How to avoid exploitation as a photographer and artist

Apr 12, 2022
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Creative Photo Folk
How to avoid exploitation as a photographer and artist

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The one thing I was never really prepared for when I became a photographer and artist is the various ways people will try and take advantage of you so today I’m talking about what to look out for and how to protect yourself.

Recently I received an email from a corporate wellness company inviting me to be the feature artist at an exhibition they were organising for a client. The exhibition was in celebration of International Women’s Day and addressed the theme of wage equality. At first I said yes. That’s a cause I could get behind and it would be exhibited in one of the skyscrapers in my city so I assumed it would be good exposure. But all of my framed work was on exhibition in another city and it was going to be expensive to print and frame more. As I figured out how to pay for it occurred to me, why am I putting myself into debt to support the cause of paying women fairly when I’m not being paid at all? If the client is based in a significant building in the city it suggests they should be able to afford to pay an artist? If it had been for any other cause I may not have even noticed. But it just felt so hypocritical to be use the work of unpaid women to show support for wage equality. At no time throughout our discussion did they say what was in it for me. I didn’t know who would see the work. I asked if the work would be listed as for sale and they brushed off the question. They had put no thought into what the artist got out of this scenario. They just wanted some pretty art on their walls to express token support for women. And so in the end I replied that to truly support wage equality we need to ensure woman are fairly compensated in every industry. And they said they’d find someone else.

Now I always try to conduct myself professionally in business so I’m not here to trash talk anyone but if we don’t speak about exploitation it’ll just keep happening to others.

People assume that just because we’re creators that we should be thrilled at every opportunity for our work to be seen and so they appeal to our ego to take advantage of that.

Not only do artists very rarely get paid to exhibit or be published, but we’re often charged for the pleasure on the vague hope that someone might stumble across our work and love it so much they’ll throw money our way. And I’m not saying that risk doesn’t sometimes work out or those opportunities aren’t worth doing. But when someone requests your work and offers nothing in return that’s when you’re being exploited.

The most inexcusable thing that has happened to me came from one of the world’s biggest book publishers. I received this email:

Hi Hayley - I work in the Art Department of household name publisher. We are interested in using your photograph on a book cover. Can you provide a high res, unwatermarked image file? Let me know if you have any questions or concerns.

That was it. A request to hand over my high res image without any discussion about payment. Being on a book cover can sound pretty exciting so I wonder how many artists have given away their artwork for free just for the opportunity. If the publishers sends emails like this it unfortunately suggests this tactic works for them. But I’ve sold enough book covers to know how much I deserve to be paid and thankfully this particular artwork was already listed with an agency. So I was able to reply and say sure - my artwork is handled by an agency so you’ll need to liaise with them directly. Did they ever purchase that image? Of course not.

Having an agent is wonderful and has saved me so many times from difficult conversations. There was one time an author reached out and said she’d just finished her first book and desperately wanted to use one of my images on the cover but was completely broke and wanted to make an arrangement where she’d pay me out of the profit she made. Again I was able to say, sorry that’s listed with an agency. But then she replied, ‘can’t you just shoot it again?’ Well yeah I could but I’d have to hire a model and buy the costume you want and photograph it and spend a week editing it. And then wait until you make some profit to be paid. I just looked up her book to see how it’s doing and it has 8 reviews on Amazon so doubt I would have been laughing to the bank with that one.

Afterwards I talked about this experience on Facebook and a relative said ‘but it would be great exposure!’ Would it though? Have you ever tracked down an artist from a book cover? Usually they’re not even credited. I worked in a library for nine years and only once did I ever track down an artist from a cover photo. That’s not great odds.

I am always delighted when someone is drawn to my art so I hope I don’t sound ungrateful. And there have been plenty of people who’ve asked to use my work that absolutely have paid me properly without having to argue for it. A lot of people just don’t know any better so it’s important never to be rude and simply to educate or ignore. But sometimes they do know better as was the case with the International Women’s Day exhibition and the big name publisher, and they’re the ones who upset me the most. Because they are actively exploiting artists.

Of course sometimes I DO share my work for free. A lady emailed to ask if she could use one of my images on the cover of her sick husband’s memoir. He loved this particular image because it was a landscape photo taken where he grew up. Of course I let her use it for free. But then she asked if I could Photoshop in a character wearing period costume carrying suitcases. For free? I’m sorry no.

I’ve agreed to allow my images to be used in brochures for charities. Just recently I shared an image with a heritage organisation to promote a ghost tour. In exchange they offered me a free tour and psychic reading which is my most unique form of payment! Unfortunately I couldn’t accept but I appreciate the gesture of being offered something in return.

And then there’s the people who don’t even bother to ask. There’s a website called Pixsy that helps you track down where your images have been used. And several times I’ve found my work used on Spotify or YouTube covers. For a long time I watermarked my work but have found it doesn’t really protect your work but I am very careful not to post high resolution images on the Internet. I usually aim for 1200 pixels or less.

