As a photographer, Marlana Semenza sees the world and her clients literally and figuratively through different lenses. She helps her clients tell their stories and be perceived the way they want the world to see them through her photos. In this episode, Marlana joins Ben Baker to share the importance of understanding your story and your audience in capturing and creating your brand. Marlana also discovered a different way to photograph her clients through virtual photography with the pandemic. She has a lot of stories to tell and tips to share with aspiring photographers. Stay tuned!
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Reflections From Different Lenses With Marlana Semenza
[00:01:02] Welcome back, my wonderful audience. Thank you for coming back the week after. Thank you for reading, for sending me emails at Ben@YourBrandMarketing.com, for responding on LinkedIn. I love the fact that you folks send me information week after week, what you like, don’t like, what you’re interested in and who you want to talk to. Thank you for coming back. In this episode, I have one of my dearest friends on the show. She is a woman I love. I love talking to her. I love her perspective her energy and she’s got a heck of a story to tell. Marlana Semenza is coming to talk to us about reflections from a different lens. Marlana, welcome to the show.
[00:01:42] Thank you so much, Ben. That’s quite a buildup you’re giving me here. I hope I measure up.
[00:01:46] You belong on a pedestal. You belong in front of the camera so let’s put you there. Let’s put you where you belong. I love the energy. You and I have been talking back and forth on LinkedIn for years. We’ve had more conversations offline than I care to imagine. I always love the perspective that you bring.
First of all, you’re a photographer. You see the world literally and figuratively through different lenses. Being able to see people not only as they perceive themselves but also as you think the world should see them and put them in their best light and enable them to shine. I love that. I have a ton of photos that Marla has done. You will see the incredible work that she does and let’s go from there. Why don’t we start off a little bit about who you are, what you do and let’s get into some conversations about reflections from a different lens because I think we could have a great conversation about this.
[00:02:55] I am a photographer and visual strategist but I come from a sideways angle because my background is more than photography. One of the things that I believe is that there’s a saying, you see in the world what you carry in your heart. I believe that. Am I the right fit for everybody? No but the people that I am a fit for, I wind up falling a little bit in love with all of the clients because f I can’t fall in love with them then I can’t get other people to fall in love with them.
From that, I have an odd mix of a background. I have a degree in photography, which seems is a rarity these days. I hadn’t even graduated yet. I climbed on a tour bus with the World Wrestling Federation and I did that for three years. If you fast forward again, I had a minor in Illustration so I worked for a cartooning and animation company for a while. Fast forward again, I also worked as a set stylist, interior stylist. I worked on projects for this whole house in Women’s Day and New York Times ads but photography was always in the mix. I have all these other elements so the way I see things is a conglomeration of all those experiences. I think that’s with most people. What we see and who we are is a mix of what we bring with us and our experiences.
[00:04:20] I love that because you’re right. Everybody sits there goes, “We come to the situation we’re in with our own hopes, wants, dreams, needs, desires, our own baggage, our own aspirations. We each see the world slightly differently.” It doesn’t make me right and you wrong or you right, me wrong. It means that we’re different. We interpret the situation very differently. I’m no slouch with the camera. If you and I had the exact same equipment, light and model, we would photograph the exact same person very differently based on what we see and what we believe the shot should be and what the angle should be. That tells a different story and that’s magical.
[00:05:09] It’s interesting too because I know you talk a lot about what’s your story. There was a study once, several years back where people were told different stories about the same subject. Photographers were told different stories. Based on those stories, they photograph them very differently to reflect that story. We come at things sometimes with preconceived ideas or preconceived notions of somebody or something. It’s not that I don’t do homework on people.
The only reason that I do homework on people is that I need to make sure that inherently, we are a fit and that your brand, your story doesn’t go against something that I can’t support or fall in love with. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it. It’s that I’m not the best person to tell it. At the end of the day, you need the best person for you. One of the things that I always ask people is what is the gap between how you think you are seen now and how you wish to be seen? That’s a jumping-off point for me because I’m not as concerned about where you are now. I’m concerned about where do you want to be. That’s the approach that I take to people, getting you seen the way you want to be seen. We can’t control what other people think of us but we certainly can steer the conversation. That’s part of what I try and do.
