Conversation with John Keatley

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John Keatley

A Quick Snapshot

John Terrill: So John, tell us a little about your background — where you grew up, went to school, and what you studied.

John Keatley: I was raised in Southern and Northern California. While growing up, I was encouraged to be creative but I never had a specific outlet on which to latch my creativity. After my freshman year in junior college, I traveled north in 1999 and began studying business at Seattle Pacific University. A couple years later, I picked up a camera for the first time.

Donovan Richards: Were you interested in professional photography?

JK: I did not have an interest in photography as a profession; I really just wanted pictures of my life and my friends. One year, back home in California during Christmas, a photo-lab manager at a drug store pulled me aside while I was picking up prints and asked if I had ever considered becoming a photographer. Then and there I decided — without knowing what it meant — that that was what I wanted to do.

From that point forward, I pretty much made photography my unofficial major. I continued attending class but I poured my time into photography.

What did the photo-lab manager notice about your photography?

JK: Probably that the photos weren't blurry! It was a typical drug store lab, and maybe my snapshots were different enough from the family photos she usually saw that she thought to say something. I suppose those pictures were better than average. Who knows, maybe it was just one of those moments where she was in a good mood and felt like being complimentary. Obviously, it made a huge impact in my life that she decided to say something encouraging.

Sarah Palin
Sarah Palin, by John Keatley

JT: Tell us more about the story of diving into photography. What happened after that?

JK: After Christmas break, I went back to school and took as many pictures as possible. Anytime I heard about a professional photographer, I made sure to seek him or her out. I took advantage of anything I could in order to move myself forward. After graduation, I worked anywhere I could, for organizations and weddings, but my deepest desire was to do portrait photography.

How to Handle a Celebrity

DR: What led you to focus on portrait photography?

JK: Around 2005 or 2006, I first explored this style of photography by taking pictures of friends. I realized that if I tried to do too many things at once, I could be good at them but not great at them. I decided that I really wanted to be great at something. I needed to put 100 percent of my time and effort into portrait photography — the style I was most passionate about. It took a while, but my work started to expand as I mastered the portrait style. Now, my business has grown to the point where I am taking pictures of celebrities and working for large companies.

DR: It must be exciting to work with celebrities. What is your favorite experience with a celebrity?

JK: That is a tough question. It is always a bit of a thrill to work with celebrities for a number of reasons. First, there is a certain level of exposure that comes along with these projects. Typically, the reason I am hired to photograph a certain celebrity is because they are working on a new project or they are involved with something that is going on at the time. In that sense, I enjoy being involved in current events and news by working with celebrities.

Anthony Hopkins was my first high-profile celebrity I photographed, and he will always stand out in my mind for that reason, but I suppose my favorite experience with a celebrity was when I shot famed portrait photographerAnnie Leibovitz. For obvious reasons, that was a really big shoot for me. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but she was really kind and down to earth. We talked about cameras and photography for a few minutes before one of the PR people reminded us we needed to get on with the shoot. She worked really hard at putting herself into the shoot, and I really appreciated her level of interest in working with me.

Jake Locker
Jake Locker, by John Keatley

Another celebrity I enjoyed working with was Jake Locker, who I have actually photographed three different times. He is a fantastic guy, and someone who won me over as a fan. Running around on the football field and playing catch with a pro football player, as well as taking a few pictures, is not a bad way to spend the day.

JT: Do the celebrities have handlers?

JK: Usually. There can be anywhere from one to several people. Also, the client will have several people in attendance. Working with celebrities involves a lot of psychology and politics. It's more about managing people than it is about taking pictures.

The Tension between Creativity and Expectations

Donovan Richards: I enjoy the creative quirkiness exhibited in your photographs, how do you manage channeling your creativity while meeting the client's expectations?.

John Keatley: There's always tension to some extent between the creative process and taking a picture that meets the client's needs. Ultimately, it is really important to do personal work — photographs that you create for yourself. If you want to try something stylistically unique, nobody is over your shoulder telling you that you can't do it. Personal photography satisfies whatever it is inside you that shapes what you most like to do. Personal work will always be the work you are most proud of.

