Production Profile: Hannah Fehrman, Owner of Grey House Productions
How did you begin Grey House Productions?
I moved to Chicago to study photography at Columbia College Chicago. I was the person that since I was eight years old told everyone I wanted to be a photographer when I was older. While at Columbia I studied photography and loved all of my classes and extracurriculars. But, in my last semester of my senior year I decided I didn’t actually want to be a photographer. And let me tell you, your last semester is the worst time to come to that decision. That last semester I had a mentor, Elizabeth Ernst who I really admired. I never actually took a class from her, but she was the best teacher in the entire department, she has since retired. For a full year, even after I graduated, every Monday at noon, we met in her office. More times than not, I cried. The beautiful thing is that she pushed me and told me it’s not good enough, that’s not where you need to be, there’s more, go deeper, and really encouraged me to explore out of what you think you’re supposed to do. It was through meeting with her that I realized I didn’t want to be a photographer. She connected me to a photographer that I could intern with, to experience photography outside of the culture at my school. This photographer had a full time producer, which is not very common. The more I started observing her, I thought “what is she doing?”, because she’s a badass and that’s what I want to do.
After the internship finished, the studio brought me on part time to be the producer’s right hand. I learned a lot and saw a ton of the backend, and realized production is truly what I loved. After spending a year with them, I decided I wanted to go freelance and work with a variety of people. I started freelancing as a PA (production assistant) which was a lateral move from my studio position. I quickly realized that was too small for the way that my brain worked and the type of responsibility I wanted. However, I found it really difficult for Chicago photographers to see me as anything besides a PA. As a freelancer no one gives you a promotion, so I thought what if I find an in between where I’m not a full producer but I’m not only a PA. The middle ground, come to find out, is called a production coordinator. More often than not, it’s when [photographers] don’t have a budget for a producer, but they need a producer. They pay you as a PA, or slightly above, but you do the work as a producer on set. In that point in time it was actually great because it gave me experience and allowed me to work out some of the kinks of carrying more of the load by myself, I was compensated in experience. Then, I started doing test/personal projects with photographers, usually with photographers who were young and green, which allowed me to take even more of the pre-production on and work out those kinks. At that point, after I had a couple of projects under my belt, I started reaching out to the Chicago photographers again, and they still refused to see me as more than a PA. Understandably, because some of their projects are tens of thousands of dollars, they don’t want to just trust project management to just anybody. I knew that I could handle it, but I had to get over this hump of being pigeon holed as a PA. So, I decided that I wanted to start marketing to people outside of Chicago. I made an excel list of 87 names, which I had found through source books, online, and researching photographers across the country that I wanted to work with. As I emailed people I got a lot of kind thanks and “we’ll keep your information” responses. Some people didn’t get in touch at all. After a couple of weeks, I was getting discouraged because nothing was coming from it. The only thing I could do is try again. So I looked back for people I hadn’t heard anything from. There was one person who was an agent in New England that I hadn’t heard from. I emailed her and said I wanted to follow up and would love to hop on the phone and hear a little bit about her work, and how I could be a resource. Two minutes later she called me and asked if I could be in Milwaukee on Tuesday. She never asked for referrals, never asked to see my work, it was just timing and the fact that I went through 87 no’s to find the one yes. This was my first big pharmaceutical advertising job. I’ve since been able to work with that agent and photographer again. I was scared out of my mind, but I knew I could do it, it was just scary and exhilarating. I probably worked 40 times more than what was required. It really allowed me to confirm that this is really what I should be doing and that I could do it well.
Then, reaching out to young photographers who had never worked with a producer before got me a couple of big ad jobs. I went back to the Chicago photographers and said this is what I’ve done for your peers, you can trust me to produce because I’ve produced for people who you respect. One photographer in particular, who was the first to say I was only a PA, I now work regularly. At the end of the year he sent me this really beautiful note saying that I was one of the best assets on my team. It was really rewarding to cross into the other side and have him value the work I do.
What inspires your work?
