Better Welfare for the Cash Cow of Photography

Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev strokes a cow. 1959
U.S. Department of Agriculture
20111110-OC-AMW-0013

Last week I published my free grants and competitions list and to launch it I wrote what was basically a rant masquerading as a legitimate post on the issue of fee charging and money making in the photography industry. I criticised the way charging for things like portfolio reviews and competitions has become the norm, and the lack of transparency about where this money goes. The online response to this post was pretty incredible, which shows that I’m not the only one concerned by this issue.

That said, while it’s all very easy for me to sit here and criticise fee charging, it doesn’t do much to address the problem which often underlies it. As long as funding remains as difficult as it presently is there will always be pressure on organisations to charge photographers for competitions, portfolio reviews and other activities. Because of that I’ve been thinking about a middle ground and here I’ve put together a few suggestions for ways to make fee charging activities more transparent or, if you like, ethical. It’s important for all of us to know how the financial food chain works, because where money comes from and what it gets spent on has a direct and powerful bearing on the landscape of the arts. I hope these ideas will be a way for photography organisations to ask for money to support their activities without losing credibility in the eyes of those who fund them.

Be Transparent. If you’re asking for money be transparent about how it is being used. Speaking of ‘administration’ and other generalities as so many fee chargers do is just not good enough, particularly when the fee being requested is often so far above what administering a prize could be expected to reasonably cost. If, as I suspect is often the case, proceeds from fees go towards running other areas of your organisation’s activities then you need to be open about it and explain why. If the reason is good enough I doubt many photographers will grudge it. If you already publish submission figures then you’re already halfway there, since even someone with basic arithmetic can then figure out what you’re making from an open call. Go all the way, be accountable, clear and open about what you raise from fees and how you use it.

Fee Waivers. Probably the single thing that makes me angriest about fees is when they are excused with inane justifications like that they help to keep the submitted work to a high standard. There is no correlation between a photographer’s ability to pay and the quality of their work. All that fees help to do is to entrench inequalities that this field could badly do without, inequalities which stifle great work and great voices. If you must charge a fee to support your activities then offer a parallel waiver system for those who say they are unable to afford it. Subsidise this with some of the proceeds from the fees of those who can afford to pay.

Give Something Back. If you’re charging fees then consider donating a percentage of the proceeds to a charitable cause. Whether you direct them to an external charity carrying out work in a relevant field, or you pool them into an internal activity like a fee waiver or a scholarship system, give people a reason to think their fees aren’t just going on a swanky prosecco laden private view for the competition’s winner and it’s organisers.

Don’t Bullshit Us. Be honest about what you are offering photographers and what you want in return. Don’t dress things up as something they are not. For a photographer having their work seen by industry supremoes is not an amazing opportunity, it is part of the job that those people have decided to do. Equally don’t hide away information about fees at the bottom of your application process, be clear and open about the exchange which is taking place. (And please don’t extend your open call because you haven’t raised enough money yet, it’s painfully obvious what you’re doing).

Lastly, one for the Photographers. Something I should have said in the last piece is that as much as you might resent those who charge fees for competitions and portfolio reviews, you should be just as cautious about those organisations offering fabulous prizes or activities at no cost. Always ask yourself what they are getting in return, and what is written in the fine print and between the lines. So-called opportunities can just as easily turn out to be rights grabs or cultural white washing exercises, things you probably want to avoid just as vigorously as the organisations who just want to stick their hand in your wallet.

2 thoughts on “Better Welfare for the Cash Cow of Photography

  1. well done.
    how about a list of contests worth joining, based on the issues you raised?
    perhaps compiled from photographer’s submissions?
    finally, how about a shortlist of contests that really are about photography,
    and not just regurgitations of tired industry cliches (Faces, Travel et al)..

  2. I’m not convinced that contests are relevant in today’s world.

    As far as I can tell, the actual working artists are less and less looking for that “big break” and the big show and all that stuff. They’re getting out there, getting social, and building thing own much smaller following. They’re running kickstarters and patreons and they’re publishing limited editions of this and that.

    In the past, the world was, I dunno, a dozen overlapping “universes” of Art. London, Europe, Paris, New York, the USA, the Americas, whatever. Each “universe” or “circle” was built around a group of tastemakers, and there was a certain amount of cross-fertilization.

    The future, I speculate, has 100,000 overlapping universes, each operating in an ad hoc fashion. There will still be cross fertilization, overlap. But there’s very little expectation of making on the scale of Europe. It’s more “hey, Juan, lemme retweet that announcement, I bet my followers would love it”.

    In a way it’s a return to a Victorian, or even pre-Victorian model. Sales of limited edition folios by subscription, patrons, salons. A lot more community, a lot less celebrity. Artists supporting one another. But all done on a larger and faster scale with modern communication and social networking tools.

    It’s perhaps an optimistic view? I dunno. It seems to be happening, to some extent.

    Jump on kickstarter some day, search up the “photo book” projects that are fully funded or better. It’s a whole ‘nother world out there, and it looks a whole lot more fun than Gagosian et al.

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