John Terrill: What happens when photographers only do professional work?

JK: If you only shoot for clients, you will become increasingly frustrated; you will try to make a job for someone else your own personal work. It is important to realize that sometimes a job is a job. Work to the best of your ability, but make sure you work toward what your clients want and what makes them happy.

I was one of those photographers shooting everything for everyone. I was having fun at times but I also encountered a lot of frustrations. I hated weddings; I just didn't enjoy shooting them. Also, my busy schedule meant I did not find time for personal work.

I had the growing idea that I wanted to do stylized portraits, but I thought it would happen at some later date, or that some art buyer would see my potential and give me that job. One day, I recognized that this scenario would never happen because you get hired by what you show and I wasn't showing stylized portraits. Since I wasn't enjoying what I was doing and I was spreading myself thin, I started cutting off some projects but keeping other projects that pay the bills.

JT: Does personal work influence commercial work?

JK: Yes! If you can focus your style while doing personal work, you will create a consistent body of work for yourself. When clients want a style you have perfected during your personal time, they'll hire you to shoot a style you enjoy. Think about your personal work like a brand. If Coke started selling kitchen tables and love seats, the customers would become confused and ask, "What is Coke doing exactly?"

This illustration occurs in photography all the time: photographers chase the latest trend. If fashion photography is in demand, photographers start taking fashion pictures; if sports photography is popular, they begin snapping sports shots. Then, all of a sudden, if it looks like you can make a lot of money shooting food, photographers shift focus again. These photographers never realize a true identity; their style is across the board; they spread themselves too thin and their work looks like it is spread thin.

Annie Leibovitz
Annie Leibovitz, by John Keatley

DR: Doesn't shooting one style mean that you must reduce the number of clients?

JK: Certainly. It's scary to say, "I am going to do one thing," because you inevitably need to cut some clients. In the long run, if you can identify the style you enjoy, you will have more fun, and, since your portfolio contains your personal work, the jobs that come to you better fit your creative style.

In a nutshell, you get paid to shoot what you show. If you shoot a bunch of animals and you hate it, stop showing those pictures and incorporating them into your portfolio because you will continue to get hired for that kind of work. While there is tension between the creative process and the client's desires, it will be somewhat alleviated by good branding. If someone wants a Coke, they won't buy a Sprite and hope it tastes like a Coke; they will just buy a Coke. If you establish your brand — a style to specifically portray what you love to do, then clients will hire you to do what you love and life is pretty good.

Art and Inspiration

DR: When you work on an ad campaign, the company has an artistic vision for the final photograph. Do you consider commercial work to be art?

JK: Sometimes a bad idea comes down through the system from the client to the ad agency. Often times a company hires an ad agency because they do a specific style really well, yet, the client asks the agency to create a completely different campaign from their style. The client will say, "We really need help in our advertising but we want you to do our idea." If the company needs help, why is it asking an agency to do one of its bad ideas? Those ideas are not art; they are commercial.

Yet if I decided to do the project whether I am super excited about it or not, it is always important to put yourself into the project completely. If you don't totally believe in a project, you probably shouldn't do it.

Is it art? Probably not; it is just an ad. But, it's hard to define what is art and isn't art.

JT: Who or what do you draw on for inspiration?

JK: For me, I draw inspiration from life in general, what goes on around me. People are very important to me — friends, family, and interactions with others. Especially with photography, my work goes from quirky to serious and dramatic. I'm constantly running scenarios through my head and that's where a lot of ideas come from. I find humor in imagining quirky scenarios in the everyday settings I encounter. Sometimes an idea comes from within, but most of the time an idea comes as a response to the things happening around me.

I've actually been trying to cut out some media, especially in this age when so much information is available. If I don't constantly find value in a twitter feed, blog, or magazine, I'll drop it rather than over-extend myself. I find that a lot of people find themselves stuck in a loop of information consumption and they never actually do anything. I would rather act and make some mistakes than over-learn and over-prepare. For me, it is about finding the line between learning what's new in the industry but not becoming trapped in information overload.

