Last week, we sat down with freelance editorial photographer, professor and workshop founder Todd Bigelow for a deep dive into three of his successful personal projects and a live Q&A.
Todd shared the stories behind his published work on COVID-19, immigration and the 2016 election. He then shared his tips on how to effectively pitch a story, why it’s important to not take rejection personally and more.
Watch to learn:
- How to go from idea to publication
- Tips on mastering the pitch
- Licensing strategies
- How to stand out from the crowd and beat the competition
Cover image by Todd Bigelow.
On-Demand Webinar: Getting Your Personal Project Published with Todd Bigelow
All your questions answered
Thank you to everyone for submitting questions during our live Q&A with Todd! Read through some of his answers below and feel free to tweet any remaining questions to @photoshelter, @ToddBigPhoto or @BusinessofPhot1.
This Q&A was lightly edited for clarity and length.
For those who haven’t been published in the past and who don’t have established connections… Who do you recommend reaching out to? How do you build a contact list?
TB: That’s a good question, but it goes to the heart of what freelancing is about anyways. This is something that I try to stress to anybody that I talk to, whether it’s classes, workshops, anything. First and foremost, you have to get out into your professional community.
Attend workshops, attend seminars – Northern Short Course for NPPA, Eddie Adams. That one launched my career. I went to the third one. So that tells you I’m old, right? There’s Palm Springs Photo Festival, Missouri Photo Workshops, Photo Fusion in Florida, the list goes on and on.
These are conferences where you can go and there are going to be professional reviews. You’re going to meet directors. You’re going to meet creative people. You’re going to meet photo editors at those events. They’re asked to come and speak on those panels. Go, meet them, show your portfolio around. That’s one idea.
This one, I see more resistance to: get on a plane and go to New York if you don’t live in New York. Or go to D.C., or wherever there are enough people where you can actually maximize your time to go introduce yourself and show a portfolio in person. Don’t just reshow your website because if you get to see somebody, you should make it look a little bit different.
This is something that I did countless times to build my freelance career. And there’s cold contacting, too. I’ve done that.
There are ways to do these things, but again, it’s going to be a grind. But those are the things you need to be doing anyways. Don’t wait until you have a project to do it. That’s how you’re going to develop your clients anyhow.
Can you share more about how you leave room for the discovery process when storytelling?
TB: To answer this as succinctly as possible, I’d say don’t develop a shot list. You might have some things that you think are important to check out, but don’t just say, ‘If I shoot this, this and this, I’m going to develop a story.’ Because the best photos, in my opinion, are the moments that are in between.
A lot of my colleagues, friends and I – especially Yunghi Kim, she knows this well – talk about how it’s all about the art of hanging out, man. So if you can hang out, you’re going to discover. I don’t know how else to put it really.
When you’re going to pitch a project, if you don’t have a finished idea, do you still recommend trying to pitch with an end goal in mind, or would you wait until you have a complete project?
TB: Good question. If you’re developing a project and you’re thinking that you might be able to get put on assignment for a couple of days, that’s a personal choice. You can definitely do that, and that’s how some people do it. I’m not wholeheartedly opposed to that. It’s just now there does become the expectation of what the publication wants you to find. Oftentimes that’s how assignment work goes.
If you get to a point where you feel like a project isn’t finished, but you don’t know what else to do, I’m not sure if I would pitch it, because what are they going to assign you if you’re not sure?
So just be aware that sometimes, stories don’t always pan out as you wanted. There’s a difference between a story and a group of photographs. Maybe you’ve got a solid group of photographs that might be used individually for pitching, i.e. If you’re working on a story, I’ve got an image that might work for you.
When pitching a personal project, can you talk about what you make sure to include and what you make sure to omit and why?
TB: That’s actually a really important point. When I’m pitching a project, on my blog, I don’t put people’s names and I actually keep it pretty vague as to the ‘where’ or ‘what.’ Because it’s happened to me – I’ve had stories that I’ve pitched where those story ideas were rejected and then assigned elsewhere.
So I try not to over-pitch an idea with exactly what, everything I shot, and where things are going on. If you’re going to pitch a story about a particular person because it fits a good publication and you have access to that person, I would personally keep their name out and just refer to them in generalities as an expert in X field – until you’re sure that you get that job.
I do this because there was actually one instance where I did pitch a story to somebody I had access to. They loved the idea and then I never heard back. Then I found out from the subject who was contacted by another photographer, and the subject said no thanks.
What I do make sure to include is anything that I think can hook them to the particular story. What makes the project you’re working on particularly interesting?
What’s your best advice for handling rejection and not taking it personally?
TB: I usually drink. No, I’m just kidding, totally kidding. You know what, man? There’s plenty of times when I’ve shown my work and you just realize, ‘Wow, that did not go well.’
When I review portfolios at various conferences and stuff, I’m real and I’m going to be honest, but I’m not going to be mean. And that’s because I have an interest in trying to help somebody and not hurt them at the same time. But your feelings will be hurt. Okay? You just have to develop a little bit of a tough skin because it’s not personal.
Right now, I’m having difficulty in finding a place for this second story that I’ve worked on. Is it personal? No. There’s just a million reasons why places won’t take a story. So if anything, try to flip that ‘rejection.’ It’s something I’ve actually told my son many times; success is not paved on that straight road. Everybody here should know that by now, and especially in freelance photojournalism.
My son isn’t going into that field, but he has already met barriers in his life, and I’ve explained to him, ‘You’ve got choices. You can go around the barrier, through the barrier, over the barrier, under the barrier… or you can sit there and frickin’ whine about it.’
So the choice is yours, but I suggest you find a way past it and don’t take it personally. If anything, use it as fuel to try to find a home for your story. But rejection is part of success. So you’re going to have to get used to it to some degree. I have. I’ve been rejected plenty.
Want to get the answers to all of the questions from the Q&A, including a behind the scenes look at some of Todd’s most successful personal projects? Watch the on-demand webinar.