[00:06:31] To bring this back to what I do in branding quickly. People tell me, “We are a $10 million company but we want to be a $250 million company.” I said, “Before you’re a $250 million company, you’re probably going to be a $40 million company, an $80 million company, $150 million company. Each one of those is going to require a different perception of you, a different level of trust, a different conversation. You don’t go from building a $20 million brand to a $250 million brand.” You build that brand up and you level up as you go along. You continue to tell that story.
I’m sure you do the same thing when you take a virtual unknown. Let’s be perfectly honest. You photographed Miss USA. How you take people from being a virtual unknown who are trying to even get onto the USA stage to how you photograph them once they’ve reached that level and heading toward Ms. Universe must be a very different process.You see in the world what you carry in your heart. Click To Tweet
[00:07:32] It is and that’s the whole thing. I don’t think people take into consideration making your photos effective, you have to know who your audience is. Each step of your journey, each time you level up, it’s going to require a different piece of you or a different way that you go about telling the story. I don’t care if your ideal client is a high-end Wall Street person who lives in Manhattan and shops at Neman Marcus or if they are a mother of five who drives a minivan and shops at target. There’s nothing wrong with either audience. The thing is, though, the conversation is going to be different. The things they care about are going to be different. The things that they will relate to about you will be different. You have to get clear on who you are speaking to and that’s no different with photographs.
[00:08:22] Think about it, the clothes that you put your model in and how you dress the stage behind them would be completely different if you were going for a Target ad versus a Neman Marcus ad. It might be the exact same model but how they’re perceived and how they’re photographed and the story that you try to tell must be completely different along the way. That’s the different lens. It’s the lens of the audience.
[00:08:49] Yes and what makes you relatable to them. Do they have kids? Do you have kids? Do you vacation in Bora Bora? Do they vacation in Bora Bora?
[00:08:57] Do you aspire to vacation in Bora Bora? Like me, I’ve aspired a vacation in Bora Bora.
[00:09:03] You want to be honest? Me too but it’s bridging that gap. Every bit of communication that we put out online, in our marketing, messaging and images is bridging that gap between the people we are trying to reach and us.
[00:09:18] I’m not going to let you get away with this because you glossed over two things at the very beginning and I’m not going to let you get away with it. Professional wrestling and ComicCon because I’m a big believer of where we came from, tells a story about where we are and where we’re going. Tell me a little bit about those. We don’t have to get in too much detail but tell a little bit about the situation and tell me about what’s the big thing you learned from both?
[00:09:43] I started working for WWF. It was F at the time. It is now E but it was before I even graduated college. They held the job for me while I went back and finished my last semester. I went and interviewed for a job in photo editing. By the end of the interview, my leader boss came in and he said, “Do you have a problem with airplanes?” I said, “No.” He said, “That’s good because instead of this, you’re going to be my assistant.” I met him, got on the tour bus one evening. Woke up the next morning backstage at the arena, looked around and went, “What have I done?” I never watched wrestling in my life. I knew nothing about wrestling and the heavy-duty Hulk Hogan, Ultimate Warrior days.
[00:10:26] Macho Randy Savage and all those things.
[00:10:29] These were the days when everybody was bigger than life. I’m not a big girl so I came up to their chest, most of them. It was one of the most amazing experiences. I’m still good friends with a lot of the people that I worked with because when you spend that much time with a group of people on the road, they become this oddball family to you. You become almost more at home on the road than you do at home because it’s more not to you when you spend that much time together.
There’s a scene in the movie Almost Famous where they’re on the bus. Kate Hudson’s character and the main character are talking to each other and he says, “I have to go home.” She looked at him and she said, “You are home.” That one scene I could relate to because, during that time, that was home. I see 32 states. Many of them more than once, a couple of different countries. What I learned from it was the power of personas, the effectiveness of storytelling. Also too, from these athletes to go out and leave 110% out there because that’s what people deserve and that’s what they’re paying you to do. It was just an amazing experience.
[00:11:46] These people were showmen. I don’t know how many women were involved in the sport back then but they were showmen, show women. They were there to tell a story. They were there to get an audience excited, build heroes and villains and give people that realm of escapism. To be able to sit there and say, “I can be bigger than God.” I think that being part of that must have given you a unique perspective because you saw people in front of the limelight. You saw them in front of the camera but you also saw them on the bus when they were probably their most real. How did you be able to turn all that into the photographs that enabled their audience to be able to see them as the heroes or villains that they were?
