Commercial Photography: The Myth Exploded!

Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 12.56.45 I previously wrote an article calling for some honesty amongst the contemporary photographic art community concerning the basis of photographic practice, calling for a re-evaluation of their understanding and definition on what is most commonly referred to as ‘commercial photography’. Since then I have been inundated with requests by photographers to help them understand how to create more successful photographic practices and to re-discover their passion for photography. Nothing new there you may think, many photographers have struggled with finding their ‘place’, their ‘role’ within professional photography since the digital revolution.

This has been such an issue for many photographers that I wrote a book to try and bring some form of clarity to the new global photographic landscape they find themselves in. ( The response to that book was positive as its sales and unsolicited online reviews indicate. However, the photographers who have been contacting me recently are not the photographers for whom I initially thought I was writing that book for.

The photographers I’ve have been speaking to most recently share a number of commonalities. They have all left UK based photographic education at either BA Hons or MA Hons within the past few years. They have all absorbed the teaching and photographic environment of the digital age and have entered the world of professional photography uninformed and ill-equipped to earn a living as the one thing they believe they want to be. But what is that one thing? This is where the confusion lies within each of the photographers I have tried to help over the past few months.

They want to earn a living as a photographer but have been taught that earning money from photography was ‘commercial’ photography and doing what they want to do is ‘real’ photography and never the twain shall meet. This is of course a ridiculous understanding of the world of professional photography to anyone involved in commissioning work or more experienced concerning the various machinations of the photographic industry.

I begin each conversation by asking what the photographer’s expectation is of photography. This is often met with a long silence as it seems to be a simple question which none of them have ever asked themselves. The faltering answers usually include the notions of ‘telling stories’, ‘expressing what is important to me’, ‘making a difference and perhaps most surprisingly ‘not making money’. All valid and important beliefs to have but they will remain only as beliefs if the context of distribution of work is not considered, understood and implemented.

This is a commercial understanding that often feels at odds with the approach to photography as an ‘art form’ to these photographers. They have their beliefs in one box and what they consider to be ‘commercial photography’ in another. This to me is nonsensical and unnecessarily blinkered. They are pigeon holing themselves to the detriment of their careers with little understanding of why they are doing so.

I do not understand how the term ‘commercial’ is only applied to photographers receiving and accepting commissioned work. Is a commission from a magazine different from a commission from a bursary to create a piece of community art? Is a commission from a brand to create a body of work different from a a body of work created for an exhibition supported by bursaries and external funding? No! All contain aspects of commercial transaction and are therefore result in commercially framed creative. That creative process can be just as controlled or creatively open in each of these scenarios depending on your client,but the simple fact is that if you sell a print, receive funding or create and sell a self-published book you are engaging in a commercial transaction just as you are if you are creating client commissioned work.

The correct term for all of this work should be professional photography. This all encompassing description is both accurate and democratic. If you earn your living from photography it is your profession no matter how you do it, you are therefore a professional photographer. Simple really!

As a professional photographer your self-initiated personal work should be as one with the work you are commissioned to create. It is the basic alphabet, grammar and syntax of your personal visual language that should be your calling card to whatever and whoever you want your client base to be. And when I say client I mean it in its broadest sense. Your client is your enabler, your financial supporter that allows you to continue to work as a professional photographer. This may be a traditional client such as an art director, art buyer, photo editor, private collector or your Twitter following to whom you sell your books and prints. You decide who your client is and the relationship you have with them, but without one you are creating work within a financial vacuum.

I have bought this understanding to all that I have spoken to recently and I have been met with a universally positive response. In fact a sense of relief that they did not have to conform to the narrow agendas they believed they had to and that it was okay to approach and accept commissioned work. They all admitted that they had not considered the role of the client in their practice or done enough research into who that client might be.

I look forward to continuing my conversations with these photographers over the coming months, but if you are in the same position as they were in I also hope that this post has helped you reconsider your own approach to both your work and how you choose to describe what you are and what you do.

Grant Scott is the the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015).

© Grant Scott 2015

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