The Ethics of Stylized Portrait Work

John Terrill: Within stylized portrait work, is all business good business?

John Keatley: The way I ethically evaluate taking on clients comes somewhat from experience; the more you’re around potential projects the better you can sniff out the questionable ones. For me, it’s important to converse with the prospective client to determine what they want to achieve in the project, why they want to work with me, and what the scope of the project is. There are many reasons for rejecting a project. Sometimes it is budget or sometimes it comes down to interest — am I capable of doing a great job or is the project so uninteresting that I am potentially selling the client short?

Donovan Richards: Is content considered?

JK: Honestly, it doesn’t happen that often but, certainly, content is an issue. Is the project something I want to put my name on or be behind? This question can be a grey area. As a photographer, I photograph people. I never completely agree with the people I photograph in all aspects of life. This question of content comes from Christian circles more often than not. They ask, “How could you photograph that person?” But, to me, when I take a picture of somebody, I’m not saying that I stand completely behind this person.

To me, a photograph is a document of history. We have records and documents of the worst kinds of people in the world. I view art on the same level; a photograph is just a different medium. Nobody asks the historian why he or she documents the good and horrible events in history. It’s important to remember, and photography is a way to remember.

Going beyond people, when we talk about an advertisement, there are certainly products for which I do not want to help advertise. It is different, though, when I shoot for an editorial. Compared to commercial advertising where signing off on a project in a way equates to signing off on a product, an editorial documents a story.

Tim Gunn
Tim Gunn, by John Keatley

Technology in Photography

JT: Is technology moving so quickly that you need to check in regularly or is the pace reasonable??

JK: It’s moving very fast. Photography is an extremely competitive business. The market is oversaturated. A lot of people think photography sounds fun and they own a camera, so why not get into the business? There are fewer jobs for photographers these days because of oversaturation.

While the pace of technology is fast, it ultimately boils down to doing great work. There are great cameras coming out constantly and I honestly do not keep pace with all of the newest technology.

I have great equipment now and it took me awhile to get there, but now I have the tools to shoot good pictures. I don’t need to constantly seek the newest thing. Until something arrives on the market that I know I need to take me to the next level, I don’t worry about new technology.

All these magazines nowadays are telling you how to become a better photographer and what you need to achieve it. What I have come to realize is: just do good work. Don’t try to trick somebody, just do good work and clients will hire you.

The Photographer's Process

John Terrill: How do you prepare for your shoots?

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Hear John Keatley's answer and how he's evolved his approach.

JT: To get a sense of how you work, how do you divide your time between shoots, preparatory work, and marketing?

John Keatley: I would say I shoot, on average, three to four times a month. A long time ago, I heard a photographer say that photography is 80 percent marketing and I thought that was crazy. I knew I could shoot more than that. When I first started taking professional photography projects, I was doing around 130 to 140 shoots a year which is a significant amount of work. Now, I am closer to 50 shoots a year and the only reason I am doing that many is because of my editorial work — they tend to be smaller jobs that can be turned much more quickly than advertising projects.

Advertising photo shoots have six-figure budgets. Editorial, on the other hand, ranges from $3,000–$8,000. Editorial is a simpler project to work on. The number of projects, then, depends on the balance between editorial and advertising work.

For preparation, seven to eight days of preparation go into three to four days of shooting. The rest of the month I work on marketing, social media, meetings, tracking down leads, and following up with clients. There are so many things outside of photography that go into creating a successful photography business.

Major Markets vs. Quality of Life

Donovan Richards: I have heard that if you want to be a successful photographer, you need to live in New York or Los Angeles. Why has your family chosen to live in Seattle?

JK: Seattle is definitely a smaller market. I am amazed that I can do any celebrity photography in Seattle. I certainly could do a lot more work if I lived elsewhere. I love living in Seattle so for me it is a quality of life issue. Family is really important and our families live here.