I have three core values for my company that I hold dear, all three of them influence every part of my work. The one that is most important to me is the blending of logistics and hospitality. That actually goes back to why we’re called Grey House. I think anybody can manage a to-do list, anybody can do logistics, but to remember that people are involved (not just the clients), but the assistants, the vendors, and that all of these people matter. I want to care for those people as much as I want to care for the logistics. To strategize and look past only aiming to solve a problem, but keep pushing to find a way that best serves my client’s needs and keeps hospitality top of mind. That’s the core value I hold most dear, the one that is most innate to me as a human. Then there’s empowerment and art, which is the idea that I’m bringing my best to help you bring your best. When I run a seamless production, that allows the photographer/director to not worry about the logistics and they can focus on making their most creative work. Third, connecting good people, which I take very seriously. Connecting a good crew to a good director or a good photographer to a good client. I’ll have maybe 5 or 6 great digital techs and I’ll recommend different ones at different times. Also, if anyone comes up to me and is asking for something and I recognize that maybe I’m not a good fit, I don’t take that personally. I would rather have them have a great fit and connect them with somebody else than just say I want this project for myself.
What brought you to Chicago?
School brought me to Chicago, Columbia was the only school I applied to. I was paying for school by myself, so it took some convincing for my parents to understand why I would apply to such an expensive school with no backup options. I really loved the program, particularly the resources they offered outside of the classroom. After I graduated, the internship kept me here and now it is the community I’ve built. I just really love this city.
If you weren’t here, where would you be?
I would either be in the mountains or South America. I think eventually I would love to have the opportunity to live somewhere else for part of the year and to commute to projects. As I’m building a more loyal client list, photographers and directors are taking me with them to different projects in different cities, so I don’t have to be based in Chicago. In five or ten years, I would love to have enough loyal clients that I don’t have to be based in Chicago.
If you didn’t have Grey House Productions, what would you be doing?
I have a big heart for social work. There’s a youth program on Friday nights that I volunteer for, where I mentor two girls, a thirteen year old and a nineteen year old. I really am honored to be in their lives, helping them navigate some transitional times in their lives. I think that I could see myself even going back to get my masters in social work, be it through yoga or therapy or mentoring, whether it’s volunteering or career wise. I love it.
What are you trying to learn right now?
Right now I am learning from people who have been doing this longer than me. Not just people who are producing, but people that are running businesses and people that are entrepreneurs and people that are working with people and are building teams and strategizing. That comes from reading books, doing informational interviews, following blogs -- I’m a big follower of Seth Godin. I’m at this phase where I’ve realized I don’t need to grow my business bigger because I don’t want to lose the individual interactions with people. For awhile I thought I just need to keep growing bigger and bigger and bigger, but now I’ve learned that I really want to have quality over quantity, so learning what I don’t know that I don’t know and how to better serve the clients I do have.
What are you most proud of?
I think I’m most proud when, professionally speaking, I have repeat business or referral business. To me, when someone else is willing to say “I’m going to proactively refer you to this person” or to say “I really enjoyed my experience, let’s do this again” or “working with you was so great that I want to take you with me next time to whatever city it is,” makes me really proud of the work I’m doing. It’s nice to see your work valued as quality, as work that matter beyond even the singular project.
How do you take time for yourself?
This is something I’m learning, especially in production. I’m constantly giving, serving, and pouring out to people. I’ve learned that if I’m not taking care of myself, I’m actually not taking care of my clients because I’m working from empty. Last night I had plans to go do something, and I got there and realized this is not what I need, and I left. I came home, got in my pajamas, and turned on a fire and read a book. And it was a fun book, it wasn’t a book about business or learning something, it was just a story. I think learning to be proactive rather than reactive is a goal of mine, intentionally setting time aside so that I don’t get to the place of worn out because it’s not fair to my clients, or frankly to myself. Especially as I often don’t get another shot, everything I do is project basis. I can’t lean on what my average is over the year in performance, it’s a one shot deal for a lot of these things.
Why do you think it’s important for creative women to come together and collaborate?
I love collaboration so much. I think that we are so much better together. I’ve seen a shift in this, which is great, but so often women are catty and competitive and hold their secrets close. I think that all of us have something about us inherently that no one can copy, so even if I share my secrets or approach, no one would do it the same way I can. We can learn from each other because we are smart and brave and think about things from a different perspective, and we all have different histories we are coming from. We can support each other and we should support each other, because it’s hard being entrepreneurs, it’s hard being a female entrepreneur, and it’s hard being a small business owner. All of these things we should encourage each other to do, because sometimes when you’re frustrated or discouraged, somebody else can come in and say I was there or I am there, and remind us why we started doing this and why it matters. I just started doing this reach through Instagram where with no agenda, no topic, just a let’s have coffee and see what happens. Male, female, photographer, director, aspiring, deciding what you want to do, let’s just meet face to face, spend time together and see what stirs up.
Favorite female creatives?
