The Gatekeepers of Photography

The Gatekeepers of Photography

Attempts to network with fellow photographers often fall short. Many of us act as professional “gatekeepers," defensively sharing little or no information.

While a hoarding mentality is an understandable instinct in a competitive environment,  it's actually self-defeating.

Have you ever declined a conversation with a potential competitor?

When you avoid connecting with photographers on a professional level, you're not only missing opportunities for yourself, you’re also potentially doing a disservice to the photography community at large. There's a good explanation for competition turning cutthroat: emotion. Whether you live in a small town or a big city, the threat of other photographers taking jobs or undercutting you always seems to loom.

The worst undercutting offenders are often those newer to the trade or even photographers new to town, who are anxious to establish connections. If you show up on the first or even second page of Google, chances are you have been contacted by someone eager to learn from you or network with you. Some people in this situation will turn away such networking requests. But here's a more productive response: figure out how you can help each other. Last week, I wrote about the benefits of teaching your trade; healthy networking is one such benefit. If the networking request comes from someone with sufficient experience, you might be able to work with the individual as an assistant or second shooter.

Often, the decline of a networking request has nothing to do with ego. Many top-dog photographers have trouble responding to every request received. The more success a photographer achieves, the more crucial time management becomes.

There are several reasons photographers ignore or even discourage and intimidate their competition. Here are the main ones:

1. Scarcity

The main reason we ignore or discourage those eager to network or learn from us has to do with the scarcity mindset. As natural as this mindset may be for professionals in a crowded talent pool, it hurts you in the end.

If you're concerned that someone new to the craft could hurt your business, take a step back and consider respective levels of professional skill. You might worry that a newcomer will eventually reach your professional level and continue to undercut your price. But here’s a better scenario: networking and/or working with you, the newcomer learns photography lessons that include the real-world necessity of charging industry-standard pricing. That benefits all of us.

Undercutting will always happen, and someone will almost always bid lower than you. Instead of sitting around feeling frustrated about this, focus on how you can form strong relationships with clients who won't base their photographer hires solely on a "bargain” budget. By the way, if you're always bidding the lowest on a project in a pool of photographers, you might want to reevaluate your business plan.

If you have distinguished yourself from those grabbing at the low-hanging fruit, a newcomer is no threat to you. When you have the time, be encouraging, and make sure your protégé is contributing to our industry’s strong reputation through a good work ethic and fair pricing.

a photograph of a chalkboard with an illustration on it of two hands shaking

Image by user geralt via Pexels.com

2. Ego

Let's face it: creative professionals can be difficult and sometimes have a chip-on-the-shoulder problem. Without delving too much into psychology, it’s worth considering that this chip that produces poor treatment of others is based in egotism and insecurity.

Strong egos often produce pessimism about the industry itself and the difficulty of keeping up with new technologies. Such frustrations often create blanket criticism of newcomers.

3. Negativity

I experienced an early version of negativity in the industry back when I was in high school. My father took me to a local camera store (back when many existed) to buy a DSLR body for me. The camera was to be my going-away gift, an educational investment for my freshman year at art school. When the store clerk learned what the gear was for, he made some offputting comments. "Oh wow, does he think he’s going to make a living taking pretty pictures of flowers?" he sneered. "Good luck.”

Unfortunately, such attitudes are manifested by even accomplished professionals. You may have been in this situation or known someone who has experienced it: an ambitious person reaches out to a successful (typically older) person for advice on breaking into an industry. The older, successful person soon launches a lecture on how "it's not as easy as you think" and "most of us fail, I work long hours, the business isn't what it used to be," etc. While the person giving advice likely feels that they're doing the newbie a service by preparing them for reality; in truth, they are only projecting a negativity that reflects poorly on photography culture.

Conclusion

A modest recommendation: always be civil and encouraging, even in difficult circumstances. Being competitive is natural, but it’s important to also be genial with our peers, photographers, and clients alike.

The photography industry has undergone significant changes over the past decade. In some respects, making a living off photography has become more challenging. But it's still possible if you keep open the gates of your talent and love of photography.

Have you experienced a problem with gatekeeping? Perhaps it came in the form of a snide comment on one of your photos or even a face-to-face dispute. Feel free to share your experiences in the comments section.

Lead image by ShonEjai on Pexels.

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27 Comments

So sorry to hear that. My experience has always been quite the opposite, I've met amazing people, some became my mentors or helped me get jobs and in exchange I've helped the next generation. I'm curious about what other people comment because I thought we were a bunch of great people.

John Dawson's picture

Good points, thanks.

