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down the block doing sessions for $50 so she can cut her teeth on this craft, to plug the holes in your faulty, out of date, business model.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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