Personal Branding

Rajasthan HDR Bicycle
I’m not a fan of ‘personal branding.’ To me brands are always works of fiction. Sure, Nike or McDonalds make actual things in the world and have a history, but the brands are real only in the same sense that Batman or Sherlock Holmes are real.

At its extreme, personal branding feels like vanity to the point of deceit. A few heavily photoshopped profile pictures, an exaggerated and overly flattering ‘about me’ text, all contributing to a carefully curated version of ourselves aimed at impressing an online audience.

And yet, so many smart creatives I speak to still talk about personal branding, that it makes me wonder what the phrase might mean in its best sense and how, if at all, it can be redeemed.

Personal Work – In An Artistic Sense

In most creative fields, personal work refers to those passion projects we do that don’t have a direct client or any immediate commercial value. So, for instance, a photographer might have a good business selling portraits, but their personal work might be something different, like working in an old medium (say, film or plate) or photographing other kinds of subjects, like landscapes or architecture.

We learn in school that the way to present ourselves to the world is through our CV, or a Resume–style listing of our achievements and work experience, in the hope that people will hire us to do more of the same. But, what if we don’t want to be defined just by what we have been paid to do in the past?

Personal work can often be powerful because it taps deeply into our motivations as the most authentic expression of our creativity. In this sense, personal branding makes some sense as an attempt to preset this aspect of our work to the world, trying to lead not just with what we’ve done, but with what we believe is the most unique and special contribution we can offer.

Personal Work – In A Psychological Sense

Another sense in which personal work is used describes a commitment to self–improvement. This might mean learning to better manage one’s emotions, commitments, or relationships, or trying to overcome something like addiction or grief. None of this, if done properly, is easy.

While writing my book, I had plenty of moments that made me reflect on my life, especially my early creative experiences. This was often a deeply emotional experience. It’s common for a major creative project that taps into our biography, our life–story, to have the potential to move us and to be able to change the way we understand our own work and true mission.

This kind of personal work really should change how we present ourselves to the world; in fact, it can help us to be more honest and authentic in doing so.

Personal Branding Should Point To Actual Work

What both these notions of personal work have in common is that they point to actual work. The personal branding they make possible is simply an exercise in trying to explain and articulate how that work looks to people we might meet, or who might encounter our work online. But, the substance is not the branding, it’s the work itself.

To be honest, I’m not sure quite how well we can reclaim a phrase like personal branding; it feels so hopelessly tarnished.

Maybe a better goal is to look instead at the things we’ve made, the work we’ve done that explains who we understand ourselves to be, and where we hope to go, and just point to that instead.

Who Do You Serve – Where Are You Going

Road To Tso Moriri
Why are we so obsessed with authenticity? Partly, it’s because with so many options and choices presented to us each day, with the torrent of ideas, opinions and personalities that spill out of out of the media we consume every day, we feel “info-whelmed” trying to decide who and what to trust.

The Trust Equation

One of the best explanations of trustworthiness I’ve seen comes from Charles H. Green. His Trust Equation suggests that trustworthiness is measured by the sum of someone’s credibility, reliability and intimacy (how safe and secure we feel with them), divided by their self-orientation.


Being too self-absorbed can undermine someone who otherwise seems likeable and professional. This is why we value authenticity so much; we are looking for a window into people’s motivations, into the longer story of who they are, where they’ve come from and where they are going.

Between Art And Commerce

In the most simplistic sense, we see art as nothing but self-expression and commerce as simply about getting money. Both clichés are selfish and wrong. Art isn’t art because of the self-expression, but because of the connection, the resonance, it has with those who experience it, the way it serves their need for beauty, truth, freedom or inspiration. And, commerce is possible only because goods and services meet needs and solve problems for consumers.

Service might feels like an uncomfortable goal. But, I’d like you to think about service not just in terms of satisfying clients, fans or followers, but more as the bigger, audacious dream you have for the work you do. What you serve, is a way of framing and identifying what problems, beyond your immediate need for food, shelter and affection, are you trying to solve?

Unless we can answer the “what/how do you serve” questions, we risk scoring low on the trust equation and appearing to be inauthentic and self-serving.