Also, I love what Seattle has to offer. Personally I could never live in L.A. or New York; I wouldn't enjoy it. Career-wise, I might be able to do better in these major markets, but, as much as I have great aspirations with work, I am not willing to sacrifice my personal life for my career. It might take more work in Seattle, but I believe that if you are really great at something, you can do it from anywhere — especially these days.

A lot of times, people latch on to New York as if a move will ensure success. If you want to focus on something location-specific, like photographing the New York Yankees or beach lifestyle, you need to live in a place that lets you take those pictures. Since I photograph people, it works for me to be in Seattle.

JT: Have you delegated tasks to other professionals?

JK: Yes, I've begun to work with a larger team, which allows me to specialize and make better use of my time. I now work with a retoucher. I take all of the pictures and he retouches them better and faster than I could. Typically it is two hours of retouching for every hour you shoot. In the past, if I did a three-hour shoot, I would stay up all night retouching. Now, I can come home from a shoot and spend 45 minutes on the phone with the retoucher going over the project and then he can get to work on it.

I am trying to shed off all of the things that I don't need to be doing and giving them to people who can do them more efficiently. The catch with specialization is that it is difficult for a young photographer to employ a team. The beginner can't afford a retoucher or an accountant. While it might take a few years to get to that point, once you do, it's important to specialize, which allows you to get better at the one great thing you do and let other people do better work at the other things. Since I've developed this mindset, my work has gotten better and I've become more successful.

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Hear how John Keatley balances his work and personal life.

A New Business Model

John Terrill: You have alluded in some interviews to a new model for doing business. How do you structure this "new" philosophy into your photography business?

John Keatley: Ultimately any business can give back; any business can and should be looking outside of itself. For me, I spend a lot of time answering emails. I try to answer everyone who contacts me. I get a lot of emails and phone calls from struggling photographers. It's a difficult business and most photographers do not do well. I've had photographers be generous with me so I try to reciprocate and give advice where I can.

JT: And beyond the relational and mentoring dynamics of photography?

JK: Beyond that, I've been thinking more about myself as a businessman than a photographer. It sounds cliché in this interview, but I love business. As much as I love photography, I also really like business.

I enjoy the creation process of business. You can essentially start with nothing more than an idea, and then end up creating something that adds benefit for many people. Although we tend to place business in a box, it connects with all aspects of life.

I also love the people I meet in business. I have strengths and I have weaknesses. I recognize that there are some things that I do not do well and I am not going to waste my time doing them. I would rather spend my effort on things I do well. If you recognize your strengths in business and partner with people who complement you, it's exciting to see what can be accomplished as a body — me acting as one part and the rest of the team acting as other parts of the body; it is an incredible thing. It teaches you community, to be thoughtful and mindful of everything outside of yourself.

A lot of times in Christian circles, people tend to perceive business as a bad thing. Just like everything else in life, the value of business boils down to how it is used. We certainly have bad examples in business. But, people set bad examples for everything. Look at Christianity. Some people say, "If that guy is a Christian, I want nothing to do with Christianity." Christians should focus on understanding business through its foundational value and not by the way it is defined by others.

Liberia Water Well
Liberia Water Well, by John Keatley

Donovan Richards: Have you encountered this idea of creativity and partnership in business outside of your photography endeavors?

JK: In January, I did a project with MiiR Bottles. At this company, for every bottle they sell, they provide clean drinking water for one person for a year. In January, MiiR sponsored its first two clean water wells in Liberia. The company hired me to travel with them and photograph an ad campaign around the process of building clean water wells.

On a trip like this, obviously, you'll be moved. Most people in this scenario will find themselves asking, "What can I do to help?" On the trip, I thought about the many needs present in these communities, and what is the best way to partner with these communities.

Historically, while nonprofits ask for money to fund the vision of the organization, business is self-sustaining. You have a product that is in demand; you are creating the revenue you need which allows you to do things that help the world.

