"The work is the substance. Do the work. Fancy logos and business cards are nice, but they are the first step, not the last. Find out what is needed and give it to them. Produce!"
- Leif Norman
This is part of a series of interviews with people who have been identified as those who "work with love." These are individuals who are daring to create success on their own terms and, in the process, teach us valuable lessons about work and life. They are proof that there are many paths to career satisfaction and happiness. There is a "lessons learned" section at the end of each interview.
Occupation: Photographer - Visit leifnorman.net
Location: Winnipeg, Manitoba
Number of years: 5
When did the photography bug first hit you?
About 1999. I started buying all the used cameras I could find.
What is it about this medium that speaks to you most?
I like the immediacy of the digital picture and the perceptiveness of the black and white film I was developing in my basement. The camera can see things you don't, even though you are looking right at it.
With a background in chemistry, how did you transition from the academic world to one that some would define as solely artistic?
The transition was hardly there at all. I was making money with photography before I even graduated. The focus was on photography so it was natural.
Do you see them as separate or parallel words? Why?
Anything can be parallel if you want them to be. In my case I am using the chemistry knowledge to make photographs in the 1854 style; Calotypes with Silver Nitrate and Gallic Acid. I would take the degree again if I could.
In my opinion, you found a way to combine traditional photography and modern perspectives making it more accessible to the viewer of today. How would you describe your work? How do you feel it has evolved over the years?
I would describe myself as an archivist. Photographs are historical records and should be made to share. I am also good, I am told, at making the mundane look exciting, which is a good skill when shooting business cocktail parties. The work has evolved to get closer to people over the years. I am less and less shy to talk to strangers and stick a camera in their face. It makes for better pictures.
At what point did you realize that you had stumbled upon something that you not only enjoyed, but could potentially earn a living from? How have you been able to monetize your passion?
The money came slowly at first. I was embarrassed to ask for it. And then I got more and more gigs and couldn't do it for free anymore. Anyone can monetize what they do so long as they are good at it. People ask for you, and then you will become a professional.
During our chat, we agreed that there are a lot of myths about entrepreneurship and small business ownership. What do you believe is the most damaging of these myths?
Probably the idea that getting people to "like" your Facebook page does anything at all. Nobody cares, even if they like you. Also, social media has way too much buzz around it. People starting out think that that's all there is to it. The work is the substance. Do the work. Fancy logos and business cards are nice, but they are the first step, not the last. Find out what is needed, and then give it to them. Produce!
One of my favorite pieces of advice from you was the need for people to start small, start slow. How did a slower, more organic pace of development position you for sustainable success?
I didn't end up over my head in debt. I grew as I could. Photography has very low overhead anyway. For $2000 one can be well on their way to being a fully functioning photographer. It also builds relationships if you go slowly. Communication is the power. It's where the money comes from. Money doesn't come from the Yellow Pages and posters on a pole. Get to know people in an area and find out how to help them. If you give and give, then they will give back to you. Easy. Long-term relationships, especially in Winnipeg, are gold.
Looking back, what were some of the best decisions you made? Perhaps without even knowing it at the time, what things helped you get where you are today? What did you get right?
Moving slowly and finding out that I hated wedding photography and other genres was the right move. Even taking my chemistry degree right on top of a slowly building reputation was a good idea. Not moving to Montréal or Vancouver was also a good idea. Those cities are too fizzy. The focus and energy is disposable. A lot of money can be made but a lot of money can also be lost. Keep your overhead low.
Tell me about Gladys. Why is she so important?
Gladys (above) was an effort to subvert the digital revolution by doing entirely the opposite of what the trend was. The camera was huge, wooden, handmade, and used a 150-year-old way of making photographs. I wanted to be a completist, and know all there was to know about photography, old and new, and the best way to learn was to DO. So she was a learning tool for me too.
For more images of Gladys and the Calotypes, visit OctaviusNorthwood.net
I love, love, LOVE that you consider yourself the "official photographer" of Winnipeg. A visual historian, if you will, of our city and her culture. How did this view develop? How has it enhance your enjoyment of your work?
That's very tongue-in-cheek. L.B. Foote is now considered to have been the official photographer of Winnipeg though he never was, and would probably laughed at the idea, but was everywhere with his camera documenting everything. Now we have an amazing record of Winnipeg people and places from 100 years ago. Maybe in the future I will be that person. The idea really developed after the 100th person said to me "your everywhere!"
Out of your vast collection of photos, do you have a favorite? Why?
I do have some favorites, but they fade quickly as I am always making more. This bright and dark surreal carnival imaging in Gimli (above) was an accident. I had the wrong setting on the camera and it overexposed way too much. But the next day I looked at it and I quite liked it because it doesn't look like a photo you would take.
Who or what inspires you? Why?
I get inspired by looking at the work of other photographers, old and new such as Eugene Atget, Ansel Adams and Trevor Marczylo. Mostly I am inspired by the idea that I am doing good work for the future by recording and sharing the images of the moment on my website.
You did a TED talk earlier this year. What was that experience like for you? In preparing for it, did you find that you uncovered a new perspective on your work?
It was horrible, but I would do it again. I did find out that even though I want to be a philosopher like Susan Sontag, I am not.
(Leif is far too humble. I witnessed his TED talk from the second row and thought it was brilliant.)
If you weren't doing this, what would you be doing? Why?
I might be performer and a poet. I like writing but don't have the time. I like to make people laugh.
What sacrifices and/or trade-offs do you feel you've made in order to pursue what you love? When it's all said and done, has it been worth it?
Yes. I have sacrificed very little. I am lucky to not have made any blunders along the way in it has been entirely worth it. All those dish washing jobs and driving taxi taught me that I needed to do my own thing, and I am.
When I approached you about doing this interview I stated that it was because identified you as somebody who "works with love." What does this mean to you?
I don't know if I work with love or am passionate about photography. I see it as work. I really like it, but it is work. Hamlet thought the actor was passionate as he played a tragic scene and cried real tears, though it was all memorized from a script. Many people are equally fooled when they see someone like me rushing around with the camera. I do have a lot of energy for it, but I cannot keep up the excitement that I first had when I exposed my first roll of film. That was passion long ago, but now it simply work I enjoy.
I love the good quote. Do you have a favorite you would like to share?
Susan Sontag in "On Photography" (Page 64) wrote something which really stuck with me:
"The Photographer both loots and preserves, denounces and consecrates."
Anything else you want to share?
If someone wants to become professional, and just stop now if you don't, then they should read every book on the subject, gather all the tools, befriend those in the field and show up on time.
Thank you for giving us lots of great stuff to think about Leif. Wishing you continued success!
So my friends, what have we learned today?
- Slow and steady wins the race! It takes time to build a business. A slower, more organic approach (contrary to the modern "get rich quick" mindset) can position you better for long-term success.
- Avoid debt! As a Career Professional I have worked with many people over the years who have, unfortunately, come to me after they had spent everything they had (and a lot more they didn't have) on a business they were sure would produce results and easy income overnight. Unnecessary debt will keep you stranded, kill your creativity and will limit your options.
- Do the work! There are many things that can make you feel like you're being productive, but are essentially time-wasting distractions that keep you from the real work to be done. (I certainly understand. The distractions are safe. Getting out in with middle of things can be scary, but it's where the real treasures are).
- Solve a problem! Get to know people. Build authentic relationships. Found out what their needs are and then solve the problem. Find the right solution to the right problem and you're in business.
Wishing you a kick-ass day!
Sharing the journey,