A Question of Photography: Alia Ahmed Yahia aka "The Style Scout"

The Style Scout's editor-in-chief, Alia Ahmed Yahia, has been labeled the "Robin Hood of Style" as she tries to make fashion more accessible to all. Juggling projects for CBS with consultancy work at Tiffany &Co, E! and ELLE, Alia has deep experience working with photographers for multiple reasons and at varying budgets.

Among other insights, Alia told us how professional photographers can get on the radar of big corporations, what photographers can do to make big brands want to work with them more, and how photographers should use Instagram to get more jobs...

Alia Ahmed Yahia - The Style Scout

Alia Ahmed Yahia - The Style Scout

PhotoOp: Tell us a little about your early career in fashion.

Alia Ahmed Yahia: My career in fashion really started at Conde Nast, where I was the Accessories Editor at Vanity Fair. Most of my job was focused on searching out unique and interesting accessories to be featured in the magazine; but I also spent quite a lot of time helping coordinate photo shoots for the magazine. This was definitely an eye-opener for me because we were shooting with photographers like Annie Leibowitz and Mario Testino. It was photo production at its most elaborate, and an incredible first taste of fashion photography.

Then after Vanity Fair I started my own eCommerce company, ChicSherlock, which did great and got lots of press and excitement, but was a bit ahead of its time. So it was back to corporate America. And following a year as Elle’s Fashion Director, I joined Ann Taylor LOFT, initially as Trend Director before becoming the Chief Style Director.

PO: What did the role entail?

AAY: I oversaw the fashion direction, styling, marketing activations, PR and social media efforts.

PO: And I imagine all these departments required photographers in one capacity or another?

AAY: We hired a variety of different photographers for a multitude of reasons: from in-store events to high-profile fashion shoots. But my involvement was fairly limited - I would partner with the creative director to decide on the seasonal content and how we wanted to execute it. My team handled most of the logistics. That said, if we were shooting a big fashion or commercial piece, for example, I would be more involved.

PO: When you were hiring photographers for these bigger fashion or commercial shoots, how would you go about finding finding the right talent?

AAY: When you’re working at a big retail brand you are shooting with huge photographers. So the list of possible photographers is pretty short.

PO: Not much opportunity for an up-and-coming photographer?

AAY: The likelihood of us choosing an unknown photographer is slim to none.

PO: Why?

AAY: In a word: risk. These shoots tend to cost about a million dollars - so it’s not something that can be reshot if it doesn’t meet expectations.

You see, in any big company like LOFT, there are a lot decision-makers. And many of the people who come to the table to decide on which photographer to hire are not informed in photography. So it’s about demonstrating proven entities. In other words, minimizing risk. If I’m a director at a mass market retailer, and I don’t have knowledge in a decision-making role, then I rely on experience. My Creative Director wants to shoot some new cool kid for a million dollar campaign, but I know Mario Testino has done what we’re looking for many, many times - then guess what? We’re going with Testino.

Now there are some brands that are more comfortable with risk. I mean look at Burberry - they shot an entire campaign on an iPhone, which is pretty out there. But they’re a brand built on being digitally innovative, so they are always pushing the boundaries.

There’s also the press-worthiness of your photographer. Having Steven Meisel shoot for you can just be as important as having a model like Carolyn Murphy be the face of your campaign - because he will organically bring interest to the campaign.

PO: But it sounds a little chicken-and-egg: you only get the high-paying commercial jobs if you have experience with high-paying commercial jobs…

AAY: Yes, but its high-risk, high-reward: these commercial photographers are being paid a lot of money to shoot these campaigns. And even once you’re in the door, it doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed work forever. You can end up falling foul of a brand.

PO: How so?

AAY: Even if you have all the decision-makers aligning on a photographer, and the shoot goes exactly as planned with imagery everyone loves, it can still go south. As soon as people see sales aren't where they were in the previous quarter, then the first people who get blamed are the creatives. The murmurs start: “well I never really loved that outfit on her”, “I thought it was too moody”. People change their perceptions. And the photographer gets wrapped up in the blame.

PO: It’s a bit tough to blame the photographers for a concept that they were just executing.

AAY: There’s a feeling that “we never want this to happen again, so we shouldn't use that concept again and we should never use that photographer, model, stylist, etc. again”.

Its easy to blame marketing first. It could be a product problem! It could be the in-store experience! It could be the updated website design! It’s very hard to pinpoint what exactly caused the change. But the creative tends to get the blame, because it is subjective. And with mass-market retail there are so many shareholders and stakeholders involved, that people just don’t wait. Everything is judged quarter-by-quarter.

Carolyn Murphy by Terry Tsiolis

Carolyn Murphy by Terry Tsiolis

PO: How do you ever try anything new in this environment?

AAY: Exactly. This is just my opinion. Supposing you lose 5% of your customer base with this new campaign. These people who are looking at the new creative, the in-store experience, etc. and they decide “this isn't for me”. How do you know if that 5% loss couldn't be recovered and made into a 5% gain if you don’t push the boat out, and persevere a little?

