Who the hell is john demato to teach you about visual storytelling strategy?
Good question, :)
It’s been a long road...
When I was younger, the thought of becoming a business owner scared the shit out of me. It was the last thing on this Earth that I’d ever want to do with my life.
Growing up in a middle-class home in Queens, NY, my parents endlessly preached about stability, consistent paychecks and health insurance.
And, being the good boy that I am, I took that advice to heart.
I went to an art high school in Manhattan with the intention of becoming an architect. I’ve been doodling and making art my entire life, and figured that was stable enough - I mean, people build buildings all the time, right?
All it took was one conversation with my teacher, a retired architect, and I realized that architecture was not in the cards for me.
Long story short, I didn’t have the passion for it.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF VISUAL STORYTELLING
Keeping the be-passionate-about-what-you-do mantra at the forefront of my mind, I went to college to learn how to be a sports announcer.
As a kid, I followed all the major sports religiously and some of my biggest heroes weren’t the players - it was the play-by-play announcers and the anchors on SportsCenter.
I loved how they broke down the action in such a compelling and dynamic way. They were amazing storytellers.
The tone and inflection in their voices to move the story along, the energy they exerted to keep it going for hours, the cool catchphrases they invented - I loved it all.
I figured that since announcing was part of TV Production, I went to Hunter College for Media Studies so I could have access to their studio and practice.
I interned for Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel and had access to his scripts, so, I would load those into the teleprompter and go...
And then, I heard my voice played back and that dream immediately went to shit.
The light at the end of the tunnel was that although I lost total interest in working behind a microphone, I started to warm up to the idea of working behind a camera.
So much so that I developed a passion for it.
After college ended, I knew I needed more seasoning if I wanted to do this professionally, so I decided to go to grad school for TV production so I could have a safe place to train and make a lot of mistakes before they really started to count.
So, that’s exactly what I did for two years - experimented, failed and learned a better way as a result of those failures.
By the time I graduated, I knew that telling stories with my video camera was my thing.
It was this passion that lead me straight into the belly of the daytime talk show beast, :)
PATERNITY TESTS. LIE DETECTORS. WTF DID I SIGN UP FOR?
My first full-time production job was working as a field producer for Maury.
To say that job was a daily adventure would truly be underselling it.
A fucking free-for-all is a more apt description.
I mean, when you’re dealing with such high stakes as the paternity tests, fidelity called into question, emotions are going to run high - both in front of the camera and behind-the-scenes.
It was within this pressure cooker of drama that I learned the power of emotion when telling a story.
I’m not simply talking about the visuals I painted with my video camera, but also through the words of those talking, screaming or crying in front of it.
In my time spent on the show, I helped shape thousands of different stories told in a variety of ways.
These experiences still influence the way I create content to this day.
In 2011, we did a story that involved a professional photographer taking photos of some guests, and that short shoot would turn out to be the most influential shoot I ever did for Maury.
I met a professional photographer who eventually would become my mentor and give me the confidence to even think about shooting headshots and portraits professionally.
And the video we shot for the show was great, too! :)
All in all, working on Maury was an experience for which I’m eternally grateful.
But, all things must come to an end.
After years of doing the same thing over and over, I became complacent and creatively stagnant. The work became more of a chore than a passion.
The stories, which aren’t exactly the most joyous of occasions, grew heavier and heavier on my heart as time wore on. I wasn’t able to push it off any more.
And, the politics of working on a national television program led me down a path of resentment and anger.
AND THEN, MY MOTHER DIED
It led me down a path where I questioned what I was doing with my life.
I had a heart-to-heart with myself and thought, “If I were on my deathbed, how would I feel about the life I lived?”
Quite frankly, my answer left a lot to be desired.
Several months after she died, I did the unthinkable and quit the stable, well-paying job without a plan in place.
All I knew was that I wanted to pursue a career that involved photography.
I was shooting headshots on weekends, but since it was a side gig, I wasn’t really marketing or promoting myself.
Actually, I wasn’t marketing or promoting myself because I didn’t have the faintest fucking clue how to do that.
Not exactly a solid plan, but at least I had something vaguely in mind.
PURSUING WHAT I NEVER WANTED TO PURSUE
For the first couple years working on my own, I was an emotional ball of confusion, anxiety and fear.
