Why Is Marketing Such a Dirty Word in Photography?

Over the thirty five years in which I have been engaged with photography I have known many good photographers who never speak out about their work and many not so good photographers who speak loudly and often. Reticence to self-promote has long been an intrinsic element of the photographer’s DNA, connected perhaps with ‘selling out to the man!’ Devaluing the work created by treating it like a product and yourself as a provider of that product, a one person company acting as manufacturer, distributor and retailer.

Perhaps the issue is with the perceived character traits of the marketeer, pushy, loud, brash, shallow. Of course such a caricature is just as inaccurate as the belief that the photographer does not have to make people aware of their work if they want to get commissioned, sell prints, make books, and/or share their stories.

We may all have our own interpretation of the word, some negative, some positive and some resentful of its existence and importance, but let’s be clear on one fact, marketing refers to the process a provider undertakes to engage its target audience. That idea of engagement is central to the photographic medium so why would we have a problem with that? Do we not want to engage with people who may enjoy, appreciate, respect or feel enriched by our work? Well, of course we do!

The problem therefore is not with the word itself but our interpretation of the word.

There is such a thing as ‘marketing speak’ and it does not fit well with the understanding most photographers have of their relationship with photography. But rather than rejecting it wholesale why not look to mould and evolve the way in which you market your work based on your personality and work?

I do not like the idea of marketing and branding related to photography, particularly when suggested by professional marketing companies or consultants. My experience of this has always been that the resulting approach is heavy handed and inappropriate. Marketing and branding ‘beliefs’ and practices created in the big business environment where clients want to pay for some ‘holy grail’ insight plastered onto a single person. The result is often all ‘brand’ and no content.

Photographers do not need logos, brand identities or marketing research excel sheets, but they do need to understand how to communicate what they do clearly and confidently to people they have never met.

This is personal marketing and it does not fit any consultant’s business plan, but it does need to fit into yours. Marketing is not a dirty word, but alongside snake-oil salesmen and estate agents, the marketeer gets a ‘bad rap’. The idea of selling you something you do not want, or something that is flawed is not an attractive proposition. But that is not what you have to do as a photographer, you are not over selling a product but you are explaining who you are, what you do and why you do it!

That requirement of honesty and self-introspection provides a much bigger challenge than is ever admitted and it is easier to hide behind a non-marketing stand point, than address the very issues in your character that inform your images.

In this case we are not talking about a rejection of marketing due to its associations but because of a lack of self-belief and confidence in how the work will be received.

In short we have a choice. Stay quiet and resent a lack of recognition and potential financial return or speak out and give yourself and your work maximum exposure and the possibility of success. If the word ‘marketing’ causes you emotional, physical or spiritual issues just call it ‘connecting’ because that is what you will be doing.

I can think of no photographer that does not want to connect in some way.

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

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