PO: Okay, so I’m not Mario Testino, but I’m a good photographer. How do I get one of these “smaller, less risky” projects you mentioned? Do I need to be repped?

AAY: I think so. It’s about credibility. I can tell another decision-maker “you may not have heard of this photographer, but they're with Art + Commerce, so they know what they’re doing”. It’s a sound-bite that lends credibility, because these agencies wouldn't rep someone if they weren’t really good. Again, it's about risk.

PO: Moving away from the high-end commercial and advertising photographers, what other types of photographers do big corporations like LOFT hire?

AAY: There are so many other things you would hire a photographer for within a big company. Let’s take PR, for example. We had a couple of event photographers in our roster that we would call if we had a store opening that we wanted to document. Now this was fine so long as we knew photographers who worked that market. But what if it was a small town outside Dallas, and we didn’t have someone in our file who could shoot there?

So suddenly my team are asking if anyone knows an event photographer in Dallas? Would they be willing to drive an hour to do this? What’s their rate? How good are they?

PO: So how would your team ultimately find these photographers?

AAY: I mean, it’s a challenge! Honestly, finding someone to shoot the million dollar jobs is fairly easy - you can quickly come up with your shortlist of photographers that would work well with the campaign, and whose experience you trust. But when it comes to this mid-tier set of photographers, it’s all based on relationships. In this instance it’s PR people talking to other PR people, or emailing around the office.

PO: Meaning there’s an opportunity for new photographers to get into the system?

AAY: My advice to event photographers looking to get in with a big company and build their client list is to connect with the PR Director. Send them your portfolio, and if they like your stuff then they will keep you on file. When something comes up, they’ll reach out to you.

PO: What approach should the photographers take?

AAY: Just give the the key pieces of information in a digestible way: I work in this area, my rates are X per hour and here is a link to my portfolio. And follow-up once to see if they got your email. But don’t be a stalker. Because here’s the thing: if they don’t need you now, then they don’t need you. And they probably cannot foresee when they will. But one day they might.

The photographers we worked with the most offered solutions. Within budget, local to our needs, etc. Although the money wasn’t even close to what we were spending on the commercial shoots, once a photographer got in we would use them every single time.

I remember we worked with this event photographer who was incredible. And I don’t mean his work - although that was great - more his personality. People were so excited to see him. When we had an event somewhere people would ask “Oh, is Patrick coming?” He was so upbeat, everyone loved him. He created these great photos by making you feel so included. Even our president would ask if he was going to be shooting. Now that’s where you want to be, you want to be the guy that the president of the company asks for. (Check out Patrick Butler's site HERE)

Street Style in downtown Manhatta

Street Style in downtown Manhatta

PO: Photographers can’t just reach out to every store. How should they go about getting in-front of the right people

AAY: Every major retail brand - you know the ones, they have stores in malls all across the country - will handle their events from their corporate office. All the communications and functions will be centralized. So let’s say the company is based out of Los Angeles, then no doubt they will be able to find lots of photography options locally. But what if they’re opening a store in Charleston, then they might not know any photographers in that area. So if you ARE a photographer based in Charleston, you would email the PR Director and say “Hi, I’m a photographer from Charleston, these are the types of photography I can do that you might be interested in, here is my portfolio and these are my rates. If you have any events in my area that you’d need a photographer for, then I’d love to connect with you. Please keep my information on file”.

PO: You make it sound very simple! What other kinds of photographers might reach out to a PR Director?

AAY: A PR Director is responsible for all internal and external communications, so yearly headshots for the executive team, as well as shooting all the consumer-facing and business-focused PR events, which happen about four times a year. They also would be responsible for shooting lookbooks.

PO: Let’s talk more broadly about how photographers market themselves, and most specifically Instagram - which you are very active on. What role should Instagram play in a photographer’s marketing toolbox?

AAY: Continuing to think as a major retailer, if we were to hire a photographer because of their huge Instagram following then it would be as part of our social media strategy. The goal of working with that photographer is to grow your own following, so you’d probably have them take over your Instagram feed. They’re a social media influencer first, and a photographer second. It’s a paid partnership, if you will.

PO: What’s a huge following? 100,000? 500,000?

AAY: 50,000 in a niche market is of interest to a brand. It doesn’t have to be millions.

PO: Okay, supposing I’m a photographer with 50,000 followers, how do I get hired?

AAY: Again, it would be unusual for us to work with you if you weren’t represented. But let’s say we were interested, the key is having a style that relates to the brand. I would want you to do what you do, but for us - because I know there is a shared visual language.

Let’s say everything on your feed was the color pink. It was all you shot. And we were doing a promotion for Breast Cancer awareness - we could hire you because you would work well with our campaign. Bad example, but you get what I mean. It could be certain architectural shots for a construction company. Or photos of home-cooked food for Martha Stewart.

