UPDATE, JUNE 2024: Strobist was archived in 2021. Here is what I am up to now. -DH


OT Sunday: Stepping Outside the Box of the Business of Photography

FAIR WARNING: It's one of those "lengthy manifesto" weekends...

A few months ago, I posted on the idea of collaborating with subjects -- and sharing the photos -- as a shortcut to reinvigorating your photography.

Granted, I could have worded the headline better -- a lot better. But since that post I have dived even further down that particular rabbit hole, and wanted to pass along some thoughts and experiences and alternate approaches to any of you who may be interested.

If you are a purist and just come here to read about light, bail now. But if you are interested in looking at the business of photography from a different direction, feel free to make the jump.

In the Driver's Seat

I am not a potted plant -- I know there is a recession going on and times are tough all over. But flipping that around, that means many photographers probably have the occasional free day and with it the ability to decide how to use it.

As for me, I'd rather be shooting. But my last six months have been so crammed with travel and teaching that I have been all but unassignable. I am working through the string of commitments, and hope to be much less scheduled going forward. I feel bad any time I have to have to turn down a job, especially one that is in my subject area. But prior commitments precluded my ability to do just about everything, pretty much since last fall.

I have kept my sanity by self-generating projects that can be shot during the days when I am in town. I have one more trip coming up next week, and then I will be free to take whatever comes my way, assuming anyone I shoot for still remembers my phone number. And because of the projects, I have new work to show from my otherwise "dead" period.

The first example was the night chopper shoot which was done with the Howard County Police Department. That was a collaboration with pilot Perry Thorsvik, and allowed me to push the limits of what I thought would be possible with remote flash. I approached it exactly as I would approach an assignment. Because that is exactly what it was -- albeit a self-assignment.

In addition to stretching my technical skills, the photos from this shoot have proven to be useful for the HCPD, of course. But what has pleasantly surprised me has been the number of inquiries that I have gotten on the photos. I tagged them pretty well in Flickr, which I suspect has been the main funnel for people finding the images.

I have had several inquiries for their use as an advertising image from helicopter equipment and accessory manufacturers, enough so that I realize the commercial value of the photos to the point where I am not going to let them go until the right situation comes along.

It is a unique set of images, in part because it would have been pretty expensive to make them absent the collaboration of the police and the pilot. It is more than just renting a chopper at sunset -- you have to have a pilot who is invested into the creative process sufficient to be willing to have a flash going off repeatedly in his cockpit. (Thanks again, Perry!)

I expect at some point that photo is going to marry up to the right creative budget, and when it happens it'll just be gravy. Even if it never sells, its primary value to me is in its uniqueness and demonstrated technical ability. It has also created value for the HCPD (never a bad thing to have some very happy local cops around) and it was a lot of fun to shoot.

The photos simply wold not have happened any other way.

Another self-gen project I am in the middle of is a series of portraits of "Rising Stars" for the Howard County Arts Council. They are young professionals and college students in the performing arts who will be competing this weekend for a big chunk of change in a local "American Idol" -type competition that showcases this area's vibrant arts community, while putting on a heckuva show as the very talented competitors go for the big bucks in front of a live audience.

For me, this was a no-brainer for a self-generated project. I didn't get a penny out of it. Didn't even bill expenses. But what I did get was the chance to photograph a series of talented young people (of my choosing) who would not otherwise have the budget to commission these types of shots. All we had for each session are two people, working together, to make the photos they wanted to make.

No editors, no art directors, no external budget constraints, no deadlines, no schedule. And, speaking of budget, there is a "stone soup" quality to these kinds of things that makes shooting locations (and helicopters) magically appear for free. And more important I am free to experiment with new lighting styles that I can revisit later with more confidence when the meter is running.

Case in point is Kassi, above. Rather than paying a model and renting a location, my goal in self-gen shoots is to try to be a catalyst to jumpstart the creation of interesting stuff, external of the normal commercial/editorial process. I have license to stretch, so I will be comfortable with the new techniques when it matters.

In addition to all of the selfish stuff above, Kassi's promotional materials get kicked up a notch or two, as does the visibility of the Howard County Arts Council -- the later being another part of the positive vicious cycle for raising the profile of the arts in Howard County. In a way, I am latching onto a machine which is already running well and adding a little more horsepower to the process.

The use of the word "selfish" is not coincidental -- there is a distinctly self-indulgent quality to these shoots that is just not present in the shoot-for-hire jobs. They are creatively luxurious. (Or luxuriously creative -- I dunno which.)

