Sunday, November 5, 2017

Managing The Fame Monster

Fame can create a type of PTSD (post-traumatic-stress-disorder) when you don't know how to deal with it and respond to it appropriately, or at least it did for me.  If you've witnessed someone else's journey close enough to the surface of fame, you may have a better chance of dealing with the public response as it arrives, but it took me about 10 years to really recover from a period of fame that I got early on in my career and felt very unprepared for.

I thought I was just entering contests and submitting work to get feedback and a response around what I was doing well, but it also turned into awards, publications, special features, speaking invitations, and things that started putting me in the spotlight before I was really ready to handle all the other negative stuff that came with being in the spotlight.  I didn't realize there'd be an entirely other element of reputation management that I'd need to deal with as well.  So I ended up taking a huge step back once all the attention got to be too much to manage and started taking me away from my clients and the work that was paying the bills.  I realized I just wanted to get back to doing what I loved: creating images for clients who valued my work without all the fame nonsense.  I gave myself a lot of time to consider what I could do differently if it happened again, and I hope sharing this helps you walk a slightly easier road through any moments of fame that come your way...

1. When You Finally Win Some Awards
People will hate you and people will admire you.  People will talk bad about you and they'll say you're the best they've ever seen.  They'll talk about how they can create better work than you, and they'll talk about how they wish they could create work like you.  They'll say they should have won the award you won, and they'll say they'd never be able to win the award you won.  They'll do this behind your back, to other people, online in comments, in forums, etc.

You really just have to let them do this without defending yourself.  You've already won the award and received the recognition that you were aiming for.  Any defense makes you seem insecure about your win.  Any boasting makes you seem cocky about your win. This is just part of what comes with winning. The only response people want to hear is how grateful you are that the judges liked what you sent them. (People know it's all judge preference anyway.) 

2. When You're Finally Published in Magazines
People will say you bought your way in.  People will say they wish they had your skill.  They'll say your work is too trendy or too posed or too staged.  They'll say you're amazingly creative and a genius for thinking of something so unique.  They'll say you copied them and it's all been done before and that you just rip off other people's ideas.  They'll say you're brilliant and inspiring and they want to be just like you.  People will take your work and try repeating the same results.  People will call you a fake.  People will say you have an inside relationship.  People will assume you can get them published too.  People will put you on a pedestal.  People will try to knock you off a pedestal.

Let them think what they want to think.  Being published and recognized means you don't need to prove anything to anyone.  The only response that people want to hear is that you feel really lucky your work was chosen out of all the great work they could have chosen from.  (People don't blame lottery winners, just their own luck of the draw.)

3. When You Finally Get Invited To Speak
People will say you don't have enough experience.  People will think you know everything there is to know.  People will suggest you need to teach because your work isn't good enough.  People will say you're teaching because your work is amazing.  They'll think your ideas are rubbish and uninspiring.  They'll think you've opened up an entirely new way of seeing things.  They'll walk out in the middle of your talk.  They'll stay after and want your signature.  They'll tell you what a fan they've been all along even though you're meeting them for the first time.  They'll become someone you once knew really well and now refuses to acknowledge you.  They'll think you're a hack.  They'll think you're an expert.

These are all a matter of their own varied perspectives and you have to go in knowing your message is only going to be heard and liked by about half of the room, much like running for American Presidency.  Remember that your message is less about you and more about what other people make of it even if it's not at all what you meant.  You're just the messenger who happens to be the one brave enough to stand on the stage.  The only response people want to hear after commenting on your speech is how you tried your best and were honored to have the opportunity.  (People honor the process of being selected and showing up, no matter the message.)

4. When Strangers Start Recognizing You In Public
I think it was Gary Fong who once said, you aren't really famous until the bagger in a grocery store recognizes you in the check-out lane.  It's a great way to put "fame" of any kind back into perspective of the larger world out there.  That being said, in the world of the internet, if you put yourself out there often enough, you may gain some stalkers or fans who do actually recognize you in places you'd least expect it, even when you don't have any makeup on or just walked out of the gym.  At first, you feel totally weird that a complete stranger is coming up to you and acting like they've known you forever and yet you know nothing about them.  However, if you know how to handle it in advance, you can level the playing field by responding really down to earth and friendly, rather than standoffish and rude because you felt attacked.

The response I've found which seems to work best for dealing with this kind of guerrilla attack is to say "Hello!  What's your name?  What are you working on right now that made you familiar with my work online?" It does take an extra minute to hear someone out rather than turning your head and running away as fast as you can, but it also becomes a chance to gain a little market knowledge about the tribe who follows you and how they found your work online.  It's also much more personable than simply standing there saying "Oh, thank you so much" over and over again on autopilot.  Having a real conversation with someone about what THEY know and can share with you makes it slightly less lonely at the top if you're traveling in an unfamiliar area and want some recommendations for a good place to eat or a special park to go for a run in.

Are there any fame monster moments I've missed?  Have you come up with some solutions and responses that work better for you?  I'd love to read your thoughts in the comments.

Anne Ruthmann is a professional photographer in New York City. With over 10 years of success as a full-time photographer in weddings, portraits, editorial, and now architecture and interiors, she spends any extra time she has helping others find smart solutions to business problems.  Stay in touch on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.

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