Here’s a straightforward article by Adobo Magazine’s writer Mia Marci on John and his passions: photography, of course, especially aerial photography; flying; his pet-elephant, Maali; his advocacy, Photography with a Difference, which works with special children and persons with disabilities; and now his current project – getting R. Hidalgo (the Philippines’ famous street of photo stores) renovated to become a photographers’ haven.
Today, John faced a tough challenge – how to make his topic, “Photography with a Difference – Touching Lives Through Photography” interesting enough to get delegates out of bed for a very early morning (8:30am) talk. Participants in this year’s Photoworld Asia Convention came from all over the Philippines and some Asian countries and as far as Qatar, and paid to learn photo and digital imaging techniques. But there was John, getting ready to get them to do photography that John himself says requires no skill, and no special equipment.
This is not the first time for John to be invited by the organizers of this annual event, but normally, they put him in the first slot after lunch. Unlike most speakers who represent a specific expertise or style, John has been called a serial specialist. He is as adept inside the studio shooting food, products or cars, as he is outside, doing aerial photography or photographing buildings, interiors and industrial sites. He shares whatever he knows, and after almost 40 years in his profession, his reservoir of tips and techniques that he readily shares with fellow photographers is very deep. More importantly, they know that his honest and irreverent sense of humor, his booming voice, and many tricks up his sleeve would wake up his audience any time.
He brought, for example, a few bags of Super Lemons, and had them distributed to everyone in the audience, with the instructions that they may pop the candy into their mouths only when he gives the signal. But wait – maybe I should not tell you about this trick, in case you have never listened to John give a talk.
He also brought a lot of goodies, and thankfully, Canon is one of the sponsors. John has been named a “Canon Ambassador,” together with a select group of professional photographers, so yesterday, John approached their marketing department for corporate premium items to give away. He was like Santa Claus today, giving out Canon books, luggage tags, coffee mugs, folding canvas stools and magazines – to early bird attendees, those who asked questions, and at the end of his talk, when he still had leftover gifts, to anyone who happened to be within arm’s reach.
John is very passionate about the topic assigned to him. To ensure that his audience would be enticed to learn about Photography with a Difference, he gave an unsolicited and un-scheduled mini-presentation, and posted a few photos on the wall during the first days of the conference. And even though he had prepared his talk and audiovisual presentation several days before today, he spent the whole night perfecting his presentation, providing more “success stories.”
To establish credibility with those who were going to listen to him for the first time, he started by very briefly introducing our company and presenting our portfolio. Then, he narrated how “Photography with a Difference” as an advocacy was born, after which, one by one, he showed pictures from more than 25 workshops and photo exhibits that have been done so far. He told the stories of how many workshops were started without any funds, and how they were built on the strength of dreams. He spoke of not having any organization, and on running this entire advocacy on Facebook. He shared the story of his “magic notebook,” where he wrote his wish lists, and dream projects. He reminisced about his meeting with the advocacy partners or sponsors – SM Malls and Canon Philippines. That they had no memorandum of agreement, no written proposals, no contracts – just shaking hands to seal their agreement and resolve to continue with this advocacy. Already running late, he ended his presentation by playing a touching video by Joel H. Garcia, one of the regular volunteers of Photography with a Difference. In that short but heart-tugging video were pictures of visually impaired children who were having the time of their life exploring the zoo, and bonding with their parents and their photographer-partners.
There was no more time for questions, so he invited them to follow this advocacy on his Facebook, or to email him. At this point, we could not gauge how well John had succeeded in arousing his audience’s interest in this advocacy, until the audience stood up to give John a standing ovation!
To give way to the next speaker who had been patiently waiting for his turn to speak, we quickly gathered our materials and moved to the side of the room. Not a few photographers rushed to John to ask him to sign their books, flyers, photos, notebooks, papers – anything they could get where John could sign. Then they followed him still when John left the room, to ask how they could join, or how they could lead such advocacy projects. Two of them were Filipinos living in New Zealand, a couple of Filipinas from the U.S., a Filipino who lives in Guam, and a recently retired military man who himself has a special child. Others were members of local camera clubs. We exchanged business cards, as we promised to send them more information on how they can participate in reaching out to persons with disabilities through the “Photography with a Difference” advocacy.
Like a tireless evangelist, John has planted the seed of his advocacy once again. We will wait to see where the seed will grow, and hope it spreads to other parts of the world.
I’m a newbie in photography. I actually got my first dslr last March. As I would like to do this as a profession someday, can you tell me the prerequisites before i dream of starting it?
