Business Trends: Working With Your Partner – Profit Or Peril?

Running a photography business is stressful to start with, but add the emotional connection between partners or spouses and you have the potential for greatness or tragedy. So, how do you successfully work with your spouse or life-partner? How do you decide to divide up the daily business duties and responsibilities? For those who are successful, what advice can they offer to us?

When I first approached this topic, Rosalind Smith pointed out to me that as far back as 1947 Diane Arbus and her husband Allan Arbus established a business partnership in fashion photography and were featured in a Glamour magazine article on couples who are collaborating on joint careers. Many people do it, so this is not a new business trend but one that bears some close examination for a photography business today.

Dean Davis ( and Judy Heggem-Davis ( probably have one of the best working situations I have seen--they work together but in side by side firms! Dean explains, "Judy and I both work in the same building downtown. The building is a century-old former produce warehouse that was redeveloped in the mid-80s as commercial condominiums. Klündt | Hosmer, Judy's graphic design studio employers, own three units directly above the three units that Judy and I own and lease to my business. The building is a microcosm of creativity; other tenants include architects, an engineering firm, a day spa, and a portrait photographer. Because we are all owners of the building there is a strong sense of community. I often joke that I only work half days...7am to 7pm. I really don't mind the long hours. In fact, most of the time I feel like the luckiest guy on the planet. I get to collaborate on projects with my wife who is arguably one of the best designers in this market. It just doesn't get any better. I make a living doing something I love. I get to see my wife throughout the day. We get a break from each other by default; I have other clients and she works on many projects that don't include my photographic services. When we have lunch or go home at night we are able to talk about our workday and our struggles and completely understand each other."

Divide And Conquer
Sometimes the division of responsibilities occurs naturally. One partner is better with the business side and the other is better with the creative or technical. When this happens, the dividing lines are easier to see. When it is not readily apparent, letting each other's strengths and weaknesses dictate duties makes sense. Tony Sweet and Susan Milestone ( work together and Tony can validate this approach. He says, "Sue does mostly administrative and I do program preparation, teaching, and image management. It's what each of us does best."

Peter and Sherry Hassel ( also divide duties based on identifying their strengths. Peter says, "My wife, Sherry, is a graphic designer (16 years). These two visual communication fields are very closely connected. We worked on several projects together over the years (that's how we met). Her responsibilities might be: concept, design, photo styling, art direction, and sometimes photo assisting. Together we'd get the images needed for the projects. Most of the time Sherry was working for an ad agency and I was working for a photo studio. Eventually I went out on my own--Peter Hassel Photography. At that time Sherry was still an employed senior designer, but she was able to design my logo, business packages, brochures, and do some billing and bookkeeping. Now we have two kiddos and a home office. Because I specialize in location architectural and people/lifestyles photography, a studio is not needed. I'm a full-timer for our business. Between preschool, some great nieces who help baby-sit, and some occasional unconventional work hours (after kids are sleeping) Sherry's able to work part-time for our business."

It is most important to make discussion a top priority. Don't just let it fall automatically to the first person who steps up to the plate or worse--expect your mate to read your mind! Start by sorting out who is good at what and establish guidelines that will hold up under any situation you can anticipate. Margo Pinkerton and Arnold Zann, Zann and Pinkerton/ZAP Photography ( explain their approach, "Division of labor is the only way to go, especially when you have two alpha personalities. Margo is the computer person, financial guru, and up-front phone contact, while Arnie does all the technical research, keeps all the equipment in top order, and is our lighting expert."

Take A Break
All work and no play makes for a dull marriage or partnership and is even truer for couples in business together. You are already feeling "24/7" as a business owner and when you work with your spouse, there is no escape! Tension and stress from work can follow you both home. For a healthy personal and professional balance, couples working together have a greater than average need to find ways to relieve stress and find some rest and relaxation.

Jack and Shannon Hollingsworth ( feel it is better to stick together to take a break. Jack says, "We don't take many official breaks. When we do, we travel as a family. We own a home and studio on Cape Cod and spend time with our girls (ages 4 and 8). Often, we will take long weekends together."

Margo and Arnie also take time off together: "We have another passion, co-driving a race car. We are both involved in a car club as drivers and instructors in high-performance driving on top racetracks in the East and Midwest. We also enjoy spending time with family and close friends, going to movies (cinema, after all, is another form of photography), and relaxing by the lake in the summer."

Dean and Judy offer their advice. Judy says, "Get out of the office at lunch. I go as often as I can to a local park and have a picnic lunch and hike. The fresh air, a little walk, and peace always puts things in a little more perspective. I have a group of people I dance with. We move the photo gear out of Dean's studio once a week and work out African dance and drum pieces. I also co-teach a dance class. We don't really escape completely as we enjoy sharing in each other's work. Actually, it's a choice on both our parts to work so closely. I turned down a lucrative job offer in part because I wanted to stay near the business as we both work long hours and dropping by at lunch or while working on a project sometimes is the only way we see each other." Dean explains, "I have hosted a blues radio show on Sunday nights for 121/2 years. I am the incoming president of the Spokane Ad Fed. I play golf, mountain bike, and love a good game of ping pong!"

Communicate Better
Learning to communicate effectively when you work in a business together is as important as the photography you do. Entrepreneurial couples often have trouble voicing their feelings to their partners because they don't want to "hurt feelings" or "upset their mate." The problem is that things left unsaid or unresolved will just blow up into bigger problems.

The number one rule is to learn to be honest and respectful at the same time. Being honest will stop small problems from becoming big ones. Being respectful will help keep you from inappropriately criticizing your mate. Being respectful will also keep the other person from becoming overly defensive. Tony and Susan say, "We don't let anything build up. If something bothers one of us we talk about it right away. Let each person do what they do best and trust that it will get done."

Not communicating will not solve problems--it will make more. Your challenge as a couple is to find a way to talk things out without being rude to each other! Peter and Sherry have this great suggestion, "Just as if you were working for a corporation, you want to have a productive day. Some interruptions cannot be escaped, but too many interruptions destroy a productive day. Because the two of you are very comfortable with one another, you may get the urge to interrupt the workflow to ask little questions or just chitchat. I'd suggest keeping that to a minimum. Stay on task as much as possible, and then enjoy conversations during lunch, dinner, drives to scouting locations, etc."

Margo and Arnie say, "Keep communicating (easy for many to forget to do if you are married). Most importantly, keep your sense of humor. We also keep separate offices. But we are essentially together 24 hours a day and very rarely argue. We travel the world together on assignment and feel our success is due to the fact that we have fun with each other, share a passion for photography, have complimentary eyes and a sense of wonderment for each new challenge."

Finally, Dean and Judy offer this advice. Judy says, "Treat your spouse the same as other co-workers when it comes to work. Do expect the best of your spouse. Don't expect more or less than you would with any other co-worker. Work done together is all about the goal of achieving the best result for the project at hand. Do your best to be a team player and that may mean letting go of a little glory." Dean suggests, "Do maintain professional standards at all times.

Do buy flowers every 6-8 weeks. Don't forget to have fun while in pursuit of excellence."

There is a formula for success, couples who work together--add some fun and flowers. Excellent advice!