I love what Johanna Lowe is doing right now. She is a food and prop stylist, but she is now redirecting some of her energy into Parchment House, which is a retreat center for creatives. If you look at the trajectory of her life, she has had so many fascinating shifts and turns and recreations of herself. I love that she doesn’t confine herself. She’s allowing herself to rebloom over and over and over again. I really admire her for that.
The four women that run Forth Chicago: Kelly Allison, Julie Schumacher, Lisa Guillot and Kelly Connolly. I love them all. Julie is actually my copywriter and how I first heard of Forth. I just adore that woman to the moon and back. She is the most sassy and kind and magnificent person. I love her as a friend, as a colleague, and as a professional. And, she’s incredibly generous with her words, time, ideas and network.
What is your advice for someone who would like a job like yours?
I think that you have to regularly remind yourself what you want and why you want it. Be it working in advertising, owning your own business or starting something where you’re half the age of everyone else doing it - there are always going to be lots of people telling you why you can’t do it, why you shouldn’t do it, or why you’re doing it wrong. You need to have a strong sense of yourself and your value and a foundation outside of your performance. I’ve learned a lot of that in the midst of figuring this out and I think I would have saved myself a lot of stress and heartache had I gone in realizing that this is who I am and what I value and what I believe. That’s really what matters.
What is something that has surprised you in your path?
I’m really surprised how fast it has happened. I remember when my two year anniversary came, I was exceeding most of my five year goals. So it was exciting, but I realized I had to be able to grow and adapt and change with my business. It can be really exhausting. I think I should’ve asked for help a little bit sooner. Not help in the sense of someone helping run my business, but someone to take over my accounting or my office management or my web design. I’ve since found a strong belief and understanding that I want to let people who do their craft take over areas, rather than me spending all of this energy and time doing a mediocre version. I want to have time and space to do only what I know I can do and let other people thrive in their niches. And that goes back to the idea of loving myself and giving myself time, because then I don’t have to work 80 hours a week. There were months where I was constantly working 80-90 hours a week, till 1:00am in the morning, every day. Now I have a much better balance; I’m able to mentor two girls and be involved in a youth program and enjoy yoga or reading or traveling. I can be present in my work and in my life, learning that has been my biggest success.
What are your favorite travel destinations?
So many. I went to Central America a couple of years ago and I loved the landscape, the people, and the culture. My next goal is South America. I’ve actually never been, but I have an absolute passion for South America and Latin culture in general. I keep going back to Europe for some reason, mostly because I find these amazing deals or I want to go explore with a friend. But I find no matter the country, I love exploring and learning about local culture.
Favorite Chicago places?
I love C.C. Ferns, which is a little coffee shop in my neighborhood. I feel like anybody who has been there totally loves it, so it’s not that big of a surprise. I love walking through Humboldt Park, where I live. I find it’s very peaceful; it’s not fully gentrified yet, so there are still a lot of families or people who have lived here their whole life. I love salsa dancing, the lake a night (specifically the beach), I enjoy sitting in the lifeguard things that you’re not supposed to sit on and listening to the water.
Top 3 items of clothing in your closet?
I love jewelry. Normally I’m a huge earring person because I have short hair, but I have this one necklace (wearing it now!) that was my grandma’s. It’s a beautiful gold chain, and it actually broke at one point and I was devastated, but I realized I could tie it and have a knot, so I wear that with a new necklace that I bought. I wear the two layered almost every day. I also really love lipstick. If I’m ever really tired, or feeling down in the dumps, I put on lipstick and I feel like I can take on the world. I can wear no makeup and only wear lipstick. I also love wrapping myself in things, like shawls or jackets, anything cozy.
I know this sounds really funny, but I love taking myself out on dates. I’ll go to breakfast by myself or the movies by myself, sometimes I’ll take a book and sometimes I won’t. Specifically at breakfast, I love ordering two beverages (like orange juice and coffee or a mimosa and coffee). I think that it’s luxurious. It doesn’t make sense, but I feel like I’m treating myself when I do that. I think part of it is I’m always caring for other people, so when it is just me, and I choose to spoil myself, that refills my well.
I do not have a morning routine, every day is different. Some days I’m out of the house by 5:00am, other days I don’t leave my home office until a meeting over lunch. But I can share my favorite way to spend my morning. Since I have a home office, I get to have a blend of starting my day at home and starting my day at the office. I love waking up really early, usually before anyone else is emailing and getting my emails out and setting my agenda for the day. I usually do all of that in my pajamas. Then I’ll go shower and get dressed, make coffee, or do some reading or journaling. Then I’ll come back to my office when there are responses and things to execute. I love breaking my morning up and floating between the two spaces.