I never thought I would learn important lessons about selling my photographs from a six-year-old, but now that I have learned them, I think you should, too.
Recently, my youngest son decided that he wanted to be an artist. He started drawing the things he loves and showing those things to his family. It wasn't too long before he started building gallery walls in his bedroom to display his work, and he immediately started charging for them. Granted, he didn’t charge much, one or two cents for a drawing, maybe $0.10 for a really good one, but the little dude started making money off of his work almost immediately. As a parent, how can you say no to that entrepreneurial spirit? The answer is, you can't, so my husband and I have several drawings hanging up in our bedroom.
As he has progressed, I realized that my son was probably a better business person than I was — hell, than half the photographers I know are — and that he had a few things to teach me about being a photographer who sells her work. In fact, once I started thinking about it, I became convinced that these lessons were valuable for other photographers as well. After all, where do you find more wisdom than in an unselfconscious, un-jaded six-year-old who has never been subject to the dogma of the industry?
Let me give you some lessons from Jack:
Almost every day after school, the kitchen table is covered in pens, pencils, and paper. There are sketches, finished pieces, and other tools of creation. He often asks me to print out photos for reference or if he can borrow my phone to watch drawing tutorials. He never stops creating, he never stops practicing, he never stops trying to get better. Skill is only improved through purposeful application, and the quality of your practice is just as important as how often you practice. Just imagine what might happen if you practice purposefully and often? This is why illustrators do studies. They choose an area of work to focus on, it might be eyes or hands or gesture or texture, and they fill page after page with examples from different angles, still or in motion, until they have a deep understanding of the form and movement and perspective of the subject. Photographers need to do this, too. You can do light tests, practice posing, play with camera angle, but whatever you do, have a purpose and do it often. And don't be scared to jump outside your comfort zone every now and then just to keep yourself engaged and learning. Photograph something you wouldn't normally shoot, or try painting, drawing, or making music.
Ask for Advice
If he doesn’t know how to draw something, he asks for help. Granted, he’s often bawling in rage and frustrated — as artists often are — that he hasn’t been successful despite his hard work, but does something very smart: he approaches someone who knows more than he does and gets advice. There are many photographers out there who are generous with their time and knowledge, and there are also people who will be willing to mentor or consult for a fee. Trust me, the value of experience and mastery is worth the price.
I cannot count how many times I have been asked to review someone's website, only to find that their landing page or their galleries are a mishmash of dissimilar photographs that leaves me wondering what it is they actually want to do. My six-year-old does not have this problem. He separates his work into groups that make sense. They are related and easy to digest. When you walk into his “gallery," you know exactly what you would get if you asked for a piece of his work. Your portfolio needs to be the same way. I'm not saying every piece of work needs to be green, or have a baby in it, or feature dragonflies, but your work should represent what you want to get hired for, and it should be visually cohesive. If you want to be a wedding photographer, but have photos of old cars on your landing page, you're going to confuse potential clients. If you want to be a wedding photographer and a car photographer, separate that work so you can easily show weddings to your couples and cars to your vintage collectors.
You can’t sell things to people who don’t know you exist, and this is something my son has grasped almost intuitively. Since he is mostly limited to the house, he has taken up as much advertising space as possible. The interesting thing is that he’s put the advertisements in places they can’t be ignored, in areas that are sure to have traffic from his target audience, namely, his father and me. We can’t go anywhere in the house without his little brand being “top of mind.” The kid never stops selling, and while it’s never a good idea to pursue marketing from an intrusive standpoint, it is important to remember that you should never stop marketing yourself. You may have a great season where you’re super busy and get lulled into a false sense of security, thinking the jobs will just keep coming, but that isn’t how it works. That’s why Coke and Nike still advertise, even though they’re a recognizable brand all across the world. So, you need to know who your target market is, learn all you can about them, and then advertise in places you know they spend time.
Jack doesn't just sit back and wait for people to show up to his store. He doesn’t just remind people that his gallery exists, but he knows exactly how long it has been since they’ve purchased a piece of his work. Not too long ago, he said: “Did you know I put another drawing in my gallery?”
I said: “I know bud, I bought one yesterday, remember?”
His little face was very serious when he followed up with: “But you didn’t buy one today.”
One of the biggest mistakes we can make is not following up with people who are already fans of our work. Those people have established the fact that they like the work and are willing to buy, so why ignore them once the initial transaction is over? I’m not sure how Jack realized the value of this, but he uses it to devastating effect. Have I mentioned he’s got big blue eyes and dimples? Don’t just let your past customers forget you exist. Follow up, show them your new work, and make sure to treat them well even after they’ve walked out your metaphorical doors. You never know when a simple email or card will result in another sale.
Something us photographers really need to get through our heads is the value of our work. This is something Jack seemed to grasp intuitively. Not all the pieces in his gallery are priced the same way. The pieces that are really well drawn are more expensive. But there are still plenty of pieces available for those members of his family who don't have five dollars to spend, like his older brothers, who forget to do their chores to pick up a few extra dollars. The cheaper pieces are ones that he has drawn multiple times, or has several copies of, or started for practice but turned out pretty good. Which makes sense. It's the limited editions, the ones that took a long time and are complex that will cost you a pretty penny. You might have a few landscapes that would make great postcards and are suitable to sell in bulk, but that one shot, taken during a freak blizzard after you hiked five days into remote territory that never gets snow and features a rare animal sighting — that thing is worth more than a few bucks.
One of my favorite things about my six-year-old's venture into being a working artist is that he has no fear about promoting himself. He talks about his work as if we naturally want to buy it. Obviously. His confidence and enthusiasm are difficult to deny. Aside from the fact that he is adorable, there is certainly something to be said about promoting your own work in person with excitement and enthusiasm, rather than falling into the trap that many of us do, where we are hesitant to talk about our prices or why people should pay us. Jackson doesn’t fall into the trap of self-doubt, he doesn’t compare himself to other artists; he just naturally assumes that people will pay him for his drawings. There is no hesitation or desperation when he tells you how much his drawings cost. Passion for your work, confidence in your skill set, and enthusiasm for the job will give the people around you an emotional boost. And people like to work with people who make them feel good. People also like to buy things other people talk passionately about. But if you approach people with hesitation, if you talk about your work like it's beating you down, if you present your prices like you're certain no one would ever pay that much for your little photograph, then they never will. And they won't want to be around you either.
Yesterday, Jack told me that his goal is for everybody in the world to want to buy a piece of his art. Keep in mind, he's six, and in two weeks, he might say he wants to be a scuba diver, but in the meantime, he's killing the game, and I'm going to keep supporting him by encouraging him and by buying his art. I don't know if he has absorbed these ideas and behaviors over years of living with a mom running a photography business or he's listened to too many conversations between his father and I about the need to be paid for one's efforts, but one thing is certain: my six-year-old runs a better business than I did in my late twenties and early thirties. And I think if we photographers took these lessons from Jackson and applied them to our own photographic pursuits, we would be a lot better off as business people.