I am happy to hear that you are dreaming of becoming a professional photographer. Before I answer your question, let me just say – your situation is different from ours, so choose what you would like to do and what you would prefer to ignore. In fact, you can skip huge chunks of my long answer (sorry, I got carried away writing about how we started), and just pick the ones you think you can use.
Let me share with you our story.
When John and I met in 1970, he was a hobbyist trying to break into editorial photography, and I was a writer for a small tourist magazine. We would be sent on assignments together – that’s how we got to know each other.
We wanted to work together as a travel writer-photographer tandem, but the Sunday magazine we approached offered a fee that would not even pay for our effort or expenses. So, we thought we’d try advertising.
Adphoto was born in 1973 with two full time employees – John and myself. We had nothing but P1000 that John had earned assisting a British documentary filmmaker, a second-hand Nikkormat with a 43-86mm lens and a 35mm/120mm black&white enlarger.
We were just learning photography – there were no schools of photography then, very few books on photography (nothing on advertising photography) and Internet was still just a glint in the eyes of geeks-to-be.
As a high school graduate, all that John could offer me (and the business) was his passion for photography. He worked 24/7– shooting during the day, processing films and black&white prints at night, and spending maybe two minutes for lunch or dinner. He was always happy working. There must have been something in Dektol developers, the neutralizer and the fixer that gave him a high. 😉
Neither John nor I had a network of contacts. Neither his parents nor mine could offer us capital or introduce us to people who could hire us for photography jobs. So I did what I learned from my previous job of selling encyclopedias door-to-door – I went “cold knocking.” (That means, I picked up the yellow pages book, called prospective clients -among them JWT- and made appointments to present our portfolio).
We had no background in business, so we did not know that we needed a certain amount of capital to get started, to write a business plan, or do a feasibility study to ensure the success of our business. John was sure only about his passion for photography, and since I graduated from the University of the Philippines, I was sure then that I could learn anything (or so I thought then).
We were young – John was 25 and I was 27 – and we had no fear of failure. So, we plunged in. We’re probably blessed because 36 years later, we’re still here in this business, and it still is work that we continue to love.
What can I say – now that you ask about prerequisites before pursuing the dream of becoming a professional photographer? I don’t know if it’s better for you to start as we did – knowing nothing, just doing it and learning as we went along.
But we have reaped some lessons along the way, and maybe you can make fewer mistakes if I shared them with you.
So here goes.
1. First of all, enroll in photography courses. There are many who offer them now. Alternatively, you can try to learn photography on your own.
2. Shoot, shoot, shoot. I was once inspired by a quotation “A big shot is just a small shot who keeps shooting.”
3. Sort out your photos, and define what kind of photography you like. Sometimes, even just the numbers will tell you. If, for example, you have a lot more portraits than say, landscapes, then maybe you might be happier as a portrait photographer than as a travel photographer.
4. Learn the business of photography. I wanted to be a professional manager, so in 1978, I went back to school and tried to study for an MBA. If you can’t find a course that is specifically on the business of photography, any business courses – especially those that deal with services – will do. Or, read books on the business of photography. (A list will follow another day on this site, so come back).
4. Sort out your thoughts and feelings. Do a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis, both as a photographer and as a person in the business of photography (don’t confuse these two roles – they represent different hats for you to wear).
5. Be proactive, and act fast. Things are changing so quickly that if you don’t speak up, or act fast enough, you’d get left behind. The camera that you haven’t learn to use, or you don’t use often, will get obsolete even before you get any benefit, pleasure or profit from it.
6. Join photographers’ groups, especially trade associations. Work together to protect common interests and defend photographers’ rights. Know that there are things that you can’t do alone, and that there is strength in numbers – especially when you have something in common.
7. Never stop learning. Work on improving yourself. More than investing endlessly in every new camera or gadget, you gain more when you invest in yourself. What good is a sophisticated, complicated camera if you don’t know how to use it?
8. Just do it. You will never know if you are or you aren’t meant to be a professional photographer, if you don’t start being one. If it’s meant for you, then, well and good, continue. If you’ve persevered enough (and only you know when enough is enough) and the business of photography still does not feel right for you, then quit and look for another day job or business. Photography is special in that you can quit being a pro without having to give up your love for photography.
9. Take risks. This is similar to no. 8. You’ve heard the saying, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” I personally believe that nothing is ever lost – there are lessons in rising or falling, success or failure, victory or defeat.
10. Surround yourself with people who can inspire you, or push you to your limits. Don’t limit yourself to people who compliment you – sometimes, those who criticize you can push you to greater heights as much as those who praise you.
There are more than 10 lessons and more stories to tell, I am sure, so maybe, I will continue to write on this topic, if not for you then at least for posterity. But for now, I think you have enough for starters? Let me know what you think.