A Risk Worth Taking

Successful business people are almost always more colorful than they let on. I recently met Bjorn Green, the new CEO of TowerPinkster, while photographing some of their staff for a magazine piece. TowerPinkster is an architectural and engineering firm in Grand Rapids, with Bjorn recently taking on the role of CEO last year. He’s a marvelously interesting person. When I learned he’d done some child modeling for Solo Cups many years ago, I knew I could talk him into doing something a little riskier for the shoot.

Rather than posing him in front of an architectural background or on a staircase (as is common with portraits of architects), I had him lie down on top of piles and piles of blueprints and photographed him from above. It’s an odd concept, and he had to really trust me with it. It was creative, different, far from safe.

The most difficult bit of this project was how little time we had to get the shot. A CEO’s time is very valuable, and they generally don’t have much to spare. With our short window, it was crucial that we spend a lot of time setting up, placing the blueprints just so, and taking test shots, ensuring everything was ready before he arrived. I had to have a very clear, precise vision of the shot I wanted. I couldn’t waste time experimenting with ideas that wouldn’t end up being used.

I also was able to get some fun shots of the TowerPinkster interns. They have a pretty laid back culture, so we wanted to play with that and reflect that in the photos. We encouraged the interns to be spontaneous and impulsive in front of the camera. They posed with props as we loosened the atmosphere and tried to get them to laugh on camera. Photos are always more genuine when the model is completely engaged. These photos turned out much more interesting to the eye than if we had taken typical headshots with the model standing and smiling.

Going outside the box is always risky. It takes a willing participant and a great deal of trust. There’s a definite correlation between risk and reward. Trying out an atypical idea is never a safe bet, but there’s an opportunity to get truly unique and alluring photos.

Passing on a Legacy

It's kind of surprising how many great fighters are from Grand Rapids. The entire Mayweather clan, the Tuckers, the Mathises. Who would've thought our little town was so good at breeding boxers? There's a family tie involved, a fatherly need to pass on one's own knowledge and love of the sport. To continue the legacy. "He comes from a fighting family" is a common phrase, a descriptor that denotes an athlete comes from a "special bloodline", born to box. Yet, an equally talented father-son duo is hard to find in boxing.

Such is not the case with the Buster Mathis legacy. While father fought Ali, Frazier, and qualified for the 1964 Olympics, son boasts a 21-2 record, a USBA heavyweight belt, and defeating Billups, Fortune, and Dixon. Now Buster owns the Bokssport gym, teaching boxing and nutrition coaching. His goal is to help others achieve self empowerment through boxing. He says it best on his website, "when life hits you, bring it to the ring".


Reaching Higher Grounds

Working among coffee farmers in Mexico on a post-grad internship, Chris Treter made a life-altering decision. Fusing the ideas of selling coffee and improving conditions for poverty-stricken communities, he went back to the states and took steps to open his own coffee shop. Founded on the motto "People, Planet, Profit", Higher Grounds in Traverse City offers high quality coffee grown by small scale farmers from three different continents. The coffee farmers Chris met on his internship were only able to sell their coffee in small, local markets. By partnering with Chris, they suddenly had a link to a much bigger market and the opportunity to sell much more coffee.

In 2016, Higher Grounds received B Corp certification, meaning they met the non profit's rigorous standards of social and environmental responsibility. It's about transparency, accountability. It sets rules and standards in place to ensure the mission doesn't end with the entrepreneur. All the employees in the company take part in it. B Corp certification is going to be increasingly important in the changing market. Consumers, particularly millennials, are demanding more sustainability and social responsibility from the companies they buy from. There's a push to do more, to give back. 

Chris Treter credits community engagement as the main reason for his brand's success. It's the reason the company was started and the driving factor behind the pursuit for B Corp certification. Building better communities by putting people first.


