I almost don’t recognize Shawna Simmons  when she appears in my office doorway. A 2007 graduate, Shawna has returned to the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication to give several presentations as part of the school’s I-Comm Week, an annual exploration of the latest trends in mass media.
While an undergraduate, Shawna majored in visual communications. She was my student in our two photography courses, Photovisual Communications and Advanced Photovisual Communications. Now here she is, dressed in a stylish outfit capped by a black leather jacket, having just flown in the night before from New York.
Shawna is on her way to fulfilling the dream that helped carry her through college. She currently works as an assistant to top fashion photographer Indira Cesarine , but one day soon I’m sure she will be a star in her own right.
I’d like to take credit for Shawna’s success as a photographer, but I can’t. As I tell the overflow crowd of nearly 100 students who came to one of Shawna’s presentations, she was the type of student you teach best by getting out of their way. Shawna viewed each assignment not as a project to be completed but as an opportunity to give birth to the visions she saw in her mind’s eye.
Whereas other students would shoot perhaps 30 pictures for an assignment, Shawna would shoot 300. Other students may have felt like they were doing schoolwork, but Shawna felt she was getting college credit for doing something she loved to do — make vibrant, stylish photographs that, in her words, took “people and clothing and transformed them into a beautiful image.”
Today, in the midst of her hectic schedule as an assistant, Shawna still finds time to create personal work, doing test shoots for up-and-coming models and researching the latest fashion collections, so she will be attuned to “what the magazines are going to want.”
Shawna’s Eight Tips
During the presentation of her fashion photography, Shawna shared with us eight tips for aspiring professionals:
1. Pursue what you are passionate about. You will never excel at something unless you are motivated by passion and are driven to succeed. The reason is simple: you are competing with similarly motivated and passionate people. Let’s say you decide to try your hand at wedding photography — perhaps for the money and not because you love capturing the emotions weddings produce. You will be competing with other photographers who live, eat, sleep, and breathe weddings. Even if your pictures are technically as good as theirs, do you think they will be as compelling and as satisfying to your clients? Is doing something you have no passion for the key to long-term success?
2. Network. Photographers are often great networkers, but they usually network with the wrong people — other photographers. It’s fine to attend meetings of photography organizations and socialize with your peers. But unless you are an assistant, you probably won’t get hired by another photographer. Instead, you need to network with people who can help you get work and with whom you can forge partnerships. In Shawna’s case, this means art directors, editors, stylists, makeup artists, models, and clothing-store owners (i.e., wardrobe suppliers) — in short, nearly everyone connected with the world of fashion.
3. Brand yourself. “You are your own brand,” said Shawna. “You need to create a niche and a style all your own.” When I asked her to elaborate, Shawna said art directors and editors usually hire a photographer based on that photographer’s style — what makes that photographer unique, different, and/or strange? “My style is bold, funky, young, and edgy,” Shawna said, showing a series of delightful, fresh images. A photographer is more than a camera operator — she is a director who imparts her vision to every image she makes. This is the way to accumulate a roster of steady clients — be the one who solves their visual-communication problems in a stylish way. The best-case scenario is when an art director or editor has a project and says, “I know just the person to shoot this.”
4. Create great business cards, carry them with you, and hand them out. For her I-Comm Week presentations, Shawna created a simple oversized business card with a full-bleed photograph on the front and her contact information on the back. You never want to be in the position of scribbling your name and e-mail on a piece of paper—everything you do reflects you and your level of professionalism. And don’t forget to ask the people you meet for their business cards and/or contact information — and be sure to follow up with them!
5. Make your own opportunities. Shawna told several inspirational stories of how she created photo assignments seemingly out of thin air. An example was right after graduation, when she worked for the Columbia City Paper in Columbia, South Carolina. Shawna got approval from her editor to create the paper’s first-ever special section, called Fashion Forward. For this project, Shawna sold ads, scouted locations, recruited models, and finagled wardrobe from local boutiques. She then proceeded to do all the styling, including makeup and hair, shoot all the photographs, and design and lay out the pages, including the typography. The result was a fine multipage spread that provided terrific exposure for Shawna and became part of her portfolio. Thus, as she said in her presentation, opportunity creates exposure, and exposure creates opportunity.
6. Never stop setting personal goals. Many would-be photographers have lofty goals — I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard a student say he or she wants to work for National Geographic. What makes the few succeed while the many fail? For one thing, the successful ones have a realistic plan to reach their goal. When Shawna graduated, she knew she wanted to be a fashion photographer. After trying a few paths that produced great material for her portfolio, she realized that moving to New York was essential for the type of work she wanted to go. She put an ad on Craigslist and landed her assistantship with Indira Cesarine. Now her goal is to be published in a national fashion magazine within a couple of years. I’ll bet she succeeds in meeting that goal too.
7. Don’t be afraid of criticism. If you aren’t getting criticism of your work, this probably means you’re not putting your work out there for people to see. Shawna said aspiring photographers need to do anything and everything to get their work in the public eye, including working on pro bono projects (i.e., working for free), entering contests, and taking advantage of all available publication and display venues. Shawna started doing this while she was an undergraduate, interning with a marketing communications company and the Ronald McDonald House and submitting photographs to the campus newspaper. She also entered numerous contests, which can be a humbling experience for a new photographer. In the end, however, all this effort paid off big time.
8. Realize how much you still have to learn. As an assistant, Shawna was thrown into the fast-paced world of professional photography and is now becoming adept at multitasking — retouching, picking up wardrobes, helping out with casting calls for models, and setting up lights for photo shoots. Shawna is also learning as much as she can about the business aspects of photography, in preparation for the day when she goes out on her own. Along the way, she is constantly working on her craft, honing her skills, and developing her personal style. “I keep working and improving,” she said.
It was a pleasure to see Shawna again and to watch her present her work and her story to an audience of students — young people who soon will need to make their own way in the world. I hope they benefitted from Shawna’s presentation as much as I did!