Just say no

A friend wrote me with an especially interesting question. In between when he posed the question and when I sat down to answer it, a bit of time passed. During that time, I was confronted with a few situations where I had to practice what I was going to preach to him when I answered his question. At first, I was annoyed by the delay and impatient with myself. In the end, what happened after the delay made me work harder as a self-employed photographer. It also made the questions that I am exploring in this blog entry more complicated (and interesting) than ever.

The question was:

I’m wondering if there is any kind of norm in terms of who manages all the printing/framing for an exhibition, whether you as the photographer get paid for your time/work, and who owns the prints in the end? There seems to be a common mentality out there that photographers will jump at any opportunity to have their work shown, but in the past, when I’ve given my work to exhibits, the reality was that I put in a fair amount of time/money for very little reward on my end, whereas, the exhibitor got a bunch of nice content without having to do much at all. I currently have another proposal for a print exhibit in my hands and am wondering what I can reasonably ask for in order to do it. Any thoughts?

Great question! It was an especially great point about “There seems to be a common mentality out there that photographers will jump at any opportunity to have their work shown.” The existence of that attitude is true but it is also sad….

The answer is that there is no established norm or best practices. The norm in business, is for the parties on each end of a transaction to get as much as they can get out of any deal. That is true in all business. The problem is few photographers look at their work as a business. (Much to their detriment and to mine indirectly, since photographers who “sell down” the market are eroding my market.)

The pivotal question my correspondent raised, which needs a direct answer is “I currently have another proposal for a print exhibit in my hands and I am wondering what I can reasonably ask for in order to do it?” The answer, like in any business is, to ask for “as much as the market will bear.” But what does that mean?

Start by asking a few simple questions:

1) What real, tangible, measurable value are you (the photographer) getting from the exhibitor who will be showing (and ideally selling) your work? Do not think of what might happen or how you may be “discovered.” Ask how many people will really see the work, how much promotion will they do for the show, how many prints they sell typically in their average show, etc. The more specific and measurable the benefits, the better.

2) What real, tangible costs, both in materials that you pay for and in time that you work, will you have to expend to produce the exhibition? Do NOT include the cost of producing the body of work (that is, in theory, recouped in the print sales,) but do calculate in all the little costs that can quickly add up.

3) How can both sides develop a roughly equal investment in the project? Each side has something of value and each side is going to expend time and energy in the project, so the more accurately both sides evaluate their own contributions (and honestly understand that of the other party,) the more likely a satisfactory arrangement (in the eyes of both sides) can be reached.

In the unlikely event that you are having a show in a venue that gets lots of art buying traffic and expends a great deal of time and money on promotion, then exchanging your production of the show for their exhibition opportunity may in fact be a straight forward, fair trade. More likely, the photographer is perceived as dealing from the weaker position and wrongly assumes that the exhibitor/outlet drives the negotiations. But is that really true?

For me it is not. Let me explain.

If someone asks me to use my work, I know I am in a good starting position. I may not get everything I want in the subsequent negotiations, but if they came to me, I know that I have something they want. I also know I should get something of benefit in return. Recent situations I have encountered reminded me of this over and over.

• I have been photographing inside foreclosed houses for the last 18 months for a new personal project I call ‘Foreclosed Dreams.’ The work has been well received by editors and even won a small award. That kind of feedback does two things for me. It tells me that what I am doing is working (photographically,) and it tells me that when people want to use that work, I have something that they clearly perceive to be of value. I was asked to allow one image from ‘Foreclosed Dreams’ to be used in a portfolio that would accompany an article on photography of the current economic crisis. Because the article was going to be on the Opinionator web-site of the New York Times and they were going to link directly to a page on my web site, I thought it was a fair deal.