The icing on the cake -- significantly so, for me -- is that many of the shoots will have a second life at some point as a blog post, something which is always sitting in the back of my mind. But I do watch that compass point, too. I am making a point of generating available light shoots in this way, just to do it free of any external influences. The process is the best way to charge creative batteries that I have yet found.

And as for the blog, trust me when I say that the Kassi shot will make a more interesting lighting post that would the series of guys-in-ties I shot (just) for money recently. (Sorry, guys. This crowd is so past the softbox and grey backdrop thing...)

It paid well, but I can honestly say that the only thing interesting about it was the check. Which, comparatively speaking, is very hollow. And it speaks volumes about only pulling out your camera when there is money on the table.

The best part of collaborative shooting is how easily doors open when you take money out of the equation. After 30 seconds of trying to figure out what the catch is, the people involved become creative allies in a way that frequently eludes the people working in a purely transactional project.

But Does it Scale?

Yes, it can. A few months ago when Mohamed Somji over at GPP asked me to come up with a series of courses for the Dubai workshops, in addition to a couple of lighting courses I broached the idea of teaching this process to a group of students in the form of a hybrid lecture/shooting workshop.

Earlier this month we took a group of mixed amateurs and pros and spent half a day discussing the motivation and process behind a self-generated shoot. And then we went out and did one -- shoot, edit and all. Because of the number of shooters involved, we had to choose a subject that could soak up more than a dozen photographers. So rather than our first idea -- shooting at a school for children with special needs -- we went for a wonderful boutique hotel in Dubai that looks like it came right out of the South of France. (We thought the school, and especially the students, would have been a little overwhelmed with a herd of shooters.)

A slow, fat pitch across the visual plate, to be sure. It was more of a commercial target that I would have chosen individually. But let me tell you that, if you are going to have a group of people visually exploring something for a couple of days, you can do far worse than a hotel that comprises a series of french-style villas in residential Dubai. We had a blast.

Honestly, I didn't know what to expect in terms of working as a team, image quality, etc. But before it was over I was just sitting back watching the students stretch themselves creatively -- with no commercial pressure -- and gelling as a group. The people at the hotel, of course, will be thrilled with the DVD of photos that will be arriving soon. But the fact that they are getting something of significant value should not at all diminish what the photographers learned through the process of creating the photos.

Every one of them now clearly has the ability to gain access to subjects that simply would not happen without the photographer serving as a catalyst. Where they go with it is up to them, but I could already see the wheels turning. And from a portfolio perspective, it unlocks the Catch-22 of "you only get paid to shoot what you can already show in your portfolio".

Frame it From a Different Angle

As photographers, we tend to spend so much time navel-gazing that we sometimes miss the forest for the trees. If you are not careful it can get to be all about creative rates, editorial credits, ongoing promotion, keeping your portfolio current, etc. But focusing inward like that means that you almost certainly preclude out-of-the-box thinking.

I believe that it is very important to step back and look at your profession within the context of a rapidly changing industry of visual content and information flow. We are still in the beginning phases of the information age, in the process of transitioning from the industrial age. Whether you choose to admit it or not, WIRED editor Chris Anderson is absolutely right when he says that information now wants to be free.

This is a double-whammy for shooters: There is no marginal cost to reproducing information (visual or otherwise) and every Tom, Dick and Harry how as nice camera and considers himself a photographer.

Result: A gazillion iffy images online, for a buck a piece -- or less.

This is scary as hell for photographers who think only in terms of what they earn per hour shooting. Especially if you are locked into a single perspective when examining your career.

Lately, I have been trying to step outside of my box whenever possible to look back from a distance. Three years ago I considered myself a photojournalist. And my perspective was limited to that of a photojournalist -- which today, I am sure you'll agree, is pretty depressing. In the time since then I have changed my perspective from that to one of a photographer who blogs. And sometimes, a blogger who photographs. Which means I have two markets that can either be tapped separately, or (when things really work well) simultaneously.

In the past few months, I have tried not to think of myself as a photographer/blogger (or blogger/photographer) but rather as a node in a world-wide conversation that happens to be about a small niche area in photography. Granted, it probably sounds like I am turning the BS meter up to 11 in an effort to pad my resumé. And I would grant you that -- if I were looking for a job.

But I am not hunting. What I am doing is constantly looking for a way to re-examine my place in the business ecosphere to force the creative process for new ways of thinking. And it is the change in perspective that (for me, anyway) is the catalyst for new ideas. I keep a pad (or iPhone or cocktail napkin or whatever) and write them down whenever they hit me.