I do competitive barbecue (yes, it's a thing) in my spare time. Inevitably at each competition there are new teams that are looking for help. While most teams are very friendly and eager to help, there are a minority that will let them struggle because they're afraid that the "young bucks" will beat them.

My approach has always been to be an open book and eager to teach. After 12 years in competition I have never once regretted helping the newbies. To the contrary, I have received much more satisfaction in seeing the new teams grow and get awards.

I take the same tact in photography.

Lenzy Ruffin's picture

Barbecue? Did you say barbecue?

You should know that for a percentage of the population, you had us at barbecue and lost us for whatever else you wrote after that.

I do competitive barbecue judging (KCBS) and it is nice to hear that ya'll (or many of ya'll) are being supportive out there and helping each other. It does make our jobs more difficult, but if eating more and better BBQ is the price I have to pay to get more collegiality at the events, I will gladly pay that!

David Pavlich's picture

The only thing that makes me a 'professional' is the fact that I make money from photography, mostly selling prints. I do an occasional paid shoot, but not that much. I don't worry about sharing anything with any photographer. It's not like I know more than other shooters, I don't. But once in a while, I actually share something with someone that helps and in return, have picked up helpful hints.

thomas Palmer's picture

There is always a bias in those stories, we never hear the voice of those who had less and less client, couldn't adapt to social trends and quited.

It's always easier to say "let's teach, the more the merrier" when you have already succeded.

Lots of competition is best for clients, but I'm not convinced it helps our side of the market. Even dumber, lots of photographers put their stuff on Unsplash, thinking it will give them exposure, and it's just one gig lost in the market each time.

TL;dr : More photographers has good sides, but we can't deny that some struggles thanks to competition, I know a lot of them that couldn't keep up.

Supply and demand is a thing, and overall supply gets stronger each day and demand isn't growing as much if at all.

Scott Mason's picture

If people want to give their work away for free, my opinion is let them. They can learn the hard way! Stock photography can't fully replace hired work, but it definitely hampers the amount of new hired work being created.

"It's always easier to say "let's teach, the more the merrier" when you have already succeed." Agreed, and this statement says something about those who spread negativity and fear.

Michael Jin's picture

Got a question? Google it. Got a question the Google can't answer? Buy a book or pay someone to teach you. Got a question that can't be found on Google, a book, or a teacher? I probably can't help you anyway. Knowledge is a valuable asset and while some might make the choice to give it away for free in the form of videos and tutorials, I'm not going to sit there and answer every dumb question some random yokel has because as far as I know, I don't have any answers that can't easily be found by a few keystrokes in a search box.

As far as being positive and encouraging, I think be positive and encouraging if the situation warrants it, but it takes a back seat to honesty. Whatever the scenario, I think honesty is best even if it means ripping the person a new one with harsh criticism. No matter who you are, you're going to butt heads with someone, get into an argument, have creative differences, etc. Suck it up and learn to deal with it or get out.

I think the sooner a person comes to the realization that the only person they need validation from is himself/herself, the better off that person will be in life in general. If you're doing the type of photography that requires validation from others (selling prints, running a studio, shooting weddings, etc.), then it does you no good to get dishonest positive or encouraging feedback if your work isn't making the cut because come time to take on a real job, your clients certainly aren't going to be all smiles and giggles. Sometimes they'll give you crap even when you do your job correctly to try to work the price down or get more free goodies afterward.

In short, don't be an ass just for the sake of being an ass, but we don't have to all hold hands and sing kumbayah either.

Scott Mason's picture

I get where you're coming from Michael, I just have a different approach. "Be positive and encouraging if the situation warrants it" - That's part of what I was going for with my message. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

"...ripping the person a new one with harsh criticism"

Sheesh. It's just photography. I'll still clear of your tribe and find the fun ones that enjoy a little kumbayah.

Michael Jin's picture

"It's just photography" until the photographer gets so much kumbayah feedback that he decides to take money to shoot an event or a wedding and ruins the job not only to his own detriment, but more important to the detriment of the clients.

That's the problem with unrealistic feedback. It creates an unrealistic sense of status and security. Irrationally positive feedback is just as damaging as irrationally negative feedback. The only real difference is that one is more liable to make someone cry while the other one is more likely to make someone smile.

I'm just saying that we should at least try to root ourselves in reality.

Scott Mason's picture

As you said, encouragement doesn't have to be unrealistic. Any sane person giving advice to a novice about shooting a wedding would tell them not to jump into it, and to be a second shooter once they're truly confident in their camera skills.