So for a photographer to get hired through Instagram, you should make sure you have a really distinct style and then figure out which brands you would match with. Then send your portfolio to the Social Media Director of each of those companies.

PO: In general how important is it for photographers to have a strong Instagram presence? Imagine you’re down to two photographers being considered to shoot your lookbook -photographer A has lots of followers, and photographer B has barely any. Does that matter?

AAY: If my PR Director came to me with two options to shoot a lookbook, and I didnt know who they were, I would google their website and look on Instagram. I would want to see what was happening there. If you are a photographer and you’re on Instagram and you have pictures of your kids and other random things, then I would wonder if they understood that Instagram is a business tool… That would be a problem to me. Instagram is all about photos. This is a missed opportunity for you. By all means have a personal Instagram and a work Instagram, but all photographers should have a presence on Instagram. even if it’s just posting the work that you’ve done. It has to look professional. It’s like LinkedIn for a photographer.

Unless I am hiring you for social media purposes, I am not looking for engagement. I understand photography is an art, and that unless you’re an Instagram photographer that has built a career posting images on the platform, then it’s not fair to judge you based on the interaction you get on your feed.

I consider a website to be like your glossy portfolio. But Instagram is more like your real life, and from it I can get a sense of your personality. If there a lots of pictures of you getting drunk with your friends, then it’s not good - because potential employers use it as a tool to see who you are.

PO: Would you ever look at a photographer’s Facebook page or even Linkedin Profile?

AAY: No. Instagram is all about images. It’s where a photographer should excel.

Taking a power stroll through the streets of New York Cit

Taking a power stroll through the streets of New York Cit

PO: Above and beyond their work, is there anything you look for when meeting with photographers?

AAY: Professionalism. As much as we’re a fashion brand, it’s a corporate environment. You can't roll in with ripped up jeans. Look polished and pulled together. Be on time. Have all of your gear ready to go. Have whatever it takes to make this happen. Because everybody's neck is on the line in these big corporate environments.

PO: Because so many people are involved?

AAY: Because people have to answer for their budgets. If the shoot is a total flop due to a photographer’s lack of professionalism, then guess what? We’re never hiring this person again. I have worked with a photographer who was shooting a lookbook for us, and they turned up to the location and said “Oh, it’s kind of dark in here. I’m not sure if this will work”.

That is not on my team to know. You have to ask: “are there pictures of where I am shooting? Can I scout the location?” “When are we shooting? Because the direct sunlight might effect the shoot”. You need to be the one to ask the questions. You are being hired because you think of these kinds of things. I want a turn-key solution here.

PO: So what questions should a photographer prepare?

AAY: I need you to be a solution for me. Ask the questions you have to ask to make this an amazing shoot. Organize a pre-pro. Set up a call with everyone that will be on-set so everybody knows where they’re meant to be, what they’re meant to be doing and when they’re meant to be doing it. Send visual references. Do whatever it takes. I want all discussion eliminated by the time of the shoot because it’s the element of surprise that makes big companies nervous.

PO: Let’s talk about your current role at The Style Scout, where you run a sightly smaller ship…

AAY: My need for photographers has certainly changed, that’s for sure! The photographers I work with now are generally hired to help me with my Street-Style work.

PO: And where do you find these photographers?

AAY: I have a pretty wide network of photographers from my consulting work, and days at LOFT. But the problem is most of these are a little out of my price-range. It’s been pretty hard for me to find people who work within my budget.

PO: Tell us more about Street- Style.

AAY: A significant part of The Style Scout is introducing noteworthy and accessible style ideas to people - which means I need imagery that tells a story of the style in action, on the street. And since I’m the face of the brand, that means shooting me!

PO: What do you look for in Street-Style photographers?

AAY: Really what I am looking to see is creative innovation or art direction, someone who is coming into their ascendancy. Also I want a photographer to collaborate with, someone who brings something else to the table. Not just “where do you want me to shoot you”, but more “oh, I have an idea: I think there’s this great location by the Seaport that could work really well for this trend story.” Someone that wants to be involved in putting together a fashion story.

I am not super-comfortable being in front of the camera. I do a lot of TV, and talking is no problem; but when I have to do still photography, it makes me very nervous. I need to work with someone that understands I am not a model. Street-Styling is not modeling. I am not that person. I do it for my brand. I don't want it to be serious fashion on the street. Its finding somebody that sees that as an opportunity to do something different, to make it a little more artful.

PO: In your opinion, and with all your corporate experience, what’s the difference between a good photographer, and a great one?

AAY: I think a great photographer is somebody that you can learn from along the way - it’s someone who takes you on a journey as you work on this collaboration together.

So if I come to you with a picture that I want to recreate, instead of just saying “no”. Explain that the image is four different camera angles blended together, and you'd have to build a set where the photographer is 30 feet up. And then say “tell me what you like about it, and lets discuss the elements that make it work”.

And if you explain to me what it would take to make something similar, and advise that it would be an extra 15% on the budget; then I might be able to come up with that. Remember, most of the people who will hire you are not trained in photography.