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What They Didn’t Teach You in Photo School

In 2013, photographer Demetrius Fordham was commissioned to write “What They Didn’t Teach You in Photo School,” a guidebook for emerging photographers on how to survive and succeed in today’s competitive and fast-paced industry. During his research, he interviewed over 20 industry professionals about how to get work and build a business, among many other topics. Agency Access spoke with him about what he learned.

To begin with: what were your intentions behind writing the book, and what did you hope to achieve?

Well, when I started out in this industry about a decade ago as a photo assistant fresh out of photo school, I had no idea what the next step was. Where do I start? How do I transition from assisting to shooting full-time? How do I even get a shooting job? I knew all the technical aspects of taking photographs, but I had no idea how to actually become a professional photographer.

Fast forward ten years later, and that’s the place I was writing from—because I know the answers now. To my knowledge, besides my book, there isn’t a photographers’ manual out there that teaches real world lessons that come from real life experiences. So I wanted to create a resource for photographers that would address every topic, from how to create a good portfolio, to how to work on a set, to how to handle your money. I started out writing it for new and emerging photographers, but as the book began to take shape, I realized that a lot of these lessons are applicable to current working photographers, too. Regardless of how long you’ve been in the industry, you’ll get something out of it.

You say in the introduction of your book that it’s never been harder to make a living as a photographer and that talent isn’t enough to succeed in today’s industry. Can you talk more about why, and what that means for photographers today?

Thanks to the internet and technology, there have never been more working photographers. It’s getting harder and harder to stand out when there’s so much talent and competition out there. So photographers today really need to bring their A game, you can’t just take good pictures. You have to be great at social media, have a strong website, be extremely business-savvy, know how to network and be a marketing expert—or at least, recognize that you need all of the above to succeed, and call in the appropriate resources.

I interviewed Ellen Erwitt, a producer at Big Splash Productions, who said to me that the sheer numbers and level of talent today has made competition so fierce that hiring decisions aren’t made based solely on a photographer’s work anymore—it’s looking at what the photographer has to offer as a whole package, including their attitude, communication skills and sense of teamwork. So on top of all of the business skills you need to learn, you also have to be a team player, be receptive to ideas and be a good communicator. Basically, you can no longer get by as a talented artist alone.

What can you share with other photographers about getting work in today’s industry?

There’s so much to say here, but in a nutshell: Network. Build a strong portfolio and get an expert to look at it. Act boldly and get in front of the clients you want to work with, and be persistent about it. Learn how to market yourself effectively (which can mean hiring a consultant—Agency Access is great for this). Get a photo agent when you’re ready. And just continually put yourself out there and don’t get discouraged by rejection.

How important is social media in generating work?

It’s really important, actually. I interviewed Rob Haggart, a former photo editor and the founder of A Photo, who told me that photo editors and art producers are constantly reading blogs, are on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and that a photographer should ideally be on all platforms for optimum exposure. Some photographers these days have even been signed to agents and hired directly by clients solely from Instagram alone. Social media is undeniably powerful. It’s foolish to think that you’re above it.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about succeeding as a photographer in today’s industry, after having written your book?

There are so many important lessons I’ve learned in my research and interviews—all of which I’ve shared in the book—but I guess if I had to pick the most important one, it would be to treat your photography like the business that it is. Photographers are artists and most of us don’t want to deal with the business side—I personally hate it—but it’s necessary if we actually want to make a living doing this. My friend, commercial photographer and author Doug Menuez, believes that every photographer should write a business plan. It needs to clearly state what the end game is, how you see yourself getting there over however many years, your marketing strategies, financial goals, the whole thing. I agree with him. Having a plan, and not just going from gig to gig, will ensure longevity in the industry and allow you to do what you love for longer.

“What They Didn’t Teach You in Photo School” is available in Barnes & Noble stores across the country or online at

Demetrius Fordham

Demetrius Fordham is a professional commercial and portrait photographer based in Brooklyn. Born and raised in Stuttgart, Germany, Demetrius studied at The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara and at The New School in New York. Before striking it out on his own, Demetrius worked for iconic photographers such as Sheila Metzner and Kurt Iswarienko, and was first assistant of celebrated commercial photographer Doug Menuez. These days, Demetrius' client list includes Condé Nast Traveler, the Wall Street Journal, W Magazine, CNN, Steve Madden, and Philip Morris International. He is the author of “What They Didn’t Teach You in Photo School,” published in October 2015 by Ilex Press and the Hatchette Book Group.

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  • Ron Jautz - 5 years ago

    Great book! Buy one for anyone you know wanting to become a photo Assistant!