Show People Your Road

I believe our obsession with authenticity is a natural evolutionary reaction to the amount of salesmanship we see online; to all the relentless, often false, personal branding and general hype. It’s a refined, natural progression from Green’s trust equation. Authenticity involves revealing our purpose, being honest about the facts of our situation and having some significant, worthwhile contribution to make.

When you meet someone who feels authentic, you get a sense of the road they are travelling on, the places they’ve been in their life and where they might be going. This isn’t necessarily every detail of their biography, but it’s enough to show us what the big picture of their life is, what greater goals they serve.

An Aspect Of Marketing Few Creatives Understand

Christmas Wrapping Prep
This morning, while wrapping the last of this year’s Christmas presents, I was listening to The Creative Penn Podcast, by London-based author, Joanna Penn. The episode I tuned into was an interview with book cover designer Derek Murphy, which turned out mostly to be a conversation about the role cover designs play in the marketing of books, especially for independent authors.

The Commerce Of Art

While discussing how to understand what book covers and web site designs can do for an author, Joanna made a brilliantly concise statement that summed up something few creatives seem to understand.

“The writing is about you, the publishing is about the book, the marketing is about the customer.”
– Joanna Penn

Or, put it this way; the music is about you, the mixing and mastering is about the album (or single), the marketing is about the listener. For photographers it might be; the photography is about you, the processing is about the photo, the print is about the customer.

The Print Market

I’ve spoken with a quite a few photographers who’ve struggled to sell prints. One well known photographer even lamented that it was a “waste of time.” All the photographers seemed, to me at least, to be making similar mistakes. The photos we think are our best images, the ones we like the most are not, necessarily, the ones other people might want to put on their wall.

All too often, photographers spend their time, especially online, trying to impress other photographers, rather than trying to understand what makes consumers interested in buying or appreciating photographs.

Amongst the prints I had for sale in 2010-11, the one that sold best wasn’t my favourite photo. It didn’t (obviously) show off my technical skills. To be honest, this monastery photo feels kind of postcard-ish. But, I learnt some folks really like to have this kind of image on the walls of their home or office.

Stages Of Creative Process

We no longer live in a world where a photographer needs a gallery to sell prints, nor does a musician needs a major label to see globally, or an author a publisher to release a book. But, the thrill of being able to do it ourselves, shouldn’t make us blind to the benefits that existed in the old system.

The moment we start to render our work into a tangible form, turning music into an album, words into a book or photos into prints, we need to start asking ourselves what serves the best interest of the work.

I’m often asked to comment on projects by musicians who are DIYing their own albums. A lot of the music is really good. But, almost without exception it would have been a lot better if the musicians had invested a bit more in getting their music mixed or mastered properly, with techniques and approaches suited to the music that has been made.

And, if we choose to turn that creative work into a product, then marketing becomes essential. But, sadly, few independent creatives make the time to understand and have insights into the people who are, or could be interested in their work. To have a complete, sustainable approach you need to understand yourself and your work, but you also need to understand how to best realise the kinds of work you do, usually with the help of others and you need to find and understand the people who are willing to support your work, or buy the things you make.

Is Social Media Dying?

Old Social Media
A few years ago, there were the odd dissenters from Facebook’s seemingly relentless take over of the internet. Some were simply not won over by the social media giant’s “charms” while others like myself, saw more negatives than positives in the platform.

Now the dissent is growing fast. Rather than the odd person here and there leaving (or contemplating it) there seems to be a daily stream of folks questioning the value of what was once, not that long ago, the unrivalled mecca of the internet.

Social Media Is Bullshit

I’ve been reading B.J. Mendelson’s Social Media Is Bullshit, which despite the contrarian title, is actually a helpful corrective to much of the Social Media boosterism around today (and to which I’m sometimes prone to as well). One of the book’s great strengths is putting the rise of social media in a border context of the history of the internet. Commentators are quick these days to suggest user-generated content is somehow a new phenomenon. But, actually, the internet, pre-2000 was almost exclusively user-generated content, from GeoCities to early web pages and then blogs, the internet was a vast, often anarchic realm of individuality.

