September 30, 2022

MEGANEGANE

Just Do It

The hell of the business headshot

The other day, a man who runs what used to be Europe’s most valuable private company had a conniption on Twitter about media coverage of his business.

The reporting was wrong and trying to correct it was like “screaming into a storm”, whined Sebastian Siemiatkowski, whose Klarna payments service has plunged in value and had just revealed a bruising set of losses.

This caught my eye because Siemiatkowski has been a person of interest ever since I came across his mesmerising headshot photo. In it, he somehow manages to do an upright version of the splits by standing on his right leg while holding his unbent left leg aloft by the foot. He looks like a jacket-clad gymnast. Or a ballet dancer. Or the letter ‘Y’. 

Either way, it is an astonishing display of flexibility, and it rightly earned Siemiatkowski top spot in a cheering ranking of odd photos of tech founders, produced by the Sifted tech news site last year.

But a dash of his daring would be welcome in the rest of the business world, where there are unsettling signs that the headshot is being taken far more seriously than it ought to be.

More than a million people update their profile pictures on LinkedIn each week, the site says, and hunger for the perfect headshot has grown to the point that people are paying more than $1,000 for such photos.

Typical prices are lower, says Doren Gabriel, founder of London’s DG Corporate studio, where individual headshot rates start at £99. But he confirms business is soaring, partly because of pent-up pandemic demand, and partly because of the pace at which the business world is moving online.

Companies that deal with customers via chatbots and online forms, rather than people on a telephone, want to make their human staff more visible than ever before, he says. Many companies also want to show off their inclusivity and diversity. The result: employees who were once “hidden away and not seen” are now being pictured on company websites. Some organisations now use mass headshot shoots as team-building events.

Happily, headshots are less grey and staid than they used to be. About 90 per cent of men now go tieless, another London photographer told me. The remaining 10 per cent tend to be bankers, top insurance executives and the lawyers who support them.

But the quest for photographic perfection can be exacting. A friend told me last week her hairdresser was seeing clients who were coming in for a blow-dry because they were about to have their photo taken for a staff building pass.

This is unfortunate. But as someone whose day job requires a byline headshot, I can say that a poor photo poses career risks.

“I was going to promote your column on page one,” an editor once told me. “But your headshot is so bad I decided not to.” This was brutal news but, alas, justified. I arranged to get a new photo, which brought on another set of concerns.

Should one heed the internet advice to pose with a “smize” (smiling eyes) or a “squinch” (a slight squint, or pinched lower eyelid)? Or is it better to opt for the beaming, eye-wrinkling “Duchenne smile”, named after a French neurologist credited with uncovering the source of a genuinely happy smile.

The Duchenne is indeed the “gold standard of facial expressions” in western culture, write two former LinkedIn employees in their book, Linked, a guide to job-hunting success. Sober expressions seem “less authentic”, they warn.

This is bad news for people like me, whose eyes disappear in a full Duchenne. Another Duchenne-avoider, my FT colleague, Stephen Bush, adds correctly that a smiling byline headshot looks inappropriate above a column on, say, world poverty. Also, he says, “when I smile I look as if I have been hit by a heavy object.”

Ultimately, the headshot, like much of life, should not be bound by too many rules or taken too seriously. Also, context matters.

“I want to look dead-eyed, like a shark,” a headshot client told London photographer, Mark Grey, recently. Grey obliged, especially after the client revealed what he did for a living: negotiate the release of hostages from pirates in the Indian Ocean.

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