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Persistence still leads to the top, photographer says

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It says something about where his professional head is that Steve Payne doesn't shoot a lot of "selfies."

The ubiquitous self-shot self-portraits are a common enough feature of social media, but not one that Payne has a stock of when asked for a shot of himself -- even though he is a commercial photographer.

From 7:15 to 9 p.m. Sept. 24, Payne will kick off a new series of "Creator's Talks" at the West Virginia State University Economic Development Center, 1506 Kanawha Blvd., on the subject of "The 10 Commandments for Creative Success." Admission to the talk, a spin-off of the EDC's "Creator's Program" series, is $10 at the door.

"Half of this talk is about the creative side of it -- the commitment and being yourself and building clients and repeat clients. I guess you say [your] bedside manner and the passion and love for what you're doing that you have to have to stick it out until you're successful," the Charleston resident said.

"The second part of the talk focuses on keeping it going and doing the stuff that keeps you out of trouble, like getting an accountant. And staying atop of all your jobs and workflow and that sort of thing."

Payne has more than 25 years' experience in the business, and his commercial and portrait photography has been featured in hundreds of publications across the country. His fine-art photography can be found in corporate and private collections across the country and outside of it along with his popular portraiture.

Before forming Steve Payne Photography, he served as chief photographer for the West Virginia Department of Commerce and the Department of Culture and History.

While lining up commandments, there's no simple path to success, Payne said. "The creative business has always been difficult. I don't think there's a time when it's been easy -- 30 years ago, people told me I'd starve to death. It hasn't turned out that way. I made all the mistakes everyone makes."

He likes to knock down clichés, such as the saying, "Build it and they will come."

"That's probably not exactly true," Payne said. "You've got to build it, and you've got to shout it out from the mountaintop over and over, and then you have to make people happy with what you do for them so they'll shout it out from the mountaintop."

He also believes many people have been "sold a bill of goods about social media."

"It's definitely a tool we use that is pretty amazing, to have that kind of power of communication. But the noise on social media is so great that it's very difficult to stand out.

"The old-school way of looking someone in the eye and gaining trust -- that way goes a lot farther than posting on social media."

He recently worked with an intern from the Netherlands; after she returned home, he asked if she had identified her first client yet. She said she had. Then she added: "Well, I texted them, but I haven't heard back."

Payne paused.

"To me, honestly, texting is for asking your spouse to pick up some bread on the way home, and not [for] trying to discover clients."

Overemphasis on social media as primary communication has lessened the hands-on techniques of one-on-one contact with clients, Payne said.

"Especially young people who have that ability to speak intelligently to adults and to introduce themselves and to gain trust -- that stands out even more because most people don't do it," he said. "Most of the people who control the money that give you work -- they respond to that much more than the new social media."

Which leads to one of his more succinct pieces of advice: "Old-school values will never die."

After all, finding, securing and locking down clients is everything in the creative field, Payne said. "Without clients you don't have a business, but with great clients you have a business forever."

It's a fallacy that all you need to do is print up some free Vistaprint business cards, put up a Facebook page and launch an Instagram account and things will start popping," Payne said. "I haven't really seen that happen.

"Everybody wants to be discovered and save the day -- and I'll do all the hard work and you stay in your little room and create. I just don't see that happening very often."

But the hard, practical work of earning and retaining clients can suddenly take off.

"The good news is if you can gain momentum, then this phenomenon kind of takes over where, wow, all of a sudden I've got work, and I've got more work from people I've never heard from.

"It's pretty hard to push the snowball over the hill. But once you do, it gets bigger and rolls pretty fast."

You might say the final commandment is commitment.

"Totally committed to do whatever it take to gain knowledge, do the work, meet the people -- that's what it takes. It takes incredible commitment."

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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