away from the idea that they can do it themselves and promoted the value. That is critical. You have to value yourself and promote that value. When you do, people will respect you more, and that leads to beautiful things.”
Jeff Kent is the editor-at-large of Professional Photographer.