From Assistant to Photographer: Shaun Fenn's Professional Transition

by David Walker

©Shaun Fenn

Photographer Shaun Fenn continues to shoot second camera occasionally for advertising photographer Andy Anderson, but he transitioned to shooting for his own clients about a year ago. "My goal is big commercial productions, with lots of moving parts," he says. "to get to that point, I needed to be on my own."

The market is fiercely competitive, and the transition has been more difficult than Fenn expected, but he has gained his foothold. Clients so far include FedEx, Charles Schwabb, Rolls Royce, The Wall Street Journal, and Discovery Magazine, and he recently signed with Paula Gren for representation.

For Fenn, photography is a second career. He worked in the high-tech industry for 11 years, including stints as the VP of sales for Netscape and Seibel Systems. He was an accomplished amateur photographer, and in 2006, he started pursuing photography with a goal of shooting big productions for national clients. He started by picking the brains of photographers, photo industry consultants, and other assistants.

"I had an 'Aha!' moment when a consultant suggested I make a list of the people whose work I really respected," Fenn says. He listed half a dozen people, including Nadav Kander, Dan Winters, and Anderson.

He happened to know Anderson's rep. "So I called her and said, 'I'm sure he could use a strong, educated assistant--would there be an opportunity to help him out on projects?'" says Fenn, who already had a web site to showcase his work. "Ten minutes later, Andy called me and said, 'Your work's great. We'll work sometime.'" A couple of months later, Fenn started traveling as an assistant to Anderson on big commercial jobs.

"One of the reasons I assisted was to get experience with large productions, where a lot is at stake, and a lot of people are involved. You can be a great artist, but managing that part of the process takes a lot of experience, a lot of nerve and confidence," Fenn says.

"Andy and I have a lot in common. We work together, travel together, and have a crazy obsession with shooting images," Fenn continues. An important lesson he learned from Anderson was to shoot personal work all the time because "that's what clients gravitate toward: your vision, your voice." They ended up traveling and working together on personal projects as well as assignment work. After a few years, though, Fenn says he realized that "to be recognized out there, you have to work on your own because you have to shoot what nobody has seen before."

He started doing personal projects on his own, and by 2010, felt ready to start promoting himself to potential clients. Fenn says he didn't have a formal business plan for his transition, and he didn't really prepare himself financially. "I went into it with blind faith," he says. "I've worked in a corporate environment with 50 employees, $50 million in [sales] quotas, and a lot of pressure. I felt confident I could do this [transition]."

Making the leap in an intensely competitive market with limited resources was harder than he expected, but it motivated him. "To have it be a struggle has been good for me professionally, because I had to be creative to make things happen," he says.

Fenn has built a portfolio to attract advertising clients, for instance, by taking small editorial assignments and turning them into full-blown advertising productions. It's a strategy he attributes to Bay Area photographer Erik Almas. "He was taking editorial assignments, and anteing up to make them into personal work," Fenn says.

An early assignment from Bay Area Kids magazine, for instance, came with an open-ended brief to shoot images of kids enjoying the Bay Area. "I took it on as this very conceptual project, with a ton of post-production, shooting underwater, shooting various background plates, shooting kids in the studio, and putting all together to create something unique, as opposed to just going out and shooting something editorial."

While building a portfolio, Fenn began marketing his work, and he cast a wide net. "It's challenging to do it all on an assistant's income, but you have to spread yourself across all of the different [marketing] vehicles. One or two is not effective [at reaching potential clients] and it takes a long time to create a presence."

In 2010, he started using AdBase to send monthly e-mails blasts to art buyers, and he used Modern Postcard send quarterly postcards. To figure out which publications and contests to target, Fenn says that "talking to art director's on set, you find out what contests and what publications they look at." He ended up submitting work to Communication Arts, Luerzer's Archive, Graphis, American Photography, and APA. He also advertised in AtEdge, an expensive and exclusive sourcebook. "Art directors fight over the AtEdge booklets," he says.

The combination of portfolio building and broad promotion caught the attention of the Gren Group, a small rep agency in Boston. Principals Paula Gren and Mark Winer took note of the postcards they received from Fenn. Then they saw his work in Communication Arts, and checked out his web site. A few months later, they got another mailer from Fenn, went back to his web site, and found all new work.

"We realized that he was aggressive and motivated," says Gren. Winer adds, "He was updating his work and getting exposure. And the fact that he had worked with Andy Anderson for three years got our attention. To be able to say you've been first assistant to a top photographer for two-and-a-half years says you know the ins and outs of big production, and how a rep relationship works."

Having spent most of his money on promotion, though, Fenn had found himself without enough to produce new work for his portfolio. So last year he cut his promotion expenditures in half, spending more strategically. "One of the mistakes I made was utilizing the email service and sending out a large quantity mailer. Now I work with my rep to send a much more personal and targeted list," he says.

Winer and Gren narrowed Fenn's postcard and e-mail database from about 3,000 to 300 to 400 contacts, mostly by eliminating clients who aren't looking for location and lifestyle work. Gren adds, "It's the quality of work that we want [our photographers] to go after, not the quantity."

Looking back on his transition, Fenn says he learned some important lessons. One of them: "Some advice [from consultants] is good, but a lot of it is based on a different time" and is no longer applicable because market conditions have changed so much. Besides, the advice of every expert is different. "One thing I learned was to take all the input you can get, and then go with your gut," Fenn says.

He also learned the importance of doing as much of his own editing, post production, and design work as possible for his promotions and web site. "I don't know whether doing all the design work myself was smart, or the right thing," he says. But he discovered the hidden cost of letting someone else build his web site after they offered to do it--for a price.

"I thought, what a luxury. What I really want is to shoot," he says. "But when someone else puts your web site together, it won't look anything like your vision. A big huge mistake is not to do what works for you. You have to do what's important to you, because that's what people will hire you for."

Fenn says his best preparation for his transition was his assisting experience. "You want to work with the top person who is working in the realm you want to work in," he says. He learned from Anderson how to handle big productions. But he also shot enough personal work to define his style and build his brand, and promoted himself aggressively.

"You have to focus. You need to have an identity and a brand," says Gren. "You also have to balance your day. Some photographers just want to shoot, and the self promotion gets left behind. You have to find a balance."

Related Articles:

From Assistant to Photographer: Magdalena Wosinska’s Professional Transition
From Assistant to Photographer: Michael Clinard's Professional Transition

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