I don’t think the people who’ve used my images without permission were out to exploit anyone, lots of people just don’t know any better. They think if a photo is on the Internet it’s free to use. And if they do know they think it’s harmless. No one will ever find out.

So what should you be aware of as a photographer?

I often see companies on Facebook asking for photographers to shoot for free in exchange for exposure. Or requests of who wants to shoot my wedding for free to put in your portfolio?

And unfortunately there is always someone who will say yes to these requests which is why photographers find it so hard to be taken seriously.

So let’s talk about shooting for exposure for a moment. I rarely take on commercial work. I love to be paid as an artist because it means the creative is on my terms. But shooting someone else’s creative can take away the joy of photography for me. So I assess it on a case by case basis. I actually really like to do TFP work where a bunch of creatives commit an equal amount of time and resources to create a bunch of work, and nobody gets paid. I prefer it to commercial work where I have to sacrifice my vision because that feels like work, not art.

But there will always be photographers who want to build their portfolio in a specific genre so they shoot commercial work without pay, and that’s when things tend to get murky because it devalues the industry by doing work for free that you really deserve to be charging for. But I understand, because if you need the experience, how else do you get to build up your portfolio? There’s no easy answer.

And the sad part about being an artist is that to survive we do need exposure to get our work seen, we do need to take on unpaid opportunities to put on our CV, and we do want to put our work out there for the appreciation that comes in return.


How do we protect ourselves?

Ultimately it’s just about knowing your worth. Having worked as both an artist and in art galleries and events companies, I’ve experienced the industry from both sides of the table so have picked up a few tips along the way.

When someone contacts you with an opportunity, make sure they are clear right at the start what’s in it for you. If they aren’t clear it’s often a red flag that they’re not considering your needs. But sometimes they’re just testing the waters and not giving away much information yet and if that’s the case, ask yourself, what can I gain from this? If I had asked myself this question with the International Women’s Day exhibition I would have seen right away that they hadn’t even considered what the artist would get out of it besides feeling good about supporting a cause. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with sharing your work for free to support a cause, but this was not that. With practice you’ll begin to see the red flags.

Or you know those friends who invite you to their kid’s parties or weddings and tell you to bring your camera? You might agree because you need practice but if the request makes you feel like you’re being taken advantage of don’t feel pressured into something you don’t want to do. You don’t want to set that kind of expectation for the future. And if you do happen to lose a friend out of it, what kind of friend were they?

Next if you are being paid in exposure make sure you are receiving a benefit in return. Throughout communication prior to a shoot just ensure your needs are being thought about and acknowledged.

If you’re shooting in exchange for exposure ask them to put in writing what promotion you’ll receive in exchange. And ideally they should at least cover your petrol or refreshments or offer SOMETHING in exchange. For example, sometimes I gift prints to models I work with if the shoot is unpaid.

If you’re wanting to build your portfolio, make sure you get signed model releases before the shoot so no one can change their mind and say you can’t use them. And only agree to shoot commercial work for free if it gives you experience in your area of interest. What’s the point of shooting a family portrait when you actually want to shoot fashion? When you’re just starting out you’ll get requests from friends to shoot various things and you’ll need to learn to say no to things that don’t serve your goals.

In the case of an exhibition, if you’re exhibiting for free, then the gallery should be looking after the signage, the promotion, the wall labels and they should have a sales strategy in place.

And this last point which is for those of you who exhibit your work or are interested in doing so.

If someone invites you to exhibit as a featured artist, there’s an expectation you’ll be paid because they want you specifically. On the other hand galleries will make call outs for people interested in exhibiting. These are usually unpaid, but it leaves the ball in your court as to whether you’re comfortable to take on the risk of exposure resulting in sales for you. Personally I’ve made very few sales by participating in exhibitions because not enough people see the work. I tend to make most sales over the Internet because the pool of people looking for art is much larger and often they’re there for the purpose of buying art, not just to browse like in a gallery. Consumers don’t really go to galleries to buy art anymore. They go for inspiration or for something fun to do. For those who do want to buy art, they’ll either pick up something cheap from Ikea or jump on the web where there’s more work to choose from and find art that specifically matches their décor.

There are always exceptions to these rules, for example someone might invite you to exhibit unpaid but you know that the gallery will work really hard to sell your work because they profit from the sales. Then there are galleries who make their money by charging artists to exhibit so they put less effort into making sales. In the past I’ve only agreed to this arrangement with a gallery I trust or that I know has a lot of traffic but it’s something I won’t do again because I’ve never made more money than I spent.

With all of that said it’s a lot of fun being a creator and I get a real kick out of some of the strange requests I’ve received. I’ve been asked to design an escape room, to licence my work for a paint by numbers kit, and to be used in a meme to accompany the quote of a well-known personal development coach. You’ll never be bored that’s for sure.

What outrageous things have happened to you?

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