What’s Your Potato?

In Marketing, Self-Promotion, Rants and Sermons, VisionMongers by David31 Comments

It’s a slow Sunday afternoon. Coffee’s on. Van Morrison is mumbling his way through The Healing Game album. I head to Africa (finally!) at the end of this week after a three week delay. I’m restless. When I’m restless I write. And I’m hoping this time it sticks because I’ve written and re-written this article several times now, unable to get at the very core of what I want to say.

The big headline this week in photography circles is the sale of a photograph for $1 million. A photograph of a potato. I’ll give you a second to make a comment about how you could do better or how your kid puts better drawings on the fridge and doesn’t charge you anything. A million dollars!

But here’s the thing. Most people that look at the work of most photographers say the same thing. They will say it about your work, and they’ll say it about mine. Yes they will. Because the value of what you do is not – in the marketplace of the real world – ultimately what you say it is. It’s what your market says it is.

Some of us will take umbrage with this and write articles -usually on Facebook where academic rigour and common sense resonate less than volume – about how photographers on Craigslist are undercutting us all and how we can’t photograph a wedding for what the market will pay because our gear, our studio, our insurance, and our time, cost so much money and how we need to feed our kids and take the cat to the vet and you know what? All those arguments are true.

But nobody cares.  Nor is it their business to care.

Your clients don’t care how much your gear cost. They don’t care what your bills are. They don’t care if you go bankrupt. Those things are not their concerns nor should they be. And it’s not the responsibility of the young photographer down the block doing sessions for $50 so she can cut her teeth on this craft, to plug the holes in your faulty, out of date, business model.

Your clients, if they are to be your clients, care about the things they care about. The default mode of photographers is to try to convince the market to care about things we think that market should care about. Our default mode is a defensive position. Instead we should be listening.

Why aren’t people paying you $10,000 for your wedding photography? There are probably two reasons. The first is that they don’t value photography the way you do. You’re trying to sell them a Rolex and they’re very happy with their Timex. The second is that you haven’t found something they value more than the $10,000 you’re asking them to part with. In short, you have no potato. Find out what they want. And then connect that, if there’s a connection to be had, with what you do well.

Value is at the intersection of what you do well and what the world wants. The more they want it and the better you do it, the more they will exchange for it.

Earlier this month Vogue told readers that among the things a modern bride and groom can do without is a professional photographer. Photographers rushed to the ramparts with flaming arrows to defend the castle. And some of what got said in defence of vocational photography was the undeniable triple truth. But. The one question I don’t see photographers asking, because that article was a profound opportunity to better understand that market, is “what can we learn from this?” Or more to the point, “what does my market or potential market value, and how can I change what I do, and how I do it, to give them that value?” The first ones to re-jig their business based on the never-ending re-mixing of what we are good at and what others want, will win. The last ones out of the gate, because they’re too busy defending what “ought” to be, and what markets “should” value, will lose. They will lose the attention of their markets because they don’t listen to them. How could they? They’re too busy trying to sell them something they don’t want. The question for the open-minded should not be “how many ways is Vogue magazine wrong about this?” The question should be, “what if they’re right?”

Is a photograph of a potato worth a million dollars? That’s not for you or me to decide, ultimately. It’s for the buyer. But I guarantee the photographer, in this case it was Kevin Abosch, a photographer who also charges up to $500,000 to make headshot of people like Johnny Depp, didn’t make his case by telling the buyer how much his cameras cost, and looking nervously over his shoulders for a Craigslist photographer who has a photograph of a yam for sale for $50.

We should be inspired by Kevin Abosch, however absurd we consider his photograph. It should give us hope. It should light a fire under our ass. It should make us take stock. And it should make us ask long, hard questions about our audience and what they find valuable. But it’s easier to mock. It’s easier to huddle together and snicker. Much harder to, instead, go looking for your own potato. Much harder – because this wasn’t Abosch’s first potato photograph – to keep photographing that thing over and over and over until someone bites. It’s much harder to do the work. To study branding and marketing, to fail, and reinvent yourself when the market changes as it most certainly has over the last few years.

To be blunt, in the most loving, friendly way I can, because this sermon, like most of the sermons I preach, is first aimed at myself – the world owes us nothing. And as more and more talented photographers jump in the pool the laws of supply and demand will mean there’s more supply, less demand, and for the commodity that is most abundant, the value will drop. So we – you and I – sure as shit better have something more than a mere commodity to offer. It’s hard as nails to make a living by charging for something others will gladly do for free.

What’s your potato? And who wants it? If you can’t get past the fact that it’s “just a photograph of a potato” then you understand exactly how much of the market feels about your work. About my work. And until you understand the value you offer, and understand that value is entirely in the eyes of the buyer, your only position will be a defensive one. The question is never “how much are these photographs, or my ability to make them, worth?” The question is always, always: “does my audience see value in what I make?” I will know the answer not by how loudly I proclaim my worth (and you must also believe in that), but by how much time, attention, and money, your market or audience, is willing to trade for it.

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  1. That post goes sooooooo much beyond photography it is scary. Thanks David for making me think.

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  3. Couldn’t agree more. We work in a very uncaring market, the idea that people should care about your bills and your equipment costs is simply ridiculous. “Find your Potato” great motto

  4. Couldn’t agree more. We work in a very uncaring market, the idea that people should care about your bills and your equipment costs is simply ridiculous. Break the famine and “Find your Potato”

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  7. Hey David,

    Figured it out! Ol’ Kevin must have a rich relative!

    Be well!