The Rise Of Social Messaging

Social Media has been under assault from within and without. Changes to Facebook and Twitter’s way of showing updates has frustrated many users. And the rise of social messaging platforms like WeChat, What’s App, Line and Wire are disrupting small group sharing and conversation.

One of Twitter’s under-appreciated charms is the way @-replies allow for a kind of semi-private, yet open-ended conversation. You can watch people talking and add your thoughts to the dialogue. It replicates a real world dynamic we are used to from meetings and social functions.

But, over the last year or two a lot of that kind of activity has shifted to group chats on social messaging platforms. These can fulfil the same function for those who initiate the chat, but they are less accessible to those who were not invited to the start of the conversation, or of course, to strangers.

This narrowing seems to taking users away from social media in a manner not unlike the way social media robbing blogging of a lot of its steam and personality.

Death Precedes Evolution

What is dying is not so much the platforms themselves: Facebook, Twitter and the like are not yet at a MySpace-like edge of oblivion. What is dying is the idea of social media, the notion of addressing vast numbers of people around the world in a way that’s simultaneously both personal and mimicking mass-communication.

This is probably going to make harder for anyone trying to grow a presence on platforms like Twitter. I’m not sure the way I started to grow my following, by participating in lots of open, online discussions with others living in my then home city, Hong Kong, is possible now. That just doesn’t get anyone in front of enough potential new followers like it did.

It seems this frustration with Social Media is pushing some creatives to get smarter about the blogs and mailing lists, trying to build a deeper and more meaningful connection with the followers they have and hoping to attract new followers by offering something unique and helpful. I’m inclined to think this is a good trend.

LED Lights Are Not A Massive Aesthetic Step Backwards

Artisanal Light Bulb

The Christmas decorations went up around my home over the weekend and I’ve been enjoying the low warm light filling our courtyard, hall and lounge room. Compared to the heavy, unreliable (and not entirely safe) strands of lights I remember from my childhood, the new, modular LED Christmas lights are really easy to use. It’s wonderful to see the way these lights are creatively deployed around Tokyo, especially the stunning installations in front of Roppongi Hills.

This is, of course, one small part of a rapid development in lighting technology, recognised when Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura were awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize for Physics. LED lights haven’t just changed the face of Christmas decorations, they are also helping us become more creative (and efficient) with our lighting in a variety of situations. This past week I joined 868 other people backing the brilliant Lume Cube project on Kickstarter. And, last month I was in Akihabra, being totally amazed at the way variable colour, flexible LED strips could be applied to light music projects and possibly my studio, in the near future.

A Rant To The Contrary

So, I was surprised to read a somewhat grumpy and “blimpish” rant against LEDs in a recent Financial Times column from Tyler Brûlé.

“If LEDs are so great, why has a whole sector of cottage industries sprung up to offer old-school, cosy lighting solutions to online customers worldwide? If the LED is so wonderful, then why do aircraft interiors look so chilly and cold? And, while we’re told that LEDs can reproduce almost any type of lighting situation, why is it that in domestic settings they leave everyone looking ghoulish and haggard?”

To back up his tirade, Brûlé points to airplane interiors (which to my memory have always been unforgivingly lit) and hotted up cars (which are hardly the first place most of us look for interior design cues). From someone who claims to frequent Japan’s retail sector, I was surprised the comments were not a little better informed. Go to any major electronic department store here, like Bic Camera or Yodobashi, and you will not only see masses of interior LED lights for sale, but also rows of ingenious display boxes, housing every available model, lighting up a identical little scenes. so you can see exactly how the light you want to buy will render print on a page, or fruit in a bowl.

Understanding Artisanal Electronics

There is a trend towards artisanal lighting going on – the photo at the top of this post is from light fitting I made for in my workshop, using a great looking old school filament bulb. But, it’s misguided to see this as simply a reaction against the limitations of poorly installed LED lighting. Artisanal electronics, from resurgence of vinyl, or film photography, through to old school designs of kettles and kitchen appliances, it is part of a much bigger cultural trend.

