We have something different for our Shooter Spotlight series this time: not a photographer but an entrepreneur. In 2004, Lorenz Wagener saw an opportunity for product photography in Shanghai, due to China being “the world’s workshop”. Fast forward to 2011, and his company Rimagine is now a full service photography company; offering photo shoots, retouching, catalog production, set design, model casting, and more. It’s fascinating to see success in the field from a non-photographer (although he can rock a Lomo), proving that business accumen is always important – photographers take note. And the pictures speak for themselves. They even have a blog too, with shooting stories and industry insights, so check it out.
Name: Lorenz Wagener
Hometown: Nuremberg, Germany
Tell us about yourself:
I studied international marketing and economics in Germany, then worked in marketing at an online bank in Nuremberg, which I enjoyed a lot. While I was still working there, I bought and ran a small bar with a friend of mine, which was great fun. After a year of doing both, this became too much and I decided it’s time to move on. Went to Shanghai to visit a friend of mine from Hong Kong, who I knew for a long time through my family’s business. Than found a job at an IT company where I worked for two years as marketing manager, where I met my current business partner. Then started Rimagine in 2002 with him.
What is the best thing about running a photography studio? Worst?
The people, creativity and the vibe.
I love working with our talents who are creative, easy-going and open-minded. I also love to meet with all our customers. Meeting people from ten different countries in one week is quite normal in Shanghai, as they all use China as their workshop to source the products they sell to the world. In photography, it can be quite high-trafficked, that’s why it is quite normal to have lots of meetings.
There is no worst thing about running a studio, but there are a couple of challenges. One of those is the fundamental challenge of ‘subjectivity’, meaning that your results can not be objectively judged. If your customer does not like your image, there’s nothing you can do about it but do it again. This requires experienced project managers who know how to talk to customers.
Another challenge is that typically photo studios are quite ‘departmentalized': The photographers, their assistants, set builders, stylists, account managers, sales, retouchers, etc. are all great people but also quite different from each other. The different teams often do not mingle too much with the other teams.
What’s your favorite or most memorable project that you’ve worked on with Rimagine?
The most memorable project was shooting the Asian print campaign for Samsonite in early 2011 via a French creative agency. It was so memorable because I really could feel that we put to use many things which we had previously learned from many other projects. It went extremely smooth and without any hickups – and everybody was happy about the result, from the client to the model to the photographer to the producer. Standing on the set and seeing 20 professionals work in harmony as it wouldn’t be a big deal was just a great feeling.
How is running a photography business different from running any other business? (based on your previous experiences)
I guess managing creative talents, regardless whether it’s an ad agency or photo studio, brings similar and unique challenges. For one, creative businesses typically attract talents which prefer a more non-conventional approach to doing business. Having 8am meetings or sitting in long presentations might not be as easily accepted as in other industries. Being more flexible and open-minded is for sure important.
What has been the biggest hurdle in running your business in China?
It is very difficult to find good talents, and even more difficult to retain the best ones. Many companies, in this case also your clients, have high turnovers of talents, meaning you need to work with new contact persons every few months. Many of your contact persons are often not very experienced, well-educated and don’t speak multiple languages. All of this becomes even more challenging as you have to manage a company in a low-trust environment, where often basic and common business practices can not be found.
Did your lack of professional photography experience hinder you at all in the beginning?
Yes and no. Yes, because it’s of course helpful if you have experience in the industry you start your business in. And no, because it was this lack of experience which really left us no other choice than to fully trust our key talents. They recognized early in time that they played a vital role becausee our success was dependent on their skills, judgment and motivation.
It seems like you were the first company in Shanghai to offer all these services under one roof. Have you seen competitors or imitators pop up since then?
The services we offer are not new, but what’s new about our approach is the international aspect of our business. Typically, photography used to be sourced by companies on a quite local or regional service. A firm would try to find a studio nearby their own location, maybe in a close-by city. In rare cases clients would consider studios which are not in their proximity. In contrast, Rimagine takes an international approach by working with many companies which are based in Europe or the U.S., but source products in China – the workshop of the world.
There were (and still are) some hilarious cases of imitations. Some copycats even took our entire website, including our mission and vision, customer testimonials (!) and story and just gave it a new name. We actively scout for such imitators and of course immediately get in touch with them to prevent them from doing so.
What direction do you see your company taking in the future? Expansion into other cities?
Our aim is to become the most recognized photography company in Asia. Shanghai itself is a huge market, but eventually we will have one more studio in Southern China, maybe Shenzhen and Hong Kong. In the long term, we plan to have at least one studio in the U.S., Germany and in the U.K.
Do you have any creative input into the projects your company takes on, or do you leave that to the photographers and designers?
I am often involved in the early stages of a project. So when customers share with us what they have in mind and would like to create, I am often the one who needs to explain to them what is possible with the available budget level. For example, one customer wanted to shoot a celebrity VIP in four different locations including penthouses, lush gardens, an opera and the Shanghai IFC Tower. But he only had the celebrity for one hour of shooting time, which only allowed of course one of his desired locations. In such moments, I help the customer figure out how he can get the most for his money
Knowing that you’re not a photographer but a studio owner/manager, do you shoot casually? Which camera/lens? Care to show us a few shots?
I am surrounded by cameras all day and the thing we talk about most is photography. So when I get home, picking up my camera is not the first thing which comes to mind! However, if the light is good and I have time, what I really enjoy is taking landscape images (see attached) with my little Diana F+, an analog Lomo cam, which creates lovely vintage-style kind of shots, all in a much slower way – a nice contrast to our fast-paced world we live in!
See some of Lorenz’ shots here…