The Tragedy of “Fake It Till you Make It” –

Getting started in wedding photography nearly five years ago, finding clients with a slim portfolio was one of the most difficult challenges I’ve ever faced. Brides just don’t want to entrust their once-in-a-lifetime day to someone who has not yet proven that they can deliver. It’s a smart move for clients, but an obvious barrier to entry for those hoping to jump into the industry and get started in a hurry. Establishing yourself with little to no experience in any industry is difficult, as most recent graduates can attest to. This is why internships exist, to give those that are not yet established a chance to grow and learn in a real world working environment.

For wedding photographers, internships typically come in the form of portfolio building assignments. Working for other photographers as a second shooter is a popular and very responsible way, taking on low-risk (and low pay) weddings is another option. Some will even take part in workshops with models posing as brides to capture photos of the elusive woman in a white dress. It’s not exactly a fast track to success: it took a full wedding season for us to really start booking more than a handful of clients. But this is the reality of the business, if you choose to learn and build in a responsible way.

Of course, there are photographers who do not act responsibly, and in fact, fake some or all of their portfolio, posting photos that they had no part in making, but nonetheless attract paying clients anyway. This is not a new phenomenon, but it’s a practice that got widespread attention in the photography community and beyond this week thanks to an Arkansas wedding photographer, Meagan Kunert. Meagan made the big mistake of stealing images from other photographers’ websites and passing them off as her own, even creating fictional blog posts with made up names and stories to accompany the photos. Although her website (which has since been taken down) featured many genuine assignments that she’d skillfully completed herself, it was liberally sprinkled with photos of people she’d never photographed, let alone met. She even went so far as to submit one wedding to a blog, where it was featured as her own work.

Once discovered, the backlash against Meagan was pretty harsh. Her story went viral, and the photography community jumped all over her for committing copyright infringement and misleading her clients. Regrettably, her initial reaction was to delete everything, taking negative comments off of her blog and Facebook page as fast as she could. But it seems that when the fervor grew to be something she couldn’t contain anymore, she posted a heartfelt public apology.

It’s not clear what the fallout will be for Meagan. From what I understand, she has lost at least one client as a direct result of this revelation, and although it does not appear she is being sued by any of the photographers that she stole from, that is certainly a possibility. At present time, her entire online presence has been wiped clean, without a trace of her legitimate or stolen work. It’s clearly been a really rough week for her and it’s very likely that her business will not survive this incident.

What’s the lesson here? Obviously, don’t cheat, don’t steal. That’s just stupid. In this day and age, chances are very good that you’re going to get caught, and it’s going to be terrible. But the bigger lesson is that presenting your genuine self is always the best option. While Meagan may have successfully built her business on the backs of the photographers she stole from, it all came crashing down on her when the truth was revealed. I doubt that she will ever be able to recover her reputation. The saddest part is that her real work, if it was in fact real, was actually very good. Even if it was not as plentiful as she’d hoped it would be, presenting this work, and this alone, would have served her much better, allowing her to attract clients who genuinely appreciate her unique style and talent.

Everyone wants a fast track to success, but faking it til you make it is just not the way. Cutting corners with the justification that one day, you’ll stop and do better is no way to lay the foundation for a strong business. The same is true in business school. Wedding photographers take on early assignments to build their skills, just as you’re in school to build your knowledge and experience in business. When you cheat on assignments, you’re not just lying to your professor, you’re stealing knowledge and experience from yourself, and even misleading those that will hire you in the future based on the assumption that you’ve truthfully completed your degree. Hard work is, obviously, hard. But it’s with hard work and genuine effort that you can grow to become a knowledgeable, successful professional in any industry.