Partly it’s fashion, partly it’s fear of the future; we are unsure how good our new ideas are, so rebooting existing designs and concepts feels safer. Also, with worsening economic conditions in much of the world clashing with oversaturated consumer choice, the older industrial-era values of “made to last” and “reliability” feel attractive. Perhaps more than anything, the internet makes it possible for these older electric and electronic technologies to find markets, stay in business and even continue to innovate.

Anyone with an understanding of how light works architecturally or artistically will understand the potential of lighting a space with a large number of small lights that can installed and controlled in customisable ways. Designers and artists have only begun to scratch the surface of what new LED lighting technologies can do and I look forward to living with both the best of the new and the best of the old technologies lighting my living and working spaces in the future.

Layering Music Samples For Christmas

Lately I’ve been starting my music projects by digging around for one sounds that would set the mood for the song, or piece of music. For Christmas music, it’s always a challenge to come with something that balances the familiar with the surprising. Increasingly I find that layering sounds gets me the best results.

Here I used three sample libraries from Sonic Couture to bring the opening bars of It Came Upon A Midnight Clear) to life. I’m not affiliated to them nor do I get a kickback from writing about their libraries, I just dig what they do and their sounds find their way into a lot of my music.

Starting With Music Boxes

This exercise started with Sonic Couture’s Music Boxes (which is a free library). Christmas melodies are so strong, they can stand up to being played on really fragile instruments, like music boxes, toy chimes and the like. Here’s the basic intro part I played in using this library.

Adding Some GuZheng

This Gu Zheng sample library is one of my favourites. It has a rich, nice sound and most importantly, it plays in a very musical way. Adding it to the Music Boxes rounded the sound out a little and made the melody a little more surprising.

GeoSonics In The Bass

Geosonics is one of SonicCouture’s newer libraries and uses ambient field recordings to create some evocative soundscapes. I really like it for ambient pads and here, for unique basslines.

The Full Layered Sound

If I was playing this live, I would play all the libraries from within one Kontakt instance. But, as a mix in Logic, I created three tracks, disabled the library’s own reverb, then created my own busses, with UAD EMT Plate, Lexicon 224 and Roland RE201 plugins to give the tracks some ambience, and a special treatment on the Music Boxes, with an Elysia Niveau and UAD Fatso Jr. I also made use of the BrainWorx bx_digital2’s mid/side processing to give each sound it’s own space in the stereo and eq spectrum.

I hope you like the result, one performance, layered across three sample libraries, the first of a few sonic experiments to mark this Advent/Christmas season.

The Long Game

“Blogs are a great way to get free stuff.” I’ve heard that line a few times, in conferences, workshops and from other bloggers. Increasingly it defines the way a lot of people see blogging.

It’s not just bloggers. I’ve spoken to marketers and publicists who don’t understand why I would have a blog other than to fish for free stuff. When I try to talk about my big picture, why I’ve bothered to blog for so long and why I choose to focus on helping fellow creatives, rather than getting free crap, it’s as if I’m talking another language.

This is, of course, a very short sighted approach. Blogging is really just a subset of a much bigger and more fundamental digital revolution that is changing every field of work, or at least every field that depends on the sharing (or concealing) of information, the formation of ideas and the trading of good and services.

Blogging for free stuff is short-sighted; eventually readers will see the reviews are fuelled only by basic exchange, a free meal for a positive write-up, free web hosting for some glowing appraisals, a new shirt for a retweet. The credibility gap will catch bloggers out, unless of course, they give up before they get found out.

It’s probably not a coincidence the bloggers I admire, the ones who seem to consistently inspire me with their words and the way they handle themselves online, are playing the long game. They connect their activity online to long term hopes and dreams they have for themselves and those around them. These might be artistic endeavour, career, family, education, personal or spiritual growth. The specifics of the work don’t matter as much as the connection to the long game. They blog as a way to demonstrate their skill, experience and credibility.

Blogging was never just about the blog itself and certainly not about getting free stuff. Blogging was about being able to get your ideas and your work out into the world, without having to rely on pleasing institutional gatekeepers or having to overcome the massive financial and regulatory hurdles that existed in the old systems of publishing and distributing creative work. This once in a thousand year opportunity to take your career destiny into your own hands is worth a hell of a lot more than a free meal.