How to Use a Photo and Not Get Sued

Photography is everywhere. We see it in billboards, on our walls, our screens, our phones. It's so entrenched in our environment and our culture we don't spend much time thinking about it, specifically the ownership rights of the photos we're using. Enter risk. While photography is ubiquitous, it is not exempt from laws and regulations. It's super important for companies to be informed on the legal aspect of using someone else's images.

The first thing to know is the difference between editorial and commercial intent. This is important because the cost and legal requirements will be very different depending on how you are using the photos. Using a photo for editorial purposes means the image is published to inform the community. This could be a news article, blog, textbook, documentary. On the other hand, commercial purpose is using an image to promote something or someone, i.e. print and digital ads, brochures, commercial websites, etc. Usually areas that help the company make money. The big thing to remember is if you are using something for commercial use, you MUST have a signed model release form. Without proof of consent, the model can potentially sue the company for exploitation. This is not necessary if the photo is being used editorially. 

The next order of business is creating an appropriate licensing agreement with the photographer. This is a bit more complicated and, again, depends on how the images are being used. The two critical factors to consider here are duration and scope. How long do you want to use the photos for and in what aspect do you want to use them? A photo used once on a company's website will not cost nearly as much as a photo used multiple times over many years for a national marketing campaign. The broader the scope, the greater the price. You can also choose to buy the image outright and be cleared of any limitations on use. In the end, licensing is very negotiable and agreements depend on the scenario. Just be sure an agreement is in place before using the images.

Frequently where clients go wrong is in poor education. Most people are unaware of photo ownership rights and use photos outside of an agreement without even realizing it. A lot of times, companies will put all their images in a database where they are up for grabs by staff. This happened when Adam photographed a product for a non profit company for editorial use. A designer found the photo in the company's database, and decided to use it for a blog post and also on the "About Us" page of their website. This started heading into commercial territory, so Adam sent a friendly email to the director. The director promptly apologized and began licensing the photo for commercial use. 

Licensing transgressions usually stem from ignorance, not malintent. It's incredibly important to be well informed, especially as society becomes more and more focused on the visual. If you have any questions about photo ownership rights, staff at Bird+Bird Studio are always open to answering questions over the phone, email, or any of our social media outlets.


A few examples of commercial use photographs:

A Tale of Two Cities

Grand Rapidians aren't shy about bringing up our "Beer City USA" title given us by a variety of magazines and "best of" lists. I even saw it boasted on a billboard on the freeway. Something you won't see on a billboard, however, is our 2015 ranking as 2nd worst city for African Americans by Forbes.com. Out of the 52 biggest cities in the nation, Grand Rapids beat out only Milwaukee in home ownership, entrepreneurship, income, and change in population for African Americans. While some citizens and community leaders were surprised by and spoke out against the ranking, others used social media, specifically the Twitter hashtag #BlackinGrandRapids, to share their truth about gentrification, low employment, and high poverty rates among African Americans in the city.

Though unflattering, the new ranking brought a problem into the spotlight, and with it the question: what can we do about this? Start Garden and Grand Rapids Area Black-owned Businesses (GRABB), two organizations meant to help start ups and black-owned businesses thrive, teamed up to improve the disparity among populations. They created a new venture, GRABB5, aiming to help five black-owned businesses improve their capital and increase patronage. By focusing on five businesses at a time, GRABB5 works closely with each business, identifies their unique obstacles, and brainstorms solutions to navigate them.

One of the biggest barriers for the black community is being disconnected from the rest of the business world. It's a cliche but true. Business is about who you know. And if the relationships aren't there, the business will struggle. Many white entrepreneurs can look to family or friends to support their new business venture. They have a safety net. This just isn't as common in underserved populations. To encourage networking, GRABB5 hosts monthly dinners for entrepreneurs, investors, and service providers. They also have informative, "how to" presentations that help business owners learn to do market research, pitch an idea, etc.

A healthy ecosystem is a diverse one, and that's true of the economy as well. We need a range of people and businesses for longevity. And to reach that, we need to make Grand Rapids a place where everyone can find opportunity.