While in Rome, attending the Way Up North conference, we used the opportunity to chat with one of the awesome creatives behind the Hafenliebe Wedding Photography brand – Björn Lexius. A kind, humble and cheerful photographer from Germany, who spoke at See Feel Create workshop in Denmark about the common fears photographers have, which stop or limit them from being happy and creating what they want. As it’s a topic that ALL of us struggle with, not only photographers – we talked to Björn, listened to his story and today we’re going to share his recommendations on this matter.
So, Hafenliebe – that’s not an English word, what does it mean?
It’s a mix of two German words. “Hafen”, which means harbour and “Liebe”, which is love. It’s our way to pay homage to the city we live in, the way we feel when we’re sitting at the docks, listening to the crashing waves and watching ships pass by for hours. (read more on their website)
How did you start in photography?
I got my first camera in the end of 2008, I had just lost my job in advertising, due to my new media focused agency losing big clients to bigger agencies who were just putting together their own new media departments. Anyhow, I hated doing advertising, trying to sell stuff that I don’t like to people who don’t need it. Though I got a new sales job at Lush, I was going through a harsh burnout syndrome. My doctor suggested I stop working there. So I did. I got a camera, had a trip planned to London, and decided to give it a try. I had no idea about photography at that time, but I thought I could maybe fix it in photoshop later, since I was good at graphics. I was impressed how much calmer and regenerated photography made me feel. My girlfriend at that time, suggested I try making a living out of it, since many people were willing to pay for my images and posters I’ve created. She was very supportive, she said she wants to have a happy partner, not someone who makes money at a shitty job that he doesn’t enjoy.
So I started shooting portraits and concerts. Around 2012, I shot my first wedding of a friend’s friend. I hated it. Since weddings for me were just a formality, a social pressure and label on a relationship, that I don’t really need. Also, back then being a wedding photographer wasn’t cool and as appreciated as it is now, where you get to take epic photos and travel to amazing destinations. Nobody would hire you for commercial photography work, if they knew that you shoot weddings. After the second wedding I’ve shot, I knew I’d be doing it for a while, to make a living. So I tried to like it.
Then, in 2014, Jessy, my friend and partner in Hafenliebe contacted me asking if I’m shooting weddings by myself or with somebody. She lost her job and went to New Zealand for a few months, had very little photography experience but a similar way of seeing things, as me. We gave it a shot. I had 30 weddings booked for that season, and half of them we shot together. After that season, we decided to pursue it full-time and started the Hafenliebe brand.
About Hafenliebe Wedding Photography
When we started, we already knew what type of clients we wanted to book. We weren’t as focused and precise as we are now, but we knew we wanted to be eccentric, a bit moody and most of all, authentic and raw. We had to get clients understand what type of work we would deliver. So we got our logo created by a tattoo artist from New Zealand, who did tattoos for us both. Back then, everybody was working with Alejandro Gómez, who is a good friend of mine and I love his work. But I wanted to get something different, with the same style. The tattoo artist did the drawing and I added the lettering and a few details to it. And you know what, the branding did work. I noticed that in the last few years, most of our clients are creatives (graphics people, photographers, film makers, writers), who are a bit more openminded. Their weddings often differ, which provides a lot of freedom as a photographer, to experiment. They’re usually like “hey, do what ever you want”. And this is liberating.
We’re shooting a wedding in September, the bride is from Australia, she hired photographers from Germany to shoot her wedding in England, and we are her only choice. She didn’t inquire with anyone else. She said “I want to be that bride in the storm, from your photos”. She knew exactly what she wants, and it’s our style, what we like to do. it’s crazy, but it’s also incredible, the brand and style we portray really works and attracts the couple we want to work with.
Do you ever say no to clients?
Yes, definitely. We mostly don’t say “no” right away, but we have an inquiry form, that takes some minutes to deal with and if couples don’t put much thought and energy into it, we most likely tend to say no, or at least have a tendency when we send out our pricing info. But, we never book couples without meeting them! We usually skype or meet them in person, just to see if there is a connection. We had a couple last year that weren’t happy with most of the photos we delivered. Because, they couldn’t relate to them. But I can’t blame them, we were not sure they are the right fit for us from the very beginning. We still went for it, and we’ve learned from it.
Let’s jump to the main topic now…
What fears do photographers have and how it affects their work?
I think the worst one is the fear of not being good enough. We, as photographers tend to compare ourselves to other photographers in our field. We care more about the feedback from other photographers, than the feedback we get from our clients. Let’s say I shoot a wedding and my clients love the images. I post them online, share on Instagram and popular Facebook groups and they don’t get any likes. Most of us would be devastated, because we want to get this pat on the back from our peer group. Though I got away from this completely, I do realize that it shouldn’t matter too much, because those are not the people who are likely to book me. We dream about getting 1000 likes and Choo Choo’ed by Lookslikefilm, when our clients don’t really care about this at all.
But at the same time, we have the fear of not booking clients (or not booking enough clients to make money for a living). It may be connected to the first fear. We spend 8 hours per day, marketing ourselves to other photographers, pushing photos to groups that our clients are not part of. Well, sometimes they are, but very few of them. Maybe, if we’d spend these 8 hours advertising our work to people who might book us, we wouldn’t be afraid as much.. Though, I do think that it’s important to be afraid of those things to some extent, as we learn when we struggle and feel stressed. It pushes us out of our comfort zone, to develop and grow.
