An artist is a very distinctive kind of person. Countless movies have been filmed and books written about the lives of artists throughout history and the many tales of solidarity and struggle they faced. Most of the embellished movies involve a romance with some twisted conundrum leading them to a major revelation about themselves. Others replay the lowest lows and the highest highs ending in either stardom or suicide. In all accounts they are musicians, painters, and architects, but rarely photographers.
I would like to draw attention to the recent dawn of the “Professional Photographer.” The last few years have been riddled with economic disaster directly resulting in layoffs of millions, myself included. With a little money in the bank from unemployment and lofty dreams of making it big, hopeful photographic artists awakened to an inner call and ran to the nearest Best Buy or pro camera shop to take advantage of the vast market of affordable digital cameras. The manufactures promise “professional images” and “the edge” to create ultimate works of art.
A small percentage of people from what I call “The Digital Photo Revolution” have gone on to be wildly successful. Others who were playing in the market years before with real film evolved to offer these newbies the tools and workshops to excel to greatness in their own little world. Millions of edit presets, magic software, and personal training seminars have catapulted both ends of the photography spectrum with staggering monetary proportions being traded. These two groups are “The Leaders” and “The Followers”. No matter what one thinks they’ll be or claims they are they will always stand in the greater part of one of these groups.
I became a follower in the first years of my professional life with photography. Working for a company that had all the tools I needed and the money to back up the work was exactly what I wanted at the time. I signed the agreements and started learning the greatest skills in posing and studio work. Efficiency and high sales became my mantra and I trained many to do the same. I got to give customers great photos of their children and made a great living at the same time. What more could I ask for?
Now this is supposed to be a write-up on second photographers and it may seem pointless to bother with these details. Hang with me, I’m almost there! When I seconded for my first wedding it was a great experience with a very decent photographer whom I found on Craigslist. He paid me a hundred or so and let me keep my photos. We had a verbal agreement and I gave him all the RAW photos on DVD. From that one and only second photographer gig I got my first usable wedding portfolio, which then got me two weddings as a primary soon after. From then on it was all uphill and I never shot for anyone again.
That pivotal moment for me was when I got to keep the photos I took. Why was that important for me? Because for years prior I was paid to create beautiful portraits but could never take them home or show anyone. They instantly became the property of the company, forever locked in their possession. If I wanted to give anyone evidence of what I could do, I would need to start all over, or work on the side (Working on the side in a similar market was a punishable offence). If that wedding photographer had made me surrender my artistic rights to the wedding photos, I would have been left with only cash in hand and experience I couldn’t prove. Instead it gave me a start to who and what I am now.
One undeniable measure of an artistic human is the self-worth of their portfolio. When the right to hold onto that product of creative conception is traded for money, it changes the motivation for that production. This is a matter which has no argument. There is also nothing basically wrong with a company holding onto the intellectual rights to people’s work. As long as everyone is happy and both parties get their money, then they can all go home and sleep at night. The problem lies only in the performance of the individual lending the service. That performance and the quality of such is directly decided by the freedom they have and the trade for wages received. Retaining the works of an employee is a tradition that companies have exercised for decades. When there is a lot of money to be made it is better for the system to control the catalysts that create the commodities. Of course this can backfire with disgruntled employees seeking personal gain as a result of underpayment or lack of appreciation.
Speaking on the photography community, I personally know the struggles of proving my work. I know what it is like to choose to give up my work. In contrast for both sides, I’ve worked much better when I get to have a level of ownership in my efforts. When I’m praised for that work in the end AND I receive a fair wage, I want to do even better the next time. This is what I have chosen to give the photographers who work with me. Along with the duties of the job they have the freedom to use their work for their personal gain. To take that away from them would be like letting a child hold the unwrapped box on Christmas but then telling them they can’t play with the toy. What inspires us to do better and reach higher are our clients who give us the freedom to create and share that product in a public manner. Why shouldn’t I extend that to those who work with me?
With respect for all things business, my associate photographers must go through 30 days of review, 6 months of steady training and attend at least 8 weddings as an assistant. At the end of the intern program they have the tools required to allow them complete independence in the market while staying on with me under contract to work steady jobs. For that level of dedication I pay much more than the market rate. While I’ve been notably burned in the past, it won’t keep me from my goals to be a provider for those who want to excel.
I want to have my photographers inspired and motivated to dream and create. In turn they deliver amazing photos that compliment my work very well. They are the East to my West, the third leg of the tripod, and sometimes the wind in my sails. I don’t want just a typical second photographer working with me at an event – I need someone who is an artist and has a passion to perform for the client. I want them to love it as much as I do. I want them to cherish the task and rejoice in our results. In the end, the client receives a better product.
For those opposed to the concept of artistic freedoms, I’ve already stated here that there are two sides to this world. There are leaders and there are followers. It’s up to the leaders to build up great followers to become the leaders of tomorrow. After all, what is there to hold onto if only we can enjoy it all? It’s the responsibility of successful members to pay it forward and witness a stronger community of excellent artists.