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Wednesday, 21 May 2014

99% of Photographers do Stuff for Free

'71% of artists who exhibit in publicly funded galleries receive no fees'. That's the tagline of Paying Artists, an online petition in the UK that aims to have publicly funded galleries pay fees for showing their work.

The campaign crystallises a whole raft of questions that photographers (and artists and writers and designers and musicians...) have to consider. When do you pay something and when do you get paid? It also crystallises the fact that 71% of publicly funded galleries do pay fees, so do provide for working artists. That's something to celebrate.  But what about the other 29%? How come they pay nothing?

Somebody told me over the weekend that Virginia Woolf (not sure if it was her) said  that anybody with a creative life is basically doing it for the 'fun' of it, or to avoid a proper job or just to get a certain satisfaction in life. And I have a certain sympathy for that.

There's also the equation of the creative with the authentic and the amateur. This is what Alfred Eisenstadt said, 'Once the amateur's naive approach and humble willingness to learn fades away, the creative spirit of good photography dies with it. Every professional should remain always in his heart an amateur.'

Another element in this idea is that anyone who argues for the gravity of the creative arts is engaging in earnest delusion. They are trying to elevate their creative outlet into a form of salvation for a beleaguered world. We see this all the time in photography.

Some people react against this because if it's only the doing that matters, if it's only the beauty, the creativity, the story telling, imagination and fun that matter then somehow you shouldn't get paid for it.

I don't really see it that way. In fact, I think a more flagrantly emotional approach that recognises photography as a form of entertainment (yes there are exceptions!) is of far more value than the earnest self-deception of photography as an offshoot of the caring professions. I also think there's more money in regarding photography as a kind of entertainment and because there is so much money in photography-the-industry (How much does your camera cost now? And how much did you spend on cameras 30 years ago?) as opposed to photograph-the-niche-we-talk-about-in-places-like-this-blog, we need to expand the latter to embrace more of the former.

Which brings us back to the question of what should you get paid for, what should you pay for.In this nice corner, much of photography is a vanity business, a profession where there is at least some element of paying to play. It's a spectrum where those who are wealthy have a huge advantAt one end you have the traditional photobook industry where people pay £10,000, £20,000, £30,000 to publish their book. No problem if you have the money. No problem if you don't have the money, but can raise it through Kickstarter or Sponsume type of campaigns - though then why not make something a bit cheaper. But it is a bit of a problem when you get somebody who is obviously minted trying to get the general public to fund their book in advance. That always strikes me as a bit odd.

Then you have to pay for a whole host of other things (and generally the more you pay the better you get) and at some point you flip over to the other side where people start paying you for stuff. And that's where Paying Artists kicks in. Money should go to artists as well as administrators and curators.

But most of the photographic world is not publicly funded and does not have much money. And even the people who have some money don't have that much of it. I think we can be delusional about how much money there is in photography partly due to a lack of transparency and partly due to a kind of wish fulfillment.

All of this struck me when the very nice people at Darwin Magazine put a call out for work and a photographer asked if they paid. Darwin has a print run of about 100 and is run on love. It's not really a money magazine but at the same time it was a fair question for the photographer to ask.

And that got me thinking about doing stuff for free. How much stuff should you do for free before you become a big patsy who's being taken advantage of, and who should you do stuff for free for? I'm ridiculously bad at bargaining or selling myself so I am slightly paranoid that I get taken advantage off, and I do loads of stuff for free, so I'm a double whammy loser.

I do this blog for free, but I quite like it and it gives me the chance to see and promote new work and sound off about things that are close to my heart. I do quite a lot of writing for free or near-free for other people and their blogs. I look at work for free, I give talks for free. And everybody I know in photography does stuff for free. People are remarkably generous. They give talks, they  mentor young photographers, they show people their studios or their work or their books, they give interviews, they help people out. I don't know if there is one photographer, even at the very top end, who doesn't do loads of stuff for free.

And I don't resent doing things for free because one thing leads to another, because I'm working with interesting people who are kind and interesting and who are mostly in the same kind of boat as me. And there are fringe benefits. This coming June I'm doing some conversations and panel discussions at Photobook Bristol. It's a festival that is being run for free with guests who are coming for free and giving talks for free, all in the name of the photobook and having a good time. What's in it for them? What's in it for me? What's in it for anyone?

Well, quite a lot really. We get to meet some lovely people, and eat some lovely food and hear some lovely music; that's why we're doing it. But that's Photobook Bristol. There are many other things you should get paid for? What those are I haven't a clue. I'm not very good when it comes to money. Nor are most artists or photographers. Which is a real weakness I can tell you. If you want to make money, stop reading this blog and do a business course. Seriously! Make some money! And part of that will be finding out who doesn't pay, who is awash with money but just tight-fisted and mean-minded. They are the people you shouldn't do stuff free for.

Read more about Paying Artists here.

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