Birthday 2014

Today, in many small and unremarkable ways, I celebrated another birthday. Rather than fill the day with big celebrations, I elected to spend the day doing the things I love most, from meals with my family, to reading, making music, doing pilates, taking photos and even a long slow evening walk through the streets of Tokyo.

For the little self-portrait you see above I set up a single continuous light in my studio and used the timer on my iPhone 5s. The shot was made possible by the 645 app, which allowed me to tied down the iPhone’s ISO to 160, avoiding the harsh noise normally created as the iPhone’s autoISO tries to adapt to a low light environment. This meant the shot had the natural light falloff we associate with a normal camera. I then processed the image in the iPhone, using Snapseed and PS Elements.

The days are growing shorter here in Tokyo and the night are certainly cooler, which is a natural reminder that the year is drawing to a close, that we are being pulled into that season, which we fill with decorations, lights and gifts, but which we know is also a time of reckoning and reflection, of looking back over the year we have lived and deep into the eyes of those we love. Wherever you find yourself this autumn, I hope you can take the time and opportunity to enjoy this time of year. And, of course, thank you for reading this blog and following my work throughout 2014!

When To Listen To Criticism

Small Temple Hiroshima
Yesterday morning I was riding the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) back to Tokyo after a few wonderful days in Hiroshima. I packed light for the trip and was using my FujiFilm x100s for most of photos. I was looking forward to getting home and processing the images, especially from around the iconic A-Bomb sight and the picturesue island of Itsukushima

Trains have always been my favourite mode of transport and the Shinkansen Green Class, with comfortable reserved seats in whisper quiet cabins, only reinforces that feeling. I took the opportunity to catch up on a few days worth of blog feeds, when I stumbled on this article about the value, or potential lack thereof, we find in photographic image critiques.

An Equation For Measuring Criticism

Image critiques are commonplace in photography, from formal educational settings, to more casual online environments. They are really a subset of portfolio reviews, which are a staple of all visual art forms, where the artist submits their work for evaluation, often by an esteemed professional or educator. Of course, other arts have similar processes, from manuscript evaluations for authors, to listening parties for musicians (which used to be about hearing tracks before they were fully mixed, though these days might also refer to launch events instead).

All this sits within a bigger set of comments we call criticism. The world is full of critics, so every time we share an image, in person or online, we are prone to hearing someone’s opinion on it. Pretty soon we start asking ourselves, who should we listen to? For me, this little equation sums it up.

The value of criticism is determined by how much skin the critic has in the game, divided by how little ego is involved in giving the criticism. The best criticism comes from folks who are active in the field, who are doing or have done good work and who are not threatened by your potential success. The less talent, experience, insight or practical understanding the critic has, the more you should be cautious about listening to them. And, the more critic’s ego is challenged or in play, the more the value of the criticism is undermined.

Asking The Right Questions

Even before we discuss the value of image critiques, or any kind of intentional evaluation of our creative work, we have to get clear in our heads the kinds of people we need to have around us. This is something I wrote about in 7 Kinds Of People You Need In Your Creative Universe and it’s a theme I will expand upon in my upcoming book.

It’s tempting to seek lots of opinions. But, it’s hard to unhear bad advice. I firmly believe part of why I improved quickly in photography was because I put hard limits on how many people I allowed to really critique my images. A lifetime of music had taught me just how harmful criticism can be and how long it can take to recover from criticism that sometimes has little to do with the work we have created and more to do with the threatened ego of the critic.

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but not every opinion has equal value.

And, the truth is one really solid piece of criticism, from a knowledgeable, well informed practitioner, with no axe to grind or agenda to push, can help fuel your creativity for years, maybe decades to come.

Trust Your Sense Of The World

Next time you see criticism at work, maybe a live image critique, or something that’s happening online, in a forum or in response to an image posted on social media, just sit back and observe. Ask yourself, what are the critics saying about themselves, through the criticism they are giving. Are they trying to show off their knowledge (maybe using jargon like decisive moment, or rule of thirds)? Are they vying for the attention of the well known people in the group? Are they trying to sell something (maybe a course, or workshop)? Are they trying to say something about what they feel about photography, or art in general?

