Don’t Pay, I Won’t Pay For A Portfolio Review: This is Why!

For nearly fifteen years I was employed as an art director for two of the world’s leading publishers of magazines. My understanding of my role was to oversee the design of the magazines, work closely with the editor to create the identity for the magazine both visual and written, to commission the photography for the magazine and to see any photographer who contacted me to show me their work. Admittedly the large majority of my time as an art director was before the digital revolution and the advent of the online portfolio websites. However, it was not just their work that led me to commission photographers, their personality, passions, drive and social skills were all important factors in my final commissioning decision.

The mentoring relationships and friendships that developed from these meetings were what I saw as being one of the most fulfilling aspects of my role and those friendships and subsequent collaborations have continued long after I ceased working as a full-time art director. If any one asked for me to review their work outside of my standard working hours I would do so willingly and without any thought of asking for payment. I respected my role as a commissioner in the lives and careers of those who had asked for my input and I reacted accordingly.

When I stopped art directing and started working as a photographer I was shocked by how many people in the role of commissioner did not share the moral responsibility I had when I was in their position. I soon got used to being treated rudely by ill-informed photo editors, art editors, art buyers and art directors and found those who shared my passion and were simpatico to my work. Many of those people I still work with today over ten years after first stepping out with my portfolio.

I’m lucky, I have a good client base and my images work for them and I enjoy working with them. I’m not actively looking for new clients and I have not been out with my portfolio for many years. In fact they sit collecting dust under my desk a monument to another time and place in my life. However, I do lecture to young photographers making their first tentative steps into the commissioned arena on how to understand the business they want to make their career.

In this role I feel that I have a moral and professional obligation to tell them the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth whilst also outlining a code of best practice when dealing with potential clients. Their experiences of non-responded to emails, lack of interest in their phone calls and general bad manners primarily when contacting editorial art and photo departments, started to make me wonder if magazines were interested in seeing any new photographers anymore. But then I started to notice those same people who the students were trying to contact popping up on portfolio review days where the people who most need industry based feedback and can least afford it were expected to feel grateful for the opportunity to pay to meet people whose jobs it is to see them for free!

Now I don’t have an issue with portfolio review days as long as the people giving the reviews actually know what they are talking about and have been or are involved in the area that the photographer wants to gain access to (and there are many review days were that is not the case). But I do have an issue with people ignoring student and photographer emails, calls and marketing material when it is their jobs and common curtesy to at least respond, but who are then happy to charge to see you, even if they have no interest in your work.

So is a paid for portfolio day a purely money making exercise? I’m sure that those participating and being paid for their time will argue that they are a fantastic opportunity to see new work, meet new, exciting photographers and make contact with the photographic community. But isn’t that what they are meant to do all week?

The excuse we have all heard many times for why this does not happen and why we do not get responses to our emails is that they are too busy, what with reduced budgets (the same ones we as photographers are meant to understand and accept without question) decreased numbers within editorial teams, increased responsibilities etc, etc. And yet a much heralded paid for review day coming up in London is taking place on both a Monday and Tuesday! Not too busy to take two days off if your getting paid extra then!

To test my theory, I emailed a number of the participants of the London event with news of new work on my website. I did not expect any responses and I didn’t get any and yet I can get all of the feedback I want if I pay to see the same people who have ignored my emails and are presumably not interested in me or my work.

My suggestion is to stop paying for these portfolio reviews. If no one booked they wouldn’t happen. If the intentions of those involved are true then they will see you and review your work as part of their professional roles just as I did and so many art directors, photo editors etc used to do. If festivals and organisations want to have portfolio review days then they could offer them for free, meeting any incurred costs through collaborations or independent funding (just as the UNP did with a day of free talks an event where non of the participants were paid and where no fee was charged to any of the attendees).

I have never charged for a portfolio review and I never will, my knowledge and understanding is something I am happy to share. Any review I give is a personal response to a photographers work. I can provide no definite answers, only suggestions and questions based on my personal experience to be considered and acted upon if the photographer wishes to do so. If they don’t it’s not a problem, if they do then I’m happy to have been of some help. Either way we will have had a conversation based upon mutual respect, on a level footing, with no expectation of ‘value for money’ clouding my comments or their response to those comments.

If you’ve had a good experience of a paid for review I’m pleased, but remember that there was a time when you would have got the same experience for free and if the reviewers wanted to return to that time they could. They’d just have to agree to see you.

© Grant Scott 2016

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