In the photography industry, it’s natural to let the images do the talking. If you want to show a client what you can do and how you can do it, you needn’t do any more than hand over your portfolio or direct them to your website. When the product is right in front of them, words aren’t necessary.
But buyers, agents and commissioning editors aren’t only interested in a photographer’s pictures. They also want to know about the person who took them. They want to know whether the photographer is reliable and trustworthy. They want to feel that the selection they’re being shown isn’t the best of a bad lot but a representative sample of the work the photographer can do.
They want to be sure that if they hire the photographer to do the job, he or she is going to give them photos as good as the ones they can see. And even if they’re only looking to buy a print, they want to sound knowledgeable when friends ask them about it and feel that when they purchase a work of art, they’re owning part of an artist’s life story.
That’s why websites have pages for bios, and why query letters tend to include details about the person submitting the portfolio.
So what should a bio say to persuade a buyer that you are the right person for the job?
How Bios Build Trust
Mostly what a bio should say is how you work. It should describe your approach to photography, and what you think a good image should do. One easy way to do that is to describe what happens on your shoots and how you plan them. It will always be easier to describe a specific event than to talk in general terms about what you think of photography. It will also be more interesting to read.
Tanit Sakakini, for example, uses her bio page to explain what she aims to do when creating an image. Her first paragraph lays out her basic idea:
“I love creating magical worlds — a road covered in fish, a table covered in ivy. But in the middle of the surreal, there has to be a real, recognizable human moment to ground the scene, balance it out.”
That’s an unusual enough start to persuade the reader to continue, and the rest of the bio is divided into bite-sized paragraphs that are easy to follow. They touch on Tanit’s approach to portraiture, fashion and fine art, before ending with a description of what happens on one of her shoots that includes links to behind-the-scenes videos:
“I found that the more ‘production’ on a shoot — the more lighting and wardrobe and stuff — the less chance the actors or models have to live. So, I’ve been experimenting with a day of improv rehearsal, before shoots.”
Note that while Tanit does refer to her family’s theatrical background in her bio, it’s only to draw a link between herself and her approach. Tanit’s bio is much more about her way of taking pictures than about her. We come to learn about her through her vision of photography.
Let’s Talk about you…
An alternative way of writing a bio is to talk about the photographer. This is the method chosen by Sacha Dean Biyan whose hi-tech website we discussed here. The bio on Eccentris, his professional site, is verbose and artistic. He mentions his awards, names some of his best-known clients and describes his background in aeronautical engineering. All of this tells us a great deal about Sacha Dean Biyan but it tells us very little about the sort of pictures he takes. A buyer would have to look at his portfolio to find that out.
Interestingly though, the bio that Sacha uses on his personal site is different. While his professional site focuses on his achievements, his personal bio discusses his love of travel and what he hopes to achieve by photographing tribes around the world for his books.
In fact, each of these bios is doing the same thing: they’re marketing a product. Eccentris tries to convince buyers that Sacha can be relied on to produce effective commercial images; SachaBiyan.com tries to persuade buyers that his book of travel photography is a serious contribution to the genre.
Most photographers though put their personal projects and their professional work on the same site. That’s an opportunity rather than a problem. Your personal work will always be of interest to a buyer and mentioning it in your bio can provide a useful insight into your approach.
In practice, it’s usually much harder to describe yourself as a photographer than to describe your approach to photography. Unless you have the prizes and the clients to back up your claims, there’s always the risk of sounding narcissistic. It’s just too tempting to drift into talking about how your love of photography was sparked by your first camera at age 12 and how you’ve continued taking pictures ever since.
Few buyers are going to be interested in what you did when you were 12. They want to know what you’re going to do for them today. Ultimately, that’s the goal of your bio. It’s not a chance to provide your life history or to prove that you love photography. It’s a device to explain what you’ll produce for the buyer, to build trust… and to win the job.