The third fear is to not be able to do what you like to do. We tend to shoot more things that are mainstream, because we’re afraid that we won’t get booked if we shoot what we want. A friend photographer of mine, from Munich, wanted to switch to shooting film around 3 years ago. But was afraid, because this would be more expensive for her clients. She did it anyway, took the risk of not booking anyone for that season, while re- positioning and re-marketing herself. She’s ok now (smiles).
It’s very important to incorporate your feelings and life experiences (good or bad) into your photography. As wedding photographers we tend to show the perfect side, of a perfect day, which the couple has been planing for as long as a year. It’s like showing a fake day, in the most fake possible way. Jessy has a saying, that every person has a backpack on their shoulders, with lots of stones in it. Some are heavy, some are not. They carry it everyday, but on their wedding day they leave the backpack at home. And it’s wrong to take it off because that’s what makes you who you are. So even if on the wedding day something bad or unexpected happens, it’s still part of the story. Why choose to leave it out of the images?
We shot a wedding last year, and the son of the groom, around 6 years old, had a serious illness with a life expectancy of around 5 years. He had to be around an inhaling machine a few times a day. So at some point, the son sits inhaling at the machine, and the dad comes over. We didn’t know if we should take a photo of that, because it was too personal – but then we realized that it’s insane we doubted taking that shot. It may not be the most beautiful image, but it’s exactly why we are here. To tell their story, and this is part of it. Afterwards, when we delivered the images, the groom said that it was the most important moment from that day. He was holding his son in his arms and you could see him smiling. He will have this image, when his son is no longer here.
That changed a lot about our approach.
We try to focus on the guests and family during the wedding day as much as we focus on the couple. It’s important to observe and notice the connections they have with the people invited to the wedding. And during the portrait time, we don’t stress them out by running around, trying to catch epic shots on mountains and lakes during the sunset, I don’t really care so much about those. Ok, this might be a lie. We love great landscapes and amazing light, and it’s more fun shooting at theses places, BUT that’s not what it’s about for us. I want them to be with each other, have this time for them to enjoy, and then capture that. The wedding is not for me, it’s for them, and I want them to understand that.
We used to not book weddings that have more than 100 people. In the inquiry form we ask how many guests they have. If it’s more than 100, we really check what they are planning to have. Because often, those big weddings are about showing what you can. We’ve had a couple book us for a 10 people wedding in Tuscany. They said they want it to be an experience rather than an event. And that’s what I relate to. After the burnout, I promised myself that I will never do stuff just for the money. It’s a long approach. But you can’t be a photographer if you don’t care about photography, if you do it only for the cash.
What would you recommend for those who struggle with comparing themselves?
Talk to people, to other photographers in an honest way. Tell them about your fear. I’m pretty sure you can walk out to anybody, like Fer Juaristi, and he’ll tell you the same. He will tell you “hey, I’m afraid”. Well, maybe not Fer because Fer’s doing whatever he wants (laughs), but everybody will have that. Talking openly to other people really helps. Showing that you’re vulnerable is something that strong people do.
The second piece of advice would be trying to stay away from social media (maybe not a good one), but at least limit the time you spend on it. Try to unfollow people that make you feel bad or don’t inspire you. I’ll bring again the example with Fer. He follows me on Instagram, and likes almost all of my personal work, but never likes any of my wedding images, which means that he simply doesn’t look at them. He doesn’t want to see wedding work, which will get his mind comparing.
I don’t follow wedding work, at all. At least not on my personal Instagram. On the Hafenliebe one, yes, but I don’t spend too much time on it. Since the images and ideas I see will get stored somewhere in my head, and I may start copying it, without realizing. Generally, don’t take social media and the likes you get there too seriously. Try to compare yourself less with others. It also helps showing your work to people that can give you honest feedback and critique. When I’m preparing a new blog post, often I would send it to Marko Marinkovic, who is a friend of mine, and ask him which images would he leave out. He hasn’t been to that wedding and has no connection to it, so I trust his opinion. Talk to people with whom you have a good relationship and who produce work that you like and get inspired from. It will help.
During workshops I do a lot of portfolio reviews, where I give my honest opinion. And I know that sometimes it crushes them, but they learn from it. There’s no point in comparing yourself to others. Take Gabe Mcclintock for example, he has been shooting for over 10 years now. When he started he wasn’t as good as he is now. We all start somewhere, then we evolve. Understanding that helps.
Would you change anything if you could do it all over again?
Maybe start trusting myself more way earlier in time. Not thinking what others are doing and just do what I love. But perhaps it was important to take the time and learn from it.
Your Favorite Quotes?
“The way you live your day is the way you live your life”. Also I have a lot of favorite quotes from songs, like this one “Live the life that you love and love the life that you live.”
I think it’s really important.
Fear isn’t something you should be ashamed of, or completely ignore. It’s a natural human expression. In small doses, it pushes us further, gets us out of our comfort zones, and challenges us to try and explore new things, experiences and activities. Just don’t let it affect or control you too much. And remember, your friend, your neighbor, or the stranger sitting right next to you in a bus – may be feeling and struggling with the same fears and doubts. Be kind to others, and even kinder to yourself.