Whether he's shooting an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico or portraits and landscapes in China, Jeff Heger is creating arresting compositions, colorful abstracts, and portraits that enliven the pages of corporate reports, company overviews, and ad campaigns. For nearly three decades—first as a photojournalist, then as a corporate location and portrait photographer—Heger has remained in high demand with his international clientele. What's driving his success is his ability to build long-term, trusting relationships by listening to clients and consistently exceeding their expectations.
Trained as a photojournalist on an award-winning newspaper in Iowa, Heger learned to seek out the best locations, talent, and architecture—whatever was necessary to capture the story. These skills traveled well when he relocated to Texas during the oil-rich ‘80s. "Once I found myself in Houston, I started photographing industrial/energy for clients," he says. "My work started to grow as the companies did, and when they went international, so did I."
Handshake, Smile, and Attitude
For decades, Heger's shutters have been clicking for Apple, Holiday Inn, Apache Corp., and others who appreciate his use of color, timeliness, and personal connection to the work. They trust him, as do the many hotel and energy clients who have faith that he'll bring back what they need every time.
"I think personality plays into it a good deal," Heger says. "Great imagery doesn't hurt, but often the client is with me on the road for a while. We're spending a lot of time together, and finding personalities that match is important. My referrals come from longtime clients. They're referring me based on personal ties, as well as on my photography. Never underestimate the power of your handshake, smile, and attitude. It counts."
Well aware that clients are the ones who pay his bills, Heger takes every opportunity to exceed their expectations and to wow them when he hands over a contact sheet of his favorites from recent trips, many of which reflect his love for the paintings of artist Mark Rothko.
"My job is to make my eye work for a living," Heger says. "If it's just work, it's really boring. Lots of people can make photographs, so it's important to have something more." "More" to Heger is delivering excellence, always making certain to deliver what he understands clients want—regardless of the fact that he doesn't recall receiving a shot list to fulfill in many years.
"I know my energy clients want more than an oil well at sunset, and they know I know that," he says. "I go out and shoot what I think they need, and what I think they should use. My clients have a great deal of trust in me and let me do what I want to do."
Heger applies his business savvy to bidding on jobs, paying attention to the competition, as well as the usage. "If someone wants the lowest price in Houston, they likely don't come to me, as I'm not the cheapest guy in town."
Heger is more than a photographer for his clients. He often answers questions about creative input. "I've been part of creative teams and have come up with headlines for company reports just by being comfortable speaking aloud," he says. "When I'm involved in brainstorming and thematic approaches from the beginning, the photography is very easy."
Life of the Journeyman
While the country, terrain, and society Heger is assigned to capture might be dissimilar in every way from previous jobs, his methodology is consistent. "On any assignment, we get up really, really early and drive somewhere really, really far away. Then we try to make the best photographs we can."
For each destination, whether he's alone or with an assistant (and without the aid of a guide), Heger tries to figure out where to see the sun come up and what to shoot in the magical hour that it happens. Their time is always short, and the travel doesn't offer many second chances. When he's done with location images, he'll continue to capture the client's employees at work and devote a full day to the local culture, giving his client a lot of bang for the buck.
Heger travels light, in contrast to the days when 6x7s were the tools of his trade. Today he prefers Canon digital SLR bodies and 16-35mm, 70-200mm, and 50mm lenses, bringing his human subjects up close and personal.
"You don't have an interpreter and you don't know the culture," Heger says, about creating portraiture abroad. "Still, while we don't speak the same language, a smile is universal. People can tell why I'm there from the look of me, and I ask permission with my eyes to shoot. My photojournalism experience taught me to relate to someone very quickly, and I'm pretty good at charades!"
Heger has never felt his job was dangerous. "I've never been uncomfortable on a shoot in a faraway place. You just have to be aware. The only time I've ever felt threatened anywhere was one time in lower Manhattan," he laughs.