There is a myth that I would like to expose and it is this. People who commission photography are inundated by photographers showing them work. This is not true now and it was not true thirty years ago. In fact in the past I received more promotional/marketing material than my wife does now as the editor of an international magazine with both UK and US editions. That is despite all of the options open to photographers to connect with her. She is the editor but she also oversees all of the photography commissioning (a sign of the times within magazine publishing even on a successful title).
As an art director from 1989-1999 I received no more than one or two ‘cold calls’ a week from photographers asking me to look at work, today my wife receives that many a month. She has a commissioning budget and is willing to pay photographers a reasonable rate for work and yet few photographers are reaching out to her. She is not alone in this, a quick survey of those I know who commission photography for magazines, design agencies and small to medium size brands report the same reality. They want to hear from photographers but photographers are not contacting them.
There is a dark joke in photography that goes like this, “What is the difference between a 12” deep pan pizza and a photographer? The pizza can feed a family of four!” But is there work for photographers today?
There is no doubt that commissioning budgets have been decimated over the past years and the proliferation of those attempting to work as photographers has created an healthy environment of over supply but I believe that it is still possible to work as a commissioning photographer if you make the connection between provider and commissioner yourself. It is not the responsibility of the commissioner to find you!
The majority of those who commission do not check out who is winning photo competitions, and they are not visiting photo festivals or exhibitions. They are not spending all day trawling through Instagram or searching for your website.
They are paid to do their job and when they leave the office they leave their work there. Now, I now that with every rule there are exceptions and there are some art directors and photo editors who live and breathe photography (I was one!) but they are few and far between. There are certainly not enough to create a business plan around.
When it comes to contacting people I am not talking about sending emails, the easy soft option that can make you feel as if you are making contact but in reality just adding to an overstuffed inbox (My wife receives over 600 emails a day). I am talking about appropriate, imaginative interaction across a multitude of forms including letters, phone calls, postcards, social media and anything else you can think of.
This requires a strategy and a database of potential contacts that is constantly evolving as your work evolves. It requires tangential thinking.
A student I was at college with back in 1984 took over a billboard at the side of a dual carriageway near the Midlands town where he lived, and posted it with the message that he was going to London to study (at this stage this was just a dream and not a fact). This was a big story for the local TV news and they filmed him next to his billboard. He took photographs of the event to his interview and was accepted on the basis of his ingenuity and desire to get onto the course. He had spoken out loudly and with originality.
When everyone is sending an email you are just part of the noise and easy to ignore.
Photographer as hustler may not seem appealing or even part of your character. It may not fit with your purist view of photography and photographic practice but depending on your expectation you may not have a choice! Now, I’m not talking about being an unpleasant snake-oil selling type of a hustler but you are going to need to speak and be heard. You will need to have something of relevance to say that is going to engage, excite and inspire and you are going to have to make sure that you are speaking to the right people, the people who already commission the type of work that you create.
I am not suggesting that you bombard people with emails to get commissioned ( a pointless exercise), that you are aggressive, pushy and inappropriate (never a good idea for a long career), or that you need to turn yourself into a brand (leave that to others who feel that marketing is more important than work) but if you want people to see your work and give you work you will need to speak out. How you do that is your call but you cannot complain that no one is listening if you cannot be heard.
Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).
Grant’s book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99 https://bluecoatpress.co.uk/product/what-does-photography-mean-to-you/
© Grant Scott 2021