I had no idea how to run a business, much less find clients that could benefit from my work behind the camera.
It was a scary and uncertain time.
But at no point did I feel I had made a mistake with my decision.
Rather than crawl up into a ball on the floor of my living room and avoid the fear, I ultimately learned how to dance with it.
I started going to networking events, meet professionals in other industries and ultimately, begin to paint a picture of how I saw how my passion for portrait photography fit into the world.
But still, the picture was fuzzy and cloudy as hell.
MY CREATIVE CRISIS
I would spend hours online looking at other professional photographers work and think to myself, “I can shoot like this. I can make money like this!”
As a result, I would emulate the work of others by booking time-for-photos clients and practice everything I would see.
I did this for years, and thought I was doing the right thing.
I was only getting in my own way.
Eventually, I realized that working in this way was holding me back from discovering my own voice and eye behind the camera.
I unfollowed 95% of the photographers from my feeds, and started to look within for the answers.
I started thinking about my experiences looking through a lens capturing still and motion.
And that’s when the magic started to happen.
THE BIRTH OF #YEAHABSOLUTELY
As I mentioned earlier, I was brought up in a home that preached stability and safety.
That means that I said NO to a ton of opportunities that came my way for the first 35 years of my life.
Although these projects would have benefited me in a variety of ways, I felt that staying in my comfort zone of inaction was the best play.
Once I quit my TV job, that mentality was thrown out the window - not because I wanted to, but because I had to. I needed money to keep the lights on and being picky and choosy about gigs was no longer an option.
But, as I began to develop meaningful relationships with successful and influential business owners who had an amazing outlook on life and the potential for my business, I began to adopt this mindset as my own.
They took me to school with every email correspondence and conversation.
I also started to focus a lot on personal development, which helped clear up a lot of confusion, anger and frustration that plagued me for a large portion of my life.
As a result, the world started to look differently.
That’s why when my friend and colleague, Donna Cravotta, suggested I run with the hashtag, #yeahabsolutely.
It truly represented my business and life transformation and felt very close to home.
Up until that point, I always thought hashtags were a trite afterthought and never really cared to follow any.
And then, I was gifted with one that encapsulates who I am, who I serve and why I do what I do.
It’s a magical turn of events, to be sure, :)
SCREW THE JACK-OF-ALL-TRADES MODEL, LET’S SPECIALIZE
For the first couple years, my photography business was all over the place.
One day I was shooting in a fancy NYC office building capturing event photos.
The next, I’d be in a bar shooting a small networking event.
And the day after that, I’d be in a limo with 16-year-olds shooting a Sweet 16.
Although these jobs served the purpose of keeping the lights on in my apartment, the work didn’t feel right. I was scrambling to make shit work, not leaving a legacy of which I was proud.
Despite the fact that I came into the conversation kicking and screaming, she ultimately taught me the importance of specializing not only to create a premium service to charge a premium rate, but it compels me to focus on the work that I really want to do.
So, Pia and her husband spent some time with me to build my branded lifestyle portrait brand, and then, she became my first client.
Since January 2017, serving clients like her has been my primary - and exclusive - objective.
LOVE WHAT YOU DO AND YOU’LL NEVER WORK A DAY IN YOUR LIFE
You’ll work harder than you’ve ever worked, but, it all feeds your soul in a way it’s never been fed before.
Even though my camera doesn’t come out of the bag everyday, my brain is always on and firing like a broken air conditioner that doesn’t shut off unless you unplug it.
Yes, that was a hyper-specific simile because it comes from my actual life, :)
I just want to take the fuckin’ pictures.
I want to be of service to my clients.
I want every shutter click to create magic, and I care about every single one of them.
Although I know consciously that creating amazing images with every click is an impossible goal, it keeps me hungry to improve with every session..
There’s always room for improvement.
I don’t want to simply make my clients happy, I want to overwhelm them with the results.
My high school architecture teacher was right.
It's about being passionate about what you do.
I’m so glad that he imprinted that important message in my mind at an early age, regardless of whether or not I started to hear it 20 years after the fact.
I’m eternally grateful that I have the ability to create a business model around my art in a way that doesn't compromise my integrity.
That’s pretty magical if you ask me.