  8. Food for thought…. The art world seem to like potatoes… Also think about Vincent van Gogh’s Potato Eaters…

    I think there is hope for all of us, wedding photographers. Seriously I totally agree with value creation. An article to keep! Many thanks

  9. Hey gang…David is coming to Winnipeg May 7, 2016 …
    With a fantastic “tell it like it is” that i have just read, I for one
    can’t wait to see and hear what he has to say and see while
    in the city for that Saturday…I have a feeling it’s going to be
    one we won’t forget…I hope he brings a few of his choice tubers…

  10. Enjoyed the article David. Glad to read an article mentioning this million dollar sale of a picture of a potato. Which I believe is not the same as a picture of a potato that sold for a million dollars. I hope others understand what I am meaning by that.

    The guts of this entire transaction as I see it is not that a photographer found a way to sell a picture of a potato for a million dollars, but someone (the customer) found a million dollars’ worth of value in a photograph, from this particular photographer. Obviously the potato had nothing to do with it. I hope that makes sense, it seems to in my mind. The instilling of value into creative work is one of the most challenging parts of being a creative person. It’s like doing a fine dance with a Black Mamba. Years of perfecting ones work (your dance in this case) may pay off or one bad move may leave you snake bit in less than the blink of your eye. I don’t necessarily mind being snake bit once in a while but if I pick the wrong snake its lights out forever.

    My conclusion to this somewhat nonsensical ramble I just made is to enjoy each day, work your tail off in honest pursuit of the best you are capable of producing. The best you can hope for is that most of the snakes will learn to like you.

  11. A truly great text about this topic. As I try to sell my book, where everyone says that it is truly interesting and a document in time. I have yet to find the remaining 300 buyers who will consider my potato as good enough. Nonetheless I have got feedback that my potato is really great, but obviously not convincing enough to sell all of them.
    As I do not only live from selling my own potatoes, I have to care less about it, but it still hurts that not all of them are sold yet.

    1. Author

      I feel your pain, Oliver. You can have the best potato in the world, you still need to get out there and find people that want it. That’s the hustle of being an entrepreneur and an artist. I still have copies of my last art book sitting in storage – but slowly they sell and the pile gets smaller – and one day they won’t be there, but they’ll be replaced with another book and the same daily effort to get it into the hands of people that don’t yet know they want it.

  12. Wow David, so great and so true.

    From someone who is just launching himself into this crazy “microverse”, which really comes first: the potatoe or the buyer?

    Are we supposed to find that empty niche and attempt to fill it, or do we create what is in our soul then attempt to find a niche to fill?

    I always resonated with David Hobby (and Field of Dreams 🙂 on this one: create something and opportunities will find you.

    I’m actively working on it and just being patient for now.

    1. Author

      Shawn – David Hobby is right. Partly. Create something of value (to someone, anyone) and opportunities will find you. And then know what that value is so you can communicate it, refine it, and charge for it. So yes, create what’s in your soul, and then find a niche for it. Or if you see a niche and know you could create something for that audience that is in line with what you love and what you’re good at, do that.

  13. Excellent article and beautifully articulated. Looking forward to your next sermon 🙂 Safe travels…

  14. Excellent points, David.

    Henry Ward Beecher said, “Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into pictures.” I think the same is true for photographers. Certainly puts you in a vulnerable position.

    I get why photographers gnash their teeth when it comes time to pay the bills. Putting yourself out there is tough in lots of ways.

    It is even tougher for those photographers relying on outdated business practices and pricing. The old business model is just that…OLD.

    So what IS the new model? Diversify? Sell photos, write books, do contract work on the side, offer workshops, be active on social media? Are the days of independent studios numbered? How should one expect to make a living as a photographer these days?

    Is there anything kept more secret than how to price? Who is actually teaching people entering the market how to determine what to charge? Who is teaching the business of photography?

    I think the whole notion of what it means to “earn a living” from photography needs re-evaluated.

  15. You always know what is weighing heavy on our minds….many thanks my friend. Safe travels,I am looking forward to you shating your journey with us..?

  16. Yes! Well said! I’m going to create what’s valuable and leave the $50 transactions to the birds. let’s focus on creating and encouraging each other in seeing the value of our art. Just this morning, I was looking through my LA street photography blog posts where I’d write stories on my subjects along with their portraits. This was 2010-2011 – Pre HONY. In 2012, a friend told me my work reminds them of HONY and I had no clue who HONY was or where the origin of his name came from… Lol. I was creating something because I genuinely loved the art of meeting people and hearing stories. Little did I know that what I was creating could have enormous “value” had I approached it with a commitment to get my name and work out there. And even if no one ever “buys” into my art, I will keep creating because it’s what makes me come alive… Loving and seeing people and their beauty. Thanks for keeping important conversations going.

  17. When people berate others for their accomplishments & achievements, it says far more about the commenter, than it does about the person making the achievement.

  18. David, great article and spot-on perspective. A negative defense position is a waste of energy and doesn’t move you forward in navigating the market changes. Leaning into the change puts the emphasis on understanding and growth, both personal and commercial.

  19. Glad you wrote this article David.

    Yes, the market will ultimately decide on your value, that is so true. There are a lot of things us photographers can do to make sure our clients see our work as high-end and value what we do.

    I’m so happy another print has sold for that much – it means there still is a high-end to this market.

    Cheers, Brent

  20. I started getting into photography late in life and, while I enjoy it, it is a huge learning curve. I appreciate all you do to not only teach the craft, but also the mindset you have about photography.

    Have a good trip to Africa.

  21. Amen… I have always believed that we should not begrudge others what they get for their work, but use it as
    inspiration. There will always be those who will pay for work they like, and will pay for the services of a wedding
    photographer with a reputation they can feel secure with.

    Have a great trip, I assume you are feeling better. 😉

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