[00:12:34] The thing is whenever they went before a camera whether it be a still camera or a live camera, they were such professionals that they turned it on. They became that character and every single nuance, everything. They had down so much that you let them do their thing and be. Now, meanwhile, these are the same guys that were out playing big brother to you the night before at the bar.The way you see things is a conglomeration of experiences. What we see and who we are is a mix of what we bring with us and our experiences. Click To Tweet
[00:13:00] God help anybody that tried to do something to you at the bar.
[00:13:05] I had other a couple of stories but once in Kentucky, I had reached across somebody not meaning to but I needed something that was across from them. Some random person bit my arm in the bar. That was not a good evening for them. Anyway, absolute professionals, such creatives in so many ways too. Not only athletes but very creative people.
[00:14:02] In front of the camera, these people were professionals. They had their persona down. Being the fact that you were half their size in some respects, how were you able to show them in their best light? You don’t want to have this towering view of up their nostrils the whole time where you spend most of your time on ladders and trellis and stuff like that to get the right shots you were looking for because it is. It’s not only about the character. It’s about being able to get that character in their best light, in their best angles, etc. How do you go about doing that? I’ll let you know where we’re going with this afterward but it’s being able to enable those people to be seen for who they are and what they are.
[00:14:48] Think about it, though. The couple of times that I was ever able to shoot ringside, you’re obviously at an angle where you’re shooting up a bit. If you are shooting up at someone then you are making them larger than life. You are making them more superhero-like. You are making them big and grand. That angle plays into what the story is.
[00:15:09] Your height was an advantage for you.
[00:15:14] In this particular another case, me being 6’2”, I would not be able to shoot them at the same way as you would to be able to tell that same story.
[00:15:22] Also too, if you watch a lot of the photographers that are ringside, they go low right by the edge of the mat anyway. I think that’s also partly a safety thing because things get thrown around and people get it thrown around. You don’t want to be on the other end of that.
[00:15:38] Especially with a $5,000 camera in your hands.
[00:15:41] If somebody winds up with a black eye, you don’t want it to be you. I got a black eye once but that was from football.
[00:15:46] Let’s take that and move that into COVID. During COVID, you went from a position of being, “I’m going to fly around the country, photograph everybody, do everything and have these situations,” to nobody wants to see you anymore. It was like me. I was persona non grata. Nobody wanted to see me live for months, if not years.
Your profession relies on the fact that you could be upfront and personal with people. You found a way to get around that. I want to have people have an understanding of that because that’s a fairly unique thing that you learned how to do. I think not only did it probably save your profession but it also gave you a completely different set of toolset. I’ll tee you up and let you run with it.Be a student. Try and learn from people that you want to trade places with. Click To Tweet
[00:16:37] My friend, Claire, God love her, she and I have done work together and worked for clients together. She does brand photography as well. She saw online some photographers doing virtual sessions using FaceTime. She and I thought, “Let’s try it out. See what it’s all about.” I looked at most photographers that we’re doing it for something fun to do so they didn’t lose their minds during COVID. I looked at it and I thought, “This is a business model. How can I get better at it?”
I started off using FaceTime. Since then, I have found an app that gives you better quality and bigger size image. The way it works is we connect. I connect with you through your phone. That app allows me to take control of your phone. It doesn’t allow me access to anything on your phone. It only allows me to move your camera. I direct you and I take your photos that way.
It’s all what I’m seeing and snapping. Those images come to me. I can edit them. I can make them all kinds of pretty and take out all the blanks and all those things then I can deliver them to you. It works out great because it allows people to have their social media content and I can photograph them anywhere.
[00:17:46] Would you use a combination of things like, are you talking to somebody over FaceTime using one device and using a different device to do the photography itself? Is it all coming through one device?
[00:17:59] It’s all coming through one device. I connect from my computer to your phone through this app. It works on either with an Android or an Apple. It doesn’t matter but once we connect then I can zoom depending on the make and model of your phone. It will allow different degrees of what I can do but I am able to zoom in and out. I can go wide. The only thing that allows me more flexibility and for the process to be faster and more efficient is if I have what I call a VAT on your side, which is a voice-activated tripod. All that is another human being that is holding your phone that I tell, “Go up, go down, go in, go out,” but I’m doing all the actual image taking.
[00:18:41] What you’ll do, I’m assuming is you’ll set up the scene ahead of time. You guys will determine, “We’re going to be at the beach. We’re going to be in the mountains. We’re going to determine when the best time of the day, what time the best light is going to be and be able to set it up and be able to work on it probably for half an hour, 45 minutes an hour before you start shooting. That would be my guess.