The initial article, “Picturing the Crisis,” where my work is mentioned is at: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/12/picturing-the-crisis/ The link to the work on my site that they included in that article directed readers to: http://www.davidhwells.com/docuForeclosedDreams/index.html#_self The photo that was actually used is at: http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2010/10/12/opinion/20101013_LR_Foreclosure-3.html The feedback and comments that I have received in the wake of that publication have been tremendous, so I know that the calculation I made as I decided whether to do that “deal,” were “correct.”

• Earlier this year I was approached by staffers from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC,) in Washington, D.C., whose mission statement is:

“To increase fair & equal access to credit, capital, and banking services/ products because discrimination is illegal, unjust and detrimental to the economic growth of under-served communities in the United States and around the world.”

After much discussion, we are now collaborating on a traveling exhibition of my ‘Foreclosed Dreams’ photographs. Those exhibition events will be accompanied by workshops that NCRC will present on housing issues in the communities where the work will be shown. I will also be doing artist’s talks to accompany that exhibition, assuming we get the grant that we applied for collaboratively. The deal we negotiated has me owning the exhibition (and of course the imagery) but they can use it in connection with the show and their workshops. They have invested substantial money on the show, which was recently exhibited in Virginia. So both of us have stake in the show, the grant and disseminating the work.

• Back in September, I taught a photography workshop that focused on the photo-essay. In that class we photographed the activities of an organization called Amp-Surf, whose mission statement says:

“We are a Non-Profit Organization made up of amputees, veterans and friends & family of the disabled. We want to promote, inspire, educate, and rehabilitate people with disabilities, especially our veteran heroes through adaptive surfing & fun safe outdoor activities all can participate in. “

Like so many non-profit groups they were in need of quality imagery to promote their mission, raise awareness and raise funds. Had they asked me, for example, to take event/party photos at a fund-raiser, making images that did not interest me in the least, I would have said no. Instead, they invited me, and my class, to photograph their weekly surf class/meeting. They were very well organized and equally welcoming. If you go to my newsletter at: http://thewellspoint.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/10_10_nwsltr.pdf you can see some of the images that I made that day. The deal was that they gave us access to a great situation for dramatic photos and in return they asked for a few images to use in promoting their good cause. The images I made that day will also make first-rate stock photos so for me, it was good deal.

I cannot give an easy set of dollars or figures that will cover every situation, but I can say that I approach each “deal” considering what my time is worth. The costs for materials and supplies, shipping, framing, etc., those are all pretty much fixed costs. To offset those costs, the key is getting some kind of clear, definable, measurable, tangible benefit out of any kind of “deal” you make with someone who wants to utilize your work. This is true, whether the outlet is an exhibition, publication, etc. In all negotiations, the key is getting both sides invested in the project.

The key to doing this successfully, like in any business transaction, is holding onto the option of saying “no.” I routinely turn down more offers than I accept, especially when they look to me like they offer most of the benefits to the exhibitor/outlet while offering me little clear benefit. It can be difficult, even painful, to give up something that appears exciting in the short-term, but you need to be able to do that. Successful people in many professions, including creative pursuits like photography are unified by a few things. One is that they treat their chosen pursuit like business and two is that they always are ready to simply and directly say “no.”

One response to “Just say no”

  1. Thank you so much, David, for answering my question this thoroughly and for sharing your valuable personal experience. Not many professionals are willing to openly discuss the nature of their business, and yet I think it is better for all of us photographers who are trying to make a living if we do so.

    I think it’s also clear in your post that “just say no” and the advice you give applies to any situation in which someone wants to use our work, whether for print, web, non-profit etc. There are times, especially when starting out, that it makes business sense to provide our work “free of charge” or cheap if we have taken stock of what we stand to gain in terms of recognition, exposure, tear sheets etc. But it’s also important to recognize the point at which we have enough of that and giving our work away begins to devalue it and that of other photographers as well. Finally, I can also speak from experience that often someone will come to you, wanting your work, but with “no budget”…and yet with a little negotiation all of a sudden a budget will appear…one should never be afraid to ask for money! Editors, staffers, curators and managers of non-profits all get paid for what they do, and so should free-lances who give them content.

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