The Most Powerful Question in the World
What can I do for you?
These are without a doubt the most powerful words in world of professional photography. Unfortunately many in my profession fool themselves into thinking they needn’t ask potential clients this question. In their mind they’re an artist and offer a unique style that speaks for itself. Clients should line-up, checkbooks in hand, to book their weddings or portraits. Sadly, the resulting images are more about the photographer than the people in front of the camera.
A photographer that has not yet learned the power of this simple question is missing out on wonderful learning experience. There are many ways to ask this question. I’d like to relate an experience I had that might illustrate the rewards that come from asking, “What can I do for you”. I’ve come to remember this as the “Marine fighter pilot encounter”.
Sometime in the 80’s I had a family portrait appointment scheduled for the late afternoon on a Friday. My studio manager did her usual great job of prepping the session and provided me with a note card with all the vital information for the session. The father in the family was a Marine aviator that was soon to be retiring. His wife wanted a family portrait with their young children and dad in his dress uniform. She requested a special image of the kids and their dad with a beautiful saber the kids gave him as a gift.
Everything was set. Mom and the kids arrived early with dad’s dress uniform and everyone looking happy and ready. We were ready to go, except for Dad. He showed up half an hour late and it is obvious he stopped off at the Officer’s Club after work. He was sporting a five-o’clock-shadow and his attitude made it clear he’d rather be anywhere but in my studio. The session went okay and I did my best to engage and relax the family.
A few days after they viewed their preview images, I got a call from the gentleman. He led off by saying, “Hi Ray. I’m unhappy with the pictures you did of my family the other day.” This set off sirens in my mind and I was immediately asking myself what I’d done wrong. Wait, I thought, the lighting was great, the focus was perfect, and the poses were good too. What’s this guy’s problem? I remembered this guy and I was preparing for a fight. Then I remembered something I’d learned from Charles Lewis, an amazing photographer and teacher.
Charles’ advice was to always step back and ask the magic question. But Charles put a special spin on it asking, “What can I do differently to help you love the photographs I create for you?” The Marine’s answer was a surprise, “You don’t need to do anything different. The photographs are beautiful”. I was dumbstruck but I managed to ask what was wrong with them. “It’s me”, he said, “I look like I don’t love my family”. These last few words were choked with emotion. I almost started to cry just hearing the anguish in his words. He explained he’d be happy to pay another sitting fee if I was willing to try. Needless to say, I was happy to give it another shot at no additional cost. After all, how many times do we get an opportunity to photograph such a motivated subject? We had a wonderful session and this time everyone was excited and the love between the family members filled the frame.
That day, I learned something very important. Not only did I discover the power of asking, what can I do for you. I also learned the importance and value my portraits to the families I serve.