To connect social needs and business, I have been working with the CEO of MiiR, Bryan Pape, to create a product-based company where 50 percent of the revenue will be invested in sustainable projects in Liberia. Currently, certain companies operate under the buy-something-give-something model. On the surface, this idea sounds fantastic. Of course, I need to be careful when I say this because I am not rejecting the value of gift-giving. But, imagine a child in the United States who lives entirely off of gifts like the fictional protagonist in the film Billy Madison; this youth receives all the benefits of a well-off life without providing an honest day's work. That's not the way I want my children to live; it's not a model I want my family to have.

I find it funny that we try to fix major problems with gifts. I am not saying there is no room for gifts, but, a lot of these gifts get sold; a lot of these gifts are lost; a lot of these gifts put local business out of business because a commodity becomes devalued. Instead of working to create a product, people come to expect receiving something for free.

JT: What experiences caused you to reconsider the gift-giving approach?

JK: Growing up at my parent's church, we'd have seven or eight missionaries that the church sponsored, giving them some small figure like $100 a month. Every few years, they would come in on a Sunday and give their spiel and the church would decide whether or not to continue supporting them.

Since these missionaries need more than $100 per month to survive, they needed to raise it from multiple churches. Because the church values mission work and does not want to reject supporting a family, it ends up giving everyone a little bit and it doesn't help anyone because the missionaries have to go find more resources somewhere else. None of the missionaries are able to perform their calling because they are continuously looking for support.

Although the church might feel great about supporting these people, what is it really doing? I'd rather support two missionary families and give them everything they need to perform the tasks God calls them to do.

With this new business, I look at it through the lens of truly supporting one project instead of giving a little bit to everyone. Rather than giving 1percent, what if we could give generously until it hurts? What if we could create a business that could continually flow into these projects?

A Generous Venture

Donovan Richards: What will your venture do in Liberia?

John Keatley: Rather than just giving someone money or a product, we want to fund projects managed by local people creating local infrastructure.

For example, if we fund a new school, there will need to be Liberians building the school and teaching in the school. Our venture will help with the funding and support, but it is not going to come in as a gift. The money will come in as wages and building materials. Unless locals are involved, nobody is going to benefit.

We are looking to provide opportunities instead of gifts. We want the work of everyone in the community to ensure a positive result. We want the people to be the tools that bring about change. We are going to support, fund, and stand behind the people and we will give them the opportunities that they desperately want. But our investment will need to be met with determination and hard work. As much as we want to see these projects occur, we are not going to force them on anybody

Liberia Road
Liberian Boy on Road, by John Keatley

DR: What projects in Liberia do you wish to complete with this new venture?

JK: The first project we are developing centers on the desire in the community for a school. In the minds of the local community, they expect this project to be finished in 20 years; we are thinking, "Why can't we do it now? Why can't we create a business that will support something like this?"

We, however, are trying to be realistic. We understand that there are people who do not want help in Liberia. We can't force someone to want to work; we can't force people to want to better themselves.

At the same time, many people do want to work and lift up the people in their community. What they lack is an opportunity. We have these same issues in our country; we are just able to mask them better. The people in Liberia who do want to better their lives sit on a waiting list for the two foreign corporations that offer decent jobs. Yet these companies take advantage of their Liberian employees and don't pay fair wages.

There are so many cyclical problems and it is a daunting task, but we are completely committed and passionate about changing the way of life in this country through the business we are starting.

Faith at Work

John Terrill: How do you connect your faith to your work? How does it inform the gritty parts of day-in-day-out work?

JK: I grew up with the idea that to be Christian meant to surround yourself with "Christian" things. You have to listen to Christian music and watch Christian movies. Christian products are better products than secular products. But this is a false notion.

Additionally, it's important to be in relationship with people and to be mindful of the impact I have on my family and the world. It comes down to working in a way that is ethical, a way that is honoring to others, and a way that is true to myself. I believe there is a great purpose for each one of us, and life does not exist simply to get through it. We all have work to do, and we are called to love others. To me, that is Christian integration. It is about living life as best as you can in the way that you feel God calls you to live.

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Hear additional ways John Keatley connects his faith and his work.

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