So rather than looking at other bloggers (or, even worse, other photographers) my idea-stealing hunting ground when I am aiming for the fences is more likely to be Silicon Valley, or some loft in SoHo, or an article in Fast Company or WIRED. Look outside your immediate (and/or secondary) sphere for the most creative and novel ideas that you can apply to your business model.

Different business models are there, if you are willing to look for them. For example, how about something in the area of photography just about as far from money as you can possibly get: Documentary photography.

Case in Point

I few months ago I had lunch with Jamie Rose, a fellow photog in the DC area. It is one of those round-table things (actually, long Vietnamese soup trough things) where ideas, jokes and general BS are thrown around in equal measure.

After lunch I spent 15 minutes talking to Jamie about a relatively new project called Momenta Workshops. At Momenta, they don't just go out into a field of lavender in the South of France to shoot pretty pictures. They marry students with experienced, documentary photographers and point them at real situations -- including NGOs around the world -- to both test their mettle and learn in a real environment.

I was listening to Jamie, with her infectious enthusiasm, but I still wasn't really getting it. I was only then coming to terms with the power of flipping a market on its head and looking at your industry from a different direction. I could see it from my perspective, but not yet from Momenta's.

But in talking more with Jamie and others at Momenta, the power of their mission began to come more into focus. Think about it from the perspective of a documentary workshop with a far-flung NGO for a moment. You have four groups at play: The teaching photojournalist, the students, Momenta and the NGO itself. And rather than thinking of it as a straight, commercial model, try to think of it in terms of a symbiotic ecosystem.

Yes, there is money changing hands. But it is changing hands in different directions -- and for different reasons -- than is normal for documentary photography.

The students are the engine which makes it all happen. They want to learn, first-hand, from top-notch documentary photographers. And that is the economic catalyst which makes everything possible. They are leaning from the likes of Ami Vitale, Chris Usher and David Alan Harvey and others -- amazing first-hand resources.

The photographers, in turn, are being funded by the process of teaching what they have hard learned over decades of work to the potential next generation of documentary photographers. And doing so in an economically efficient way. The teaching photographers, in turn, use the money to fund future documentary projects.

Momenta, of course, shares in the income. This also funds them as working photographers. (Jamie, for example, shoots documentary, too). And it completes the cycle and allows the process to self-replicate. If successful, the engine continues to turn over by itself.

While I would like to think that I am pretty quick on the uptake on these nodal kinds of business models, I was missing the more important part. What are the NGOs getting out of it?

Says Momenta's Chris Anderson (confusingly, a completely different Chris Anderson than the WIRED editor referenced above):

We are doing what I call "industry building" by both training providers, and training as many organizations as possible see the value in visual media and will ultimately come back for more material over time.

One of my favorite questions that surprisingly gets asked all the time is, by "assigning journalists to work for NGOs and non-profits for free, you are taking jobs from working photographers."

It never fails to give me a hearty belly laugh because our aim, from the get-go, is to help create a vibrant and thriving industry. The average professional has no idea how many non-profits and NGOs there are who have zero idea of the value of visual communications. Worse than that, they have no idea about use contracts, fee structures, etc. Hell, I'd say about half of them have websites that look like they were done off legal tablet in 1996.

This is doubly true for the developing world. There is simply no awareness of the value of what it is our creative professionals can bring to the table as far as value in fundraising, identity building, and outreach awareness. 

In short, Chris and the others at Momenta are training both the photographers and the NGOs at the same time, and creating a mutually beneficial relationship that is potentially self-sustaining. They teach the photographers how to be better documentarians, at the same time raising the visual literacy of the NGOs and letting them see the value of well-executed documentary work about their organization.

What is most interesting to me is the peer-to-peer aspect of the education process. There is no Time Magazine or NGS editor involved. This is right from the source: People who need to be documentary journalists marrying up directly with organizations who need documentary journalism. Even if the latter does not yet know it.

This post is already insanely long (sorry) but Chris wrote back such a lengthy and impassioned response to my request for information that I highly suggest that you read it in full if you are interested in learning more. Please bear in mind that it was written shooter to shooter, and is a little rough around the edges.

But it rang so true that I thought it should be out there in it's entirety for people who might be interested in pursuing this path. His full response is available as a download here. And you can learn more about Momenta here.

Sorry About Your Sunday

If you are still reading, God bless ya and sorry for the length. I knew it would be long when I started writing, but I had no idea. Just a lot of ideas all trying to get out.

Granted, there are a lot of things to be depressed about in the current photography environment, when it comes to the business side. But more and more, I am starting to believe that as each of the old business model seems to evaporate, a new one emerges to take its place. Even if it may seem like you have to stand out in left field to see it.


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