Fairly recently, I hit my two year mark of working for an internet famous portrait photographer, It is interesting how, during my high school years, when the word selfie began its circulation through popular culture I strongly opposed the way it instantaneously engrained itself into everyday vocabulary. If the version of me now, who just finished leading a fourth cohort through an online selfie posing class, could talk with that younger version of me, there is so much I would want her to understand about the power that had just been handed to our generation. From cheap, handheld cameras to vast social media platforms our generations and the ones to follow had been gifted an arsenal of tools for personal branding. We had been gifted power over our own stories.
It's not just in personal branding that we've seen this shift. The rise of independent artists and self-published authors are testaments to the metaphorical earthquake that rattled marketing efforts industries over. Whereas people used to rely on professionals, connections, and luck to break through in any creative market or major field, social media culture has taken the decisions out of the hands of the "powers that be" and given it to the world wide web. This, of course, is old news, so why bother writing about it?
Because many people still don't recognize the power they hold, literally, in the palm of their hand.
Working for a portrait photographer for this long now, I have had to come face-to-face with a valid line of questioning: why is getting your picture taken so important? Important enough to convince clients to book high-end, luxury portraiture experiences with professional photographers. Important enough to warrant a massive social media following. Important enough for hundreds of people to pay a sizable amount to learn the art of self-portraiture using only their phones and a tripod. When my employer was featured in Washington Post, I saw a fair amount of social backlash aimed at the outlet who was treating selfie culture as something newsworthy. Where these internet trolls see toxic narcissism, I see empowerment.
I cannot fault these commenters though. To be honest, I think they are ignorant and defensive, not outright malicious. There was a time when marketing yourself was about a professional headshot and a well polished resume, and, if you have not had to compete in todays job market, you might think those things are still sufficient tactics. Perhaps they are, in a traditional job market, but in the expanding industries of social media, content marketing, and other facets of this digital era, you need more. You need to know how to market yourself. You need content.
As I said, however, gone is the whole way of flocking to professionals to create our personal branding assets. This is even coming from someone who works for a professional photographer. As an art and a beautiful method of self-celebration, there will always be a need for professional photographers, but we live in an age of social media influencers. What used to take a team of experts to do, people are doing while sitting in the driver seat of their car. They are creating branding assets, through pictures and videos, and doing all of their own marketing on social media.
Why is a picture important? Because that picture is part of your brand's identity, your brand's story.
All of this might seem a bit far-fetched if you are new to personal branding, so let's take the word branding out of the mix for a moment. Have you ever taken a picture of yourself, or had a picture taken of you, and felt disappointed by it? Maybe a thought even crossed your mind similar to, "Oh, this is how people see me?" That picture did not capture, for you, the version of you that you wanted to share with the world, it's reasonable to be disappointed or upset. So, say, we change that. You learn how to take a great picture that really shows off your essence, whether that's a lively candid photo, and edgy artistic take, or a professional headshot. Suddenly, what you have is no longer just a picture. Now you have one piece of a larger story that you weave everyday of your life.
Bring it back to marketing now. That picture is now your social media profile picture for Instagram, Facebook, or LinkedIn. It isn't just about taking a good picture for you anymore, it is a matter of creating branding assets, branding content that shows your potential employers or target audience who you really are, and who they will be working with.
But, of course, you can't share your whole identity with just one picture. So you create more content, and with each piece of content, you explore your identity further, you tell more of your story, and you build up your brand. Through pictures, and videos, and posts you define and refine yourself until you know exactly how to tell your story. And you tell it in a way that makes people listen. This, this, is the power of a picture.
Well, I didn't write all of that just to have a happy-little-filler piece for my blog. So, let me share a few useful tips for you as you start building your personal brand through visual story telling:
1. Update your profile pictures - If the best picture you have of yourself is over a decade old, then it might be time to start up some gentle exercises to get comfortable in front of the camera again.
2. Let go of the idea that the camera knows you better than you do - Photography is a skill, that is why there are professionals. If you don't like your selfie, practice taking pictures instead of treating yourself unkindly.
3. Treat branding like a taste testing event - Not every brand style will match your tastes, but you might need to try a few before you find your best fit. Be patient and take the time to find your style. (Think about it, some influencers film in an office, some film in a bathroom. There is no one-size-fits-all.)
4. Ask for feedback - Specifically look for feedback in your field. While your preferences are king, if you are building your brand in order to find better employment, it will serve you in the long run to ask professionals in your desired field for their input. (A person who formats their resume like an interior designer might not land a job at a tech firm.)
5. Revisit everything - Every so often check back in with your brand styling. As you grow, and as your brand grows, you will change. While consistency is important, in the long-run you need to recognize that you will need to adapt your storytelling style to accommodate for having more story to tell.
As I write all these things, know that I still have to apply all of these tips to myself all of the time. Branding is a journey, and exploration, so don't expect overnight changes. That said, journeys are adventures, and they are meant to be enjoyed. If you take the time to enjoy the steps, then the content will come to you more and more naturally as you progress. It is, after all your story, and I, for one, think it is one worth telling.
J. E. Forrest
Thanks for reading!
If you relive one moment in your life, just to make sure you got a perfect picture to capture that moment, what would you choose to relive?