Julian Ray's picture

Great article Scott.
Early on in my career I've been on both sides of it. Sadly I've been the Turn Off for someone looking to get into it and also been on the other side of some less than encouraging comments.
One thing I learned fairly quickly is that being open, willing to share, and encouraging not only is a good way to network but also a great way to learn and stay current.
Someone new may not have the "skills" yet but often have fresh ideas. By being open to new connections one is actually insuring they don't become irrelevant.
Thanks.

Julian Ray's picture

I thought this WTD was a good illustration of what NOT to do.

Scott Mason's picture

I always cringe a little when someone asks me what body/camera I'm shooting with, and it happens 90% of the time I'm approached. I'd much rather talk about approach, technique, or even the lens. Anyone else get this question too often?

kevin hoehne's picture

Didn't always used to be this way. Throughout 1995-2008, I would always reach out to pros in the area I was visiting. Sometimes we would have coffee sometimes they would give me a tour of their studio and we would become friends. I would do this for others also and we would help each other out. In 2009 digital cameras really started getting better and cheaper and here came the masses of newbies. I started to become very selective to the ones I would talk to.

Daniel Schenkelberg's picture

Ive emailed my favorite photographers at the time to ask advice and a few minutes of their time to just see them open the email but never reply. 3 years later now those people are my direct competitors. Ive befriended some as they have seen me rise through the ranks and others still look at you as the new guy, but as long as you let your work speak for itself you will do just fine.

People are busy, you have to respect that. Don't give up and get creative. Have you knocked on their door? Have you offered to do something for them first? Give them some value first and then they'll be more likely to give you something in return. If you reach out to 50 photographers, you might hear back from 3. Go find those 3.

Daniel Schenkelberg's picture

no they are my direct competitors now and im passing their work, not to be cocky just honest when the young bloods come. I get asked for advice all the time and I ALWAYS make sure to take time out of my day to give advice. I know people are busy im busy but you cant relply to an email sitting on the shitter? Thats how I feel and why I give back to the community and up and coming photographer

Taz Rahman's picture

There is something else to bear in mind - many top professionals either employ a marketing company or follow tried and tested marketing stratefies all along the likes of maintaining their SEO enhanced site. Why would they allow a newbie to get a foot in unless the said newbie is so far behind in technical ability or working within a different genre.

I've been trying to put this into practice in my local market. I started a podcast and I've been looking for guests. I got an interview with the biggest wedding photographer in my market and she did it without hesitating. She was an outlier.

I've reached out to many others that simply won't do it.

PS. Reach out to me if you'd like to come on the show. I'm always looking for interesting photographers!

Spy Black's picture

Fuck that. Most companies today are using non-professionals to do pros work by having someone "share" knowledge. As a freelance retoucher, I get places trying to have me show in-house people how to essentially do my job. Fuck you.

I freelance in a studio right now where non-pros are shooting products. They are seriously considering setting up iPone stations for some tabletop work, shot by interns, and one poor clueless sod so far has been given Photoshop crash courses to do grunt work. I honestly don't know how much longer I will last in this business.

We won't even discuss India here either. ;-)

Corporate greed at its best. Think about that next time you "share".

Scott Mason's picture

Sorry you're frustrated. The message of the article was that it's up to you to help or not, but at the least try to be civil and not discourage others. That is all!

Spy Black's picture

Yes well, sorry for the harshness, but I've dealt with too many corporate parasites to feel friendly about sharing knowledge.

art meripol's picture

If someone working at a very high level has perfected a technique, look or style don't expect them to diagram how to replicate it. But those people often are willing to teach. Many folks have helped me and I feel it's important to pass along what I've learned. My experience is that what most early career shooters want to learn is more about business and professional approach, bidding, billing. There are tons of tutorials on Youtube that'll teach any aspect of photography except how to be a pro and how to run a business. At least that's how it seems to me when I'm approached with questions. It's only amateurs who want me to show them a camera setting for success.

Rob Davis's picture

I don't mind sharing information with people who seem like they have a voice, a vision and have a good ethical compass. That eliminates about 99% of the questions.

Michael McCray's picture

In the 1990 I organized a photographic show on specific topic homeless with ten photographers. It was a great experience as we each bought a different point of view. Support flowed into the project and it blossomed in two more regional shows using photography, sculpture, painting and other art forms over the decade.

The only thing you have to watch is the rights of the photographers with non-profits. You need to treat them like any other business when it comes to rights.

Now I am a member of local art council providing web space and cooperation for common good seems a difficult thing to achieve even though I do no weddings, senior portraits or other offer not other consumer photography products.