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A Portrait Photographer’s Highest Responsibility

Weddings. Engagements. Pregnancies. Graduations. Professional portrait photographers are often invited into people’s lives at very special moments. Memorable moments. Moments of transition and transformation. As a headshot photographer, often my clients are involved in career transitions. Some are getting new headshots to mark a promotion. Others are launching a solo practice. It’s an honor to be part of these major turning points in a client’s life and career.

Most of these occasions are happy. Sure, they can also be a bit stressful — moments of change always are — but the stress is balanced with excitement and optimism.

But sometimes we are called on to be part of the sad moments too.

Shortly before the holidays, I received a call from the sister of a former client. She asked, “Are you the one who took the pictures of my brother?”

My first thought was that I had landed a new referral client. Great news, right? But she went on. It turns out my client had passed away. His family had seen the portraits I’d taken, and knew they were some of his favorites. Now they wanted a print to use at the memorial service, and some to have as keepsakes. The only problem? They didn’t know who took them.

By some miracle, my client’s sister tracked me down. I try to make myself easy to find by taking care with my SEO, but I’ve moved cities since working with this client, so things were a bit more challenging. I suspect they called a dozen photographers before they found me. I could feel the relief come through over the phone as I told her that she had found the right photographer and I still had the images. Immediately, I sent over the proofs so they could select an image for the memorial service. I worked with WHCC, my printer, and despite the holiday rush, made sure a couple of prints were delivered with plenty of time to spare.

It’s a sad situation, but it felt good to be able to provide this service for a family in their time of grief.

Veteran photographers had warned me that I’d come across something like this eventually, but I’d never given it much thought. In a world of selfies and photographs everywhere, the value of a professional portrait can be hard to to appreciate. Then in an instant that value becomes all too apparent, as one photo becomes priceless to a family faced with sudden tragic loss.

The experience has prompted me to think deeper about our responsibility as photographers. Despite the fact that I run a business to earn a living, it’s not always about the bottom line.

When clients invite us into their lives, we have a responsibility to take care with their special moments. We owe them quality work. We form a relationship that does not end when the check clears.

I’ve long believed in the importance of delivering prints, not just digital images. That became clear in this situation too. We have a responsibility to see that our work is printed. The ultimate beneficiary of a print may not even be born yet. They might never use the technology that a digital image lives on today.

We make our clients a promise to be good stewards of the images we make. As professional photographers, this means we must have reasonable archival and backup procedures in place. Does that mean that every last image we shoot must be stored forever? No. For me, I try to maintain copies of all delivered work for as long as technologically possible.

So next time you photograph another person, give it your all. You never know where your images will end up, or the meaning they will come to have, or the treasures they may become.

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