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You know that guy or girl who makes your coffee every morning? chances are that they are a face that has become part of the furniture of your life. Have you ever taken the time to find out who they are or what they do apart from serve coffee?

I worked in the service industry as a bartender, barista and waiter for ten years - from my A Levels in Birmingham, through studying Fine Art for 5 years; Through another two years travelling, and 2 more years studying photography. It was an education in itself, but like the vast majority of servers I had ambitions beyond just prepping your latte.

This morning I opened up a conversation with the Indian chap who has made my latte for the last 8 consecutive working days - our conversation has slowly progressed from an emotionless transaction, to today's exchange where I found out that he is from Gujharat (he proudly informed me that Gujharat is the birth state of Ghandi), and that he has been in the UK for 5 years, progressing up the ladder of cricket umpiring qualifications. He is now an ECB umpire and is aiming to reach county level. I now have a new cricket friend, and I'm looking forward to the next time I go for a latte so that we can discuss the ongoing England vs India test series.

So - two thoughts - one life related, one photography related.

First off - get to know the people who serve you day in, day out. Being a server can at times be a little bit soul destroying, and interaction beyond the transaction can be rewarding for both parties.

Second - if you're a photographer, interacting with new people and breaking down boundaries is a key skill; If you can find common ground with those around you, and can quickly build trust and mutual respect, then you'll find that things just happen easier. This applies to so many situations - whether trying to gain access to a location, placating a member of the public who is unhappy about being in one of your street photographs, helping a portrait subject to relax, or collaborating with a new creative team on a commercial assignment.

Too many photographers are tense and on edge when they are making work; If you relax and show your human side, perhaps your photography will happen for you more smoothly.
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Ben Roberts's profile photoScott Thomas's profile photoEd Nicholas's profile photoRichard Bram's profile photo
11 comments
 
An intelligent. perceptive and sensitive column, Ben. I am constantly amazed by the brusque rudeness of people treating those who care for them as if they were, as you put it, furniture.
 
Nice man. I like this pearl of wisdom a lot.
 
Something I need to do more of. Well said!
 
Last week I finally talked to Amanda, the girl that has worked at Subway for the past few years. I learned which band her tattoos were from and how often she has to work back to back closing/opening shifts. This is a skill that I'm not particularly good at, but I recognize that and have been working on it.
 
nice one chris. it's so rewarding!
 
Great post Ben, I agree 100% with it. I'm absolutely terrible at break down boundaries and interact with new people, but I do seem to slowly be managing to do it. So far the affect its had one my photography work has been great.
 
The hardest thing for me is figuring out how to get better at breaking down these barriers. I know I need to do it, but how? The best I've done thus far is to just throw myself into it. Open up conversations and see where they go. Smile if appropriate. But being an autodidact can be slow going.

What is really helpful is learning from others. The thing that has always seemed enticing to me about working with or assisting another photographer is learning how they interact with others. Watching videos of Joel Meyerowitz, for example, has been helpful. I love Richard Renaldi's "Touching Strangers" work (and, really, pretty much all of his portraiture, especially Fall River Boys) but I would give an arm and a leg to see the conversations and interactions that result in those photographs being made.
 
"Cricket Umpiring Qualifications". Didn't think I'd read that today. Awesome.
 
People skills -- one of the things I really need to brush up on. Very glad to have discovered this post of yours :-)
 
Well said, Ben.

For the past two months, I've been working part-time in a professional portrait studio. All and all it's going well but what amazes me is that my employer sacrifices the relationship between the photographers and our clients. I believe in the hopes to push through more customers. It's a numbers game for him and he likely knows his business better than anyone. Still, I don't agree that this is the best attitude and without trying to make it sound as though the sky is falling, I do think these relationships matter in the big picture.

Regardless, I can't help but think that making those personal connections not only would create a better experience for his customers, but would also improve the company's bottom line. It would also create a better climate for the photographers who he employs. Just being there for this short time, I sense these short-cuts create a retention problem and ends up costing the company by having to train new employees.

Being good to employees (or your server) makes them happier to serve that latte. And while a paycheck is valuable to all of us, so is an investment in one's pride.
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