[00:19:02] It depends. I have had people that I have connected with that I have said to them, “Show me your space.” They pick the phone up and they show me their space. I’ll say, “Let’s go over there.” The app gets a little cranky after about 40 minutes. If they are going to be someplace and can send me a couple of photos, we have this or that option. I can say, “Let’s do this, let’s do that.” The nice thing about it is if you are on vacation somewhere, let’s say. You decide, “I would love photos of this for my social media but I don’t have a photographer with me.” Now, you do and it works out very effectively from a cost standpoint. Also, you’re looking at, like I said, a half-hour, 40 minutes out of your day and you’re done.
[00:19:48] How do you build up that level of engagement? I find that what I’m speaking on over the internet or if I’m speaking of or a phone or whatever. You’ll lose a bit of the connection between the human being. I’m sure that 90% of what you do has to do with connection and trust and you’ll be able to have that two-way communication between you and your subject.
Did you find that doing this remotely limits you in terms of capabilities, in terms of the types of things that you can do and the emotion levels and those types of things? Do you find that you’re able to connect with the people in a way where you’re going to get that same workout out of your subject as you would if they were in the studio with you?
[00:20:31] I haven’t found any problems as far as the communication goes because as a photographer, if you are confident, if you are clear in your direction, if you reassure the people that you’re working with and all of the things that I would do in person anyway then that already develops a level of trust. The only limitations that I have had and the only frustrations I have had are knowing what I would do in person. I inherently know where I would stand. I inherently know where I would crop all those things. Now, I have to have somebody else be me. That’s the only level of frustration that I have but that’s only me. Are you going to see it on your end? No.
[00:21:14] You can’t move the camera left, three feet or right, three feet easily up. Up three feet, down three feet because if you do then you have to refocus everything whereas with the cameras in your hand, you keep shooting.
[00:21:25] That’s why if there is a third person that can be there to hold the phone, it makes it a little bit easier. Even sometimes then, I know the tweaks that I would make but it still is better than if it’s only me, the subject on a tripod.Once you’ve learned things, you have to go out and practice, practice, practice. Click To Tweet
[00:21:40] Let’s get into the conversations that you have when you’re dealing with models, with professionals and you’re looking to get to the next level. You’re sitting there going, “I want to be viewed differently. I want to change how people perceive me. I want to change how my brand is perceived in the world and be able to tell a different story or a more unique story or whatever.”
How do you go about having those conversations with people in order to make it be reflected on your side of the lens? A lot of people probably have trouble seeing themselves in a different way or don’t take notes in the same direction that you would want them to take it. How do you go about helping people elevate themselves and take themselves to the next level?
[00:22:30] Honestly, it’s a process. By the time I photograph someone, we have had several conversations. It’s not just, “You need images? Let’s choose a time and let’s make it work.” There is a questionnaire. It’s the first thing that they get and there are things in there. Like I said before about, how are you seen now? How do you wish to be seen? Are there areas you’d like to highlight or hide? Tell me about the photos you love of yourself. It’s a very in-depth thing. I want to know about who they’re speaking to, their goals and all these things.
Once I get that questionnaire back, we have a conversation about it because almost always, the real answer is never what they wrote down. It is going through digging a little deeper and a lot of it within that conversation can be, “Tell me about that.” Somewhere in there becomes the jumping-off point for what needs to happen. Once we figure out what that jumping-off point is it becomes a logistics matter.
[00:23:26] What about the leap between analog and digital and photography because I’m old enough to remember. I remember old enough having my Pentax K1000. The first camera that I probably got several years ago. I love that camera but you never knew what you had until you came out of the darkroom.
[00:23:46] I could even go one better. I remember when I first started working at Ethan Allen years ago and all these jobs I had were always freelance. They were using 4×5 cameras to photograph this stuff. Now, you’re looking at the world upside down, backward and in the pitch dark. The thing I loved about analog versus digital is the fact that once you invested in good gear, you had that gear throughout your career. The other thing too is you had to hone your craft. You never knew for certain what you had per se until you saw the print. I think it forced you to get good with the camera. Those were all the plus sides. The downside was you never knew what you had until you saw the final print.
[00:24:36] Hopefully, you developed it properly and didn’t ruin the film.
