You know, in all of the years we’ve been in business, I can honestly say I have personally liked probably 99% of our clients, and maybe more. Of course, I haven’t done any actual math here. But given how difficult it is to list people I haven’t liked, I’m confident in saying the people we have been privileged to work with over the years have been the sort of people I would actually want to surround myself with in my day to day life and relationships. That’s not to say they’ve been a homogenous group. We’ve had clients of all kinds of stripes, nationalities, professions, political leanings. We’ve worked with politicians, with athletes, educators, lawyers, activists, doctors and on and on.
As far as I can tell, our clients have just one thing pretty clearly in common with each other: They value the honest truth. In an ocean of yes-persons who will say whatever they think their client wants to hear to get them to sign, our clients have wanted to know what we really think. They have seen the value in our expertise and have wanted us to be honest about what our expertise is telling us is right.
So I want to tell you two parallel stories.
Jackie had hired me to shoot some family portraits for her. She and her husband have only one child, who was about 4 years old at the time. Jackie wanted to give the pictures to her and her husband’s parents for Christmas and so she really wanted something nice. The problem was the kid, we’ll call him Danny, was thoroughly four years old. As in… often challenging. I’m saying that more nicely that Jackie did.
So, recognizing our experience working with children, Jackie asked how we could strategize a way to get some really good images of Danny. So, I told her plainly, “Danny will have to decide if we’re going to get any good photos of him”. What I meant by that, and further explained, was that we were weren’t going to be able to just tell Danny what to do. We were going to have to help him want to do it. And, perhaps most importantly, Jackie was going to have to let go and accept the situation for what it was, however that unfolded. If she tried to control him in this situation, it would deteriorate even more quickly.
When the day of the shoot finally came, Jackie worked hard to stay relaxed and open to whatever kinds of images Danny would let us take. As a result, Danny really enjoyed himself and he allowed me to photograph him the whole time, even taking a few specific instructions along the way. The images that I sent to Jackie were not quite what she was originally envisioning, but, in her own words, “These are way better!”
Sarah booked her session hastily. There was a narrow window of time less than a week away when her husband would be home from work and their daughter Emma did not have school. So they finally decided to check the family portrait off their list. But right after we finished booking, Sarah stopped responding to my emails. I had been looking for some additional details about her family so that I could plan to hold a session that was comfortable and effective for everyone—much like I did for Jackie. They ultimately went unanswered though, and I arrived at the session mostly blind.
Emma was an awful lot like Danny, as far as temperament was concerned. She was inquisitive, rambunctious, and really didn’t like being told what to do. At first, Sarah let me and Emma play so I could try and get her on board with being photographed. But Sarah felt the clock ticking and before long was stepping in as a disciplinarian. When she threatened not to take Emma for ice cream after the shoot if she didn’t behave, I stopped the session and asked for a word with Sarah and her husband.
I told them that Emma was a little challenging to work with, but that being a disciplinarian was making it much less likely we’d be able to overcome it. Emma and her husband both feigned an acceptance of what I was saying, but didn’t really change their behavior at all. Against all odds, I did get a few good ones, but Sarah was disappointed, placing the blame on Emma for misbehaving.
The Value of the Truth
In the case of both Sarah & Jackie, the truth was that the kid was in charge. They were not puppets, and there was no way to make them do this thing. Kids always get to decide if they’re going to cooperate. They are not yet attuned to the concept of consequences, and if good images is what you want, a portrait session is never the right time to teach them. We had one family that accepted this truth, and we had another that did not. We had one family who’s expectations were exceeded and who felt very happy, and we had one family who’s expectations were dashed and who felt disappointed.
This is the value of the truth as far as it relates to a portrait session. But this is the value of truth in most other cases too. And, it’s the liability of surrounding yourself with, or hiring, yes-persons. When you only hear what you want to hear, you do not get to set your own expectations, you don’t get to choose your own actions based on those expectations. You don’t get to prepare yourself for the best and worst case scenarios. You get disappointed a lot, and you spend more of your time disappointed. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a pretty unappealing way to live.
Sarah wanted to believe that Emma was so perfect, no strategy was necessary and she ignored my questions beforehand. During the shoot, Sarah wanted to believe that she could fix the problem with a firm hand, and she ignored my request to change her behavior. Sarah ended up unhappy—-though luckily self-aware enough not to blame her photographer—But I don’t wish for anyone to have to be unhappy, especially when an expert is speaking truth that points to a better way to get what you want.
Yes-people are letting off an emotional toxin and should not be trusted to help you set your expectations. A plumber who tells you the pipes are fine, when they are not, is costing you the hardwood floors and all of the frustration and anger involved in fixing them. A lawyer who says it’s fine to use copyrighted material in your video is costing you tens of thousands of dollars in a future lawsuit. A doctor who doesn’t tell you the truth about your eating habits is costing you your life. The value of the honest truth is the same almost everywhere, in everything. For our own sakes, we should crave it—especially from the people who we have paid to do us some service.
So, when a wedding photographer who really needs more time to give you what you want, tells you you might need to miss the cocktail hour, don’t steamroll them. They’re making sure you get the images you said you want. When a commercial photographer tells you your smile looks fake while trying to get a great headshot, don’t write them off. They’re trying to make you look good in front of your clients. And when a family photographer tells you that a location is no-good, listen to them, even if you really, really like having picnics there.