Thursday, August 21, 2014

Day 81, Learning 81: Building Intimacy and Asking Permission

Photography is an intimate, passionate affair.  Whether it’s guiding a bride by the elbow into position, eliciting a sultry smile from a model, brushing aside an errant hair, or arranging a compliant body on a couch, we are engaged in an activity that involves intimacy and trust.  As a photographer, I must connect with my client and maneuver them into a place of vulnerability, revelation, and openness.  As a theatre director this isn’t new territory-- coaxing a powerful performance from an actor is an exercise in trust, intimacy, and passion, and in some cases it requires a therapist’s touch (as an emergency crisis counselor and HIV test counselor for several years, I understand the implications of this statement).

There are blunt tools for understanding and creating this relationship, but in the end it is nothing you can “learn” in a traditional sense.  The building trust is a skill you're either born with or purchase in blood.  Combining the skill of intimacy building with photography is something I am still developing.  It is, I suspect, a life-long endeavor because not only is everyone different, but there are layers of truth and trauma in the human experience.  If you want to excel as a portraitist-- even in the commercial world-- apply yourself to this art and stick to the “bright” side.  The relationship can be abused.

As a photographer, you’re going to do something unthinkable at the end of your intimate relationship.  You’re going to ask to publish it.  Whether it’s in a professional publication (to which you were both paid to contribute) or your website, you’re going to ask to air their laundry in public.  The important part of that statement is the verb, “to ask.”  I always ask for permission, in the contract, to use their images-- and give them the opportunity to veto specific images. 

Now if at this point you’re thinking, “it’s my image, I created it,  I own the copyright, I can use it as I please,” you should understand one thing:  you’re a schmuck.  In all likelihood you have not taken an image “the world must know about.”  You’ve taken, perhaps, something beautiful, perhaps something meaningful.  But it’s made so by the intimacy and trust your subject has given you.  Your talent as a shaper of light and geometry-- even as a builder of intimacy-- is secondary.  If you understand that, then you realize you should ask permission. 

For this reason, I include the image rights in the fee for my non-commercial sessions; I offer to create a book or a framed print for them (and it’s worth it, believe me), but the images themselves are included in my session.  Always.  Many photographers may be horrified by this because their real income is derived from the delivery of images-- not the taking of them. Not me. If the images are meant for their personal use-- spouse, parent, child, Facebook, LinkedIn, and even a wedding-- I view them as the client’s, and I frankly don’t want to be responsible for archiving and licensing.  I also want my sessions to be affordable to a wide range of people, and the pay-for-print model is inevitably pricey.  Yes, there’s a class of client who will pay $200 for an enlarged print or $600 for a book, but you’re a fool if you think everyone can.  It’s a luxury item available only to the 5%.  Paradoxically, photographers who charge exorbitant amounts for their prints are often the first to proclaim that it’s not the print but the “experience” their clients are paying for-- a stance that makes no sense given what they charge for the print versus the session. 

I believe my clients return because the session is unique and the images spectacular.  Pricey prints, then, are simply ransom, and frankly I believe that in the future high fees on the prints and other products will undermine business.  Because Aunt Sally can “take” a picture and their getting sharper and more professional with every new model of camera.  She's provide them for free.  As a professional I can compete on the value of the “taking” an image, because Aunt Sally can't create the same experience as me.   But I can't compete on the value of “providing.” The images Aunt Sallie takes can be made into a book or a 8” x 10” print just the same as mine.   They may even be as special, as intimate.  So here's the short version: because I build intimacy and trust with my clients, I ask their permission to use their images. In doing so, they become the client's pictures, not mine (though I technically never relinquish copyright, only share it).  At Hurricane Images I price the value where it belongs: on the session.  And I make that session into a special event-- even when it's a professional headshot for a LinkedIn profile.

So here’s my advice for non-commercial images:

> Make your session, the “taking” of pictures, as special as possible
> Deliver stunning images
> Make high resolution and web-ready images inclusive with the package

Yes, top photographers can charge a king’s ransom for their images, but they are the 5% of photographers who are dealing with the top 5% percent of earners.  The rest of us have bills to pay, and never forget that is true for your clients.

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