[00:24:39] There were a lot of things, the X-ray machines and airports, things like that. The lead bags you had to carry the film through all that stuff that could potentially damage it. God forbid something happened and now what do you do? The nice thing about digital is it is faster. It is cheaper to process. You can see right away what you have and adjust accordingly instead of the polaroid days and things like that where you’re adjusting according to that but because it is what it is. I think the two biggest downsides are like with computers.
It’s a constant change of technology. Just because you invest several thousand dollars into a great camera body now does not mean that in two years from now, that’s going to be the one that serves you. There’s that investment aspect of it. The other thing that I think is said is it does not force people to learn the craft anymore.
[00:25:35] I was going to say are people lazier now?
[00:25:37] I believe so.
[00:25:39] It’s funny when you talk about technology, I remember the first digital photographers in Vancouver had this studio that you literally could drive a car into. It was this huge cove and they bought two six-megapixel backs that they paid $35,000 each for. At the time of it, nobody could believe they had these six-megapixel backs. These were incredible pieces of information. Maybe they lasted eighteen months if they were lucky then they became museum pieces. They became absolute museum pieces. On your camera on your phone, you might have 32 megapixels nowadays. It’s a matter of sitting there going, “Okay.” With this back to the laziness, I think the people keep shooting and they hope they’re going to get something decent.
[00:26:32] I think that’s part of it. Also, there are things that can so easily be fixed on camera that people think, “I’ll fix that in post.” Why? You can fix it now on camera. Unfortunately, it has also allowed a lot of people to call themselves photographers because they own a camera and can use it with some degree of competency.
That’s the thing. I would never tell someone that you can’t be a photographer or any of those things because there is plenty of work to go around for everyone and it’s a great profession. I welcome anybody who wants to be one. However, put the work in. Just because you have purchased a camera does not make you a photographer. It makes you a camera owner. You need to put the work in and get good because people are paying you their hard-earned money and they deserve your best.
[00:27:24] It’s like because I own a Facebook account doesn’t make me social media strategist. Two more questions then I’m going to let you go. We’ve had an incredible conversation. I think that we’ve looked through the different lenses, which is important. It’s the lens of both the photographer, the actual subject and the audience themselves.
What is the one piece of advice you would give somebody who’s coming into this profession that’s serious about it? Not somebody that is going to go out and take pictures with their camera and call themselves a photographer. Somebody who wants to get better day in and day out and turn this into a craft and profession. What’s the one piece of advice you would give them to help elevate their game?
[00:28:07] Be a student. There are places online where you can go learn. CreativeLive is one and also YouTube but try and learn from people who you would want to trade places with because there is always something to learn. Also, if you want to do this as a business, part of that education has to be business courses because people look at any of the arts and they think, “I’ll hang out my shingle. I’m going to be creative all day long and this is going to be the end of it.” That’s not the way it is. At the end of the day, you’re still a business and you have to be able to operate as one. Make that part of your education as well.
[00:28:43] What’s the best way for people to get in touch with you? People, first of all, need to see your work. Second of all, they need to hire you. What’s the best way for people to get in touch with you?
[00:28:51] I want to add one other thing to that. Education. Once you have learned things, you have to go out and practice. As far as me, the best way to get in touch with me is my website. It’s MarlanaSemenza.com. Every link to every bit of social media, email, any of that stuff is right on there, along with all different samples of my work.
[00:29:21] Marlana, one last question. This is the question I ask everybody before I let them out the door. I’m sure you’ve heard me do this but I’m going to say it anyway. When you get out of a photoshoot, get in your car and drive away, what’s the one thing you want people to think about you when you’re not in the room?
[00:29:36] That she made my world better than it was before. I believe strongly in leaving people better than you found them.
[00:29:41] I think that is an incredible philosophy. I echo it 100%. We all need to sit there, take this world and make it a little bit better than where we found it. I know, looking at the work you’ve done, the people you’ve influenced and the stories you tell, you do that daily. Thank you for being such an amazing guest.
[00:30:02] No, thank you so much, Ben.
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About Marlana Semenza
While earning a degree in photography, Marlana Semenza stepped on a tour bus and began an adventure and a career.
She uses her unique background that includes storytelling, advertising, set design and location scouting to tell her clients’ stories in their most powerful way.
An international photographer and visual strategist, Marlana’s client base has included athletes, celebrities, WWE Superstars, and public figures including Miss North Carolina. She photographs clients in person and now virtually through her service ‘photographer in your pocket.