When I got into photography, I noticed something about the criticism my photos received. There was no doubt a lot of people knew a heck of a lot more than me about photography and especially about how cameras and photo processing software worked. It would have been foolish not to listen to those folks.

But, there was also a lot of relevant things I knew from art history, film studies, web and product design, even years of looking at album covers and fashion magazines that was informing my photos. 99% of the time the image critics, even the well known ones, were not picking up on those things, or didn’t know enough to engage in a conversation over them.

Criticism is a little messy, because it is a deeply human activity and we will get the most of image critiques, or any kind of creative evaluation, if we keep it as human as possible. That’s why anonymous critics are worthless as are critics who can’t stop talking in cliches or jargon. The best critics are really like the best people; they are willing to listen to your without feeling threatened and are prepared to speak to you honestly, from with the authentic centre of their experience.

When you find criticism like that – cherish it.

Tokyo International Film Festival

Tokyo Film Press Pass
Last week I had a lot of fun attending the Tokyo International Film Festival. This year the festival screened over 200 films, with a strong focus on World Cinema, emerging Asian directors and Japanese Animated films. I managed to catch 15 films, all of which I reviewed over on The Society For Film website.

The Photographic Why Of Cinema-Going

While I love watching films, there is a professional, creative side to my cinema going. A lot of the way I approach making photos is informed by ideas I’ve learnt from cinema. Photography books, magazines and websites certainly helped me learn how to operate a camera and how to develop photos in post-processing. But, most of the ideas I bring to my photography, what I’m trying to do in a photo, really come from cinema and fashion magazines (and to a lesser extent, comics and paintings).

That’s why film festivals are such a treat. Not only do we get to see lots of good films in a short space of time, we often see films from all around the world, in a variety of styles and from a range of artistic schools. Some of the 15 films I saw at this festival were shot like glossy Hollywood blockbusters, others in much more low key, almost classical styles. There was also plenty of new techniques, with two films especially (The Mighty Angel and Ruined Heart) featuring lost of point of view shots from handheld GoPro cameras.

The 15 Films Ranked

It’s hard to rank films that are so different. To be honest, all these movies have at least something appealing about them. I’d added some brief comments below, or follow the link for a full (mostly spoiler free) review.

15. Force Majeure – Intensely dark, Scandinavian family drama, as couple confronts their broken relationship while on a ski holiday.

14. Dhoom 3 – The latest instalment in a huge, gig budget Bollywood action franchise, saved by a compelling lead performance and some incredibly lush indoor scenes.

13. Late Spring – Winsome, beautifully shot and unapologetically romantic Korean drama about an artist, in the twilight of his creative career.

12. Ice Forest (La Foresta di Ghiaccio) – Tense and frosty thriller set in the Italian Alps.

11. The 50 Year Argument – Martin Scorsese’s documentary homage to The New York Review of Books.

10. Ruined Heart: Another Lovestory Between A Criminal & A Whore – An audacious visual poem from the underbelly of Manilla.

9. The Days Come (Les Jours Venus) – Fiction and reality merge in this French film about a director looking for his next project.

8. A Courtesan With Flowered Skin (Hanayoi dôchû) – Visually splendid Japanese period drama.

7. Parasyte (Kiseijû) – An exciting, fresh, Japanese take on the alien invasion via body-snatching idea.

6. River Road – Thoughtful and vivid ecological parable from Western China.

5. The Mighty Angel (Pod Mocnym Aniolem) – Dark and harrowing tale of a Polish writer struggling with alcoholism.

4. The Lesson (Urok) – A patient, brilliantly pieced together, many layered moral saga from Bulgaria.

3. Reality (Réalité) – A surreal, dark, very funny French take on Hollywood and the film industry.

2. Los Hongos – Carefully observed story of two young artists and their friendship on the streets in Colombia.

1. Melbourne – An Iranian couple face challenges on their last day before moving to a new country.