Lessons from the newest Olympus Visionaries

I have been using Olympus cameras pretty much since I “went digital” in 2003. I have formally been a member of the Olympus “Visionary” program for 18 months, although I have been working with them informally a lot longer. Olympus recently announced an expanded roster of Visionaries. I read the list of the photographers who are newly affiliated with Olympus and like any good teacher I said to myself, is there a teachable moment in there?

I will be the first to admit that being an Olympus Visionary is a blast. I get paid to to play with the latest gear before most other people do. The company asks for my opinion (sometimes.) They spend time and effort promoting me and my work. So, I would suspect most photographers would want to be affiliated in such a way with any of the major camera manufacturers. Canon, Nikon and Sony have similar programs, but I will only be writing about the Olympus program, not because they sponsor me but because it is the only program I know ANYTHING about.

Olympus added the eight photographers to the Visionary program, above and beyond the existing four “old guys” (which includes me. ) The returning Visionaries include:

Jay Dickman, Colorado based, Pulitzer Prize-Winning National Geographic Photographer, author, photo educator and creator of the award-winning FirstLight Workshops.

Larry Price, Ohio based, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, photo essayist, video and multimedia specialist.

Jay Kinghorn, Salt Lake City based digital media strategist, landscape and action sport photographer, blogger, author and founder of Kinghorn Visuals.

With all those Pulitzer prizes and serious job titles at the top of the list, it is easy to see what those guys bring to the group. Jay, Larry and Jay all have reputations (and affiliations) which precede them and attest to their accomplishment.

Among the returnees, I am the new guy. The way that I am described explains what I bring to the group: “Stock and documentary photographer, photo essayist, photo-educator and founder of the Wells Point photo education blog and Photo Synesi the online photo critiquing service.”

New Visionaries for this year are as follows:

Tammy Lee Bradley is a Florida based lifestyle, portrait, and stock photographer, designer, social influencer and founder of the Mortal Muses photography collaborative for women.

Maitland Lottimer is a Colorado based photographer, television pro, award-winning film maker and co-founder of Zero1Films and Bujin Productions.

Spiro Mandylor is an Ontario, Canada based International fashion & event photographer and founder of the It’s All Style to Me fashion and design blog.

Jamie MacDonald is a Michigan based social influencer, nature photographer, Getty artist, and blogger.

Milo Hess is a New York City based award-winning photojournalist, Emmy Award winning graphic artist and NYC street photographer.

Victor Rodriguez is a New Jersey based photography professor, award winning fashion, fine art, music and studio photographer.

Bryce Bradford is a California based social influencer, landscape and action sports photographer

The teacher in me wanted to learn, and thus share with my audience, what it was that these eight new Visionaries did to differentiate themselves from the crowd, in order to get anointed by Olympus?

I know what I did in terms of that process… By the time I approached Olympus, I had established my credentials as a photographer. I was also in the process of developing a mastery of teaching. With those in hand, I connected with the folks at Olympus at the Photo Plus show in NYC a few years ago and cultivated a relationship with them, both personally and professionally. Then I started working with Olympus doing presentations on their behalf. Just like in any other line of work, they were testing me out to see if I would fit well within their larger mission. I “passed the test” since they added me to the Visionary program in April of 2011.

Larry Price told me about his process saying:

“I was invited to be a Visionary after the Day in the Life of Africa project in 2002. I was asking the Olympus people a lot of questions about digital photography at the time and I was very open minded about the cameras that we used on that project. I had a lot of nice shots from the shoot so when they approached a few of us to become Visionaries, I jumped at the chance. I learned digital photography using Olympus gear and haven’t used anything else to this day. “

Within the new group, the Lottimer brothers won the Olympus PEN Your Short 48 Hour Film Contest at the Vail Film Festival in Colorado in 2011. Watching their winning film and understanding the constraints they had to work within in order to make the film (and win the contest) tell you a lot about their skills as film makers.

Jamie MacDonald described his journey:

“…as a relatively short story since it only took about 4 years. I spent time on Flickr looking at other people’s work, I read forum posts, I Googled… And all the while I was getting into “social media” before most non-techy people were. I’ve been a geek for ages, and every time a new social media platform was announced I signed up for the beta. So, I was being very active on Twitter. Then in the fall of 2010 I decided to host a photo-walk, for which I solicited sponsorship from Think TANK the bag maker and then from Olympus! I learned that contacting them directly was the key. Then a gentleman who was the social media arm of Olympus contacted me saying he had been watching my activity on Twitter (remember how I said I was being social there?) He noted how I was always engaging other users and most importantly SHARING what I do. He went on to ask me if I were interested in becoming more involved w/Olympus….”

Tammy Lee Bradley wrote me about her journey:

“You might say that my experience as an Olympus Visionary began in seventh grade — with an OM-1 (film camera) and a darkroom. It was my first camera and where my passion began. Years later, when my cousin introduced me to blogging and the inspiration that online communities offer, my passion was reignited. In 2010, with the help of eight talented female photographers, I founded the photography collaborative, Mortal Muses. Last October, I was invited to Camp Shutter Sisters in California, where each of the website’s contributors received an Olympus e-PM1 camera and an invitation to the PenReady project. It was as PenReady photographer #800, that I began my love affair with mirrorless cameras. Upon returning home, I found myself putting the e-PM1 around my neck each morning, wearing it like jewelry, and sharing my love of this powerful little camera with anyone that asked.”

Spiro Mandylor wrote me how he was:

“…singled out by Ford Motor Company as one of the World’s Top 150 Social Media Influencers as well as one of Canada’s most prominent style bloggers. I did a little of everything in the health sciences prior to starting a blog in 2010, which really took off, giving me access to great fashion and event photography. Prior to that I had a 10 year track record with film SLR work and painting. I found Olympus through their PR contact in Canada which then lead to the PR contact in NYC. As soon as I got my first and only Olympus, the PEN EP-3, I put my head down and started working like a maniac. I took over 40,000 photos last year alone. “

If you look at the list of new photographers in the Olympus program, a few themes repeat. The new photographers expand the type of photography practiced by the group considerably, moving beyond the world of publication photographers like me to include lifestyle, portrait, nature, fashion, fine art, music, studio, event and street photographers.

Terms like social influencer are noted over and over in the various bios as well as titles like founder, co-founder and award winning. The entrepreneurial nature of today’s society all but requires the successful photographer to build their own business (and their own brand name.) Similarly, credentials like design blogger, television pro, filmmaker and conservationist point out all the other skills that the new members bring to the program.

Though I suspect this blog might look like a PR piece for Olympus, it is not. The smart photographer will look beyond that and ask themselves, what did those guys (and that girl) do that I might want to do to get to where they are now? Working with social media seems to be almost a given. A willingness to do a lot of self promotion is equally important. The courage to approach potential sponsors is a requirement. The ability to take rejection and keep pushing onwards is important. The desire to collaborate with others and to prove that you can work within their mission is also key.

The lesson of this blog is two fold. Skill as a photographer only gets you so far. Getting ahead and distinguishing one’s self as photographer is timeless in some ways but also specific to a given moment. Understanding both of those factors is the key.

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