Nader Khouri has been in the position of many of my readers: Former newspaper staffer, passionate about his work, took a buyout and is now trying to make his way as a freelancer in this economy.
Khouri, a photographer, has morphed his impressive photojournalism credentials into corporate and other photography work, and he has a brand to prove it. Here's how he did it. Oh, and do yourself a favor and check out his heart-rending photos at his Web site. I especially recommend looking through the "Picture Stories" tab. There you can find some of the photos he refers to below.
Tell me about your career trajectory. You used to be a newspaper photographer. When did you leave that job?
I worked for 10 years as a newspaper photojournalist at the Contra Costa Times. I left the Times in early 2008 and my departure was part of a buyout. Much of the shakeup at the company originally started when the shareholders of Knight Ridder (who used to own the Contra Costa Times) decided in 2006 that the newspaper business wasn't profitable enough. Knight Ridder, the second largest newspaper publisher in the U.S. with 32 dailies, sold all of its papers, and it was downhill from there. Right now I am running my own business as a commercial photographer. I couldn't be happier now that I am working for myself. My success is much more in my own hands, whether the economy is good or bad.
Before you went freelance, what did you think of when you thought of branding? Is it a new concept for you?
I knew branding only from the point of view of a consumer. I had no idea about how branding could be developed for my business. I now see it as a process of identifying what I love to do and then researching the market(s) to see how it connects with making a living. It's a combination of my passion and the market's needs.
How long have you been working on creating your new personal brand?
Since leaving the paper in early 2008. I took a semester-long class in marketing through Berkeley City College that helped me narrow down my focus and set goals for myself. It was geared toward helping each student prepare a strategic marketing plan, which included a mission statement, core values, goals and objectives and strategic infrastructure.
Tell us what your brand is.
My brand is photography that helps support a healthy planet and economy. It consists of subject matter that has anything to do with supplying healthy food, sustainable energy and business. My brand also includes my style of shooting where I put value on composition different from your average straight shooter. Many clients value a developed sense of seeing.
How did you come up with your brand? Was it difficult?
No, not at all. It was easy to come up with because it was a fusion of the causes I care the most about: food, energy, and business. Some people have argued that it isn't focused enough, but I am happy with it. I don't think that marketing oneself solely based on subject matter (i.e. shooting food, fashion, autos, etc.) is totally necessary. Having more than one thing to focus on is okay.
I have three life experiences that have helped fuel my motivations for photographing food and helping preserve the right to eat healthy food. First is the connection that started after I photographed Palestinian olive farmers. They still use the same farming methods passed down from generation to generation. It is there where I became most connected to the land and where I also began to worry about how that way of life is becoming endangered. Also fueling the food passion was my experiences photographing all of the farm communities here in the California delta. I spent a lot of time photographing in the fields of both small and large farms where I gained a lot of respect for immigrant laborers and learned about the different issues farmers face. Lastly, my food passion comes simply from the love of eating healthy food. I have seen how a healthy diet really can make a difference in my own life.
The energy part comes from seeing the conflicts in the Middle East that have such a direct effect on our lives here in the U.S. I would love it if the U.S. did not have to exploit other countries for their natural resources. That is why through my photography I support causes that would allow the U.S. to be dependent on its own resources for energy while also cutting down on the burning of fossil fuels.
The business component of my brand comes out of my desire to help businesses get through this difficult economic climate. Websites these days are a necessity for any business and I have seen too many businesses with websites that are either unprofessional looking or severely outdated. I think good design and photography are crucial for any business whether new or established so I work with branding firms to help businesses develop a look that fits their character.
What steps would you recommend other creative freelancers take to create a brand?
Start calling yourselves entrepreneurs and start thinking more about the big picture. Then, start networking like your life depends upon it. You've got to make solid connections with people in other professions and start saying the words "collaborate" and "partner." Hang your goals on the wall and start to convince yourself that they will happen. Keep them in your site as much as possible. The more you see them, the more you become them.
Photo courtesy of Nader Khouri.