The Conflicted Photographer…

Before jumping into the following essay, I ask those who I have photographed over the years to not take personal offense to some of the things I am about to say. Because I have done thousands of hours of work over the past ten years toward promoting other creatives at no charge, or in the spirit of being spontaneously creative, I have occasionally had to struggle with interpersonal frustrations, miscommunication, and unmet expectations, I think it prudent for me to take the time to put my thoughts into words. And as such, I hope to establish a rudimentary understanding as to who I am, why I do what I do, how I hope to relate to those who I have yet to photograph, and what I can realistically provide…

Since my creative awakening at Burning Man in 1999, I have received numerous emails that, whether polite or not, ask some variation on the following question: “Would you please send the photos that you took of me?”

I am very fortunate to be gifted with a talent for taking beautiful and meaningful photos of truly interesting people and subjects, but one of the banes of my existence as a photographer has been to receive impatient and demanding requests for, though worthwhile and important, what are typically art-for-art’s-sake or speculative documentary without the expectation of compensation for my time. Then, when I am able to fulfill these requests, I have over the years come to learn that I am not only rarely thanked for my efforts and for sharing these images freely in the spirit of co-promotion, but I am also not credited properly. What troubles me most though, is that even when the subject would typically expect to be paid by an event promoter or venue to perform, to sing, to dance, or whatnot, and who is quite capable of offering a gift, exchange, or compensation for my time or a print, I am only very rarely appreciated as a working artist. Yet, when I am unable to meet these demands in a timely fashion, believe me, I hear about it, and am made to feel inadequate. So, through sharing the following, I would like to clarify both my purpose and circumstance as a photographer, as well as set down, in policy, the standards by which I would like to approach all future recreational, portraiture, musician, performance, and speculative documentary work.

I am a D.I.Y. artist and documentarian who has, for the past eleven years, lived on a hand-to-mouth budget while doing the best that I am able with what few resources I have available to me. I live minimally. I don’t hold down a “regular” job, because I have the equivalent of three roles as a photographer (pointing the lens and pushing the button; the editor/retoucher of my own work; and the promoter/manager), which is, I feel, the most meaningful way that I can contribute… working almost every waking hour toward these ends. I sleep on friends sofas, so that I am able to put what few funds I do have available to me toward my craft and to co-promote my creative allies. And instead of being able to own and use what camera and computer I desire, I make use of an inexpensive prosumer camera, and perform all of my post-production work on a 2001 laptop that I bought at a discount rate back in the middle of 2002.

Now, on one level, I empathize with the frustrations of the few who have discredited me. However, this isn’t because I think that I owe them something. My understanding of this troubling issue comes from the probability that, over the years, I have not effectively communicated my purpose, my ethic, my situation, my limitations, the resources I have available to me, and the hard fact that photography is what I do for a living.

I am not an independently wealthy photographer, such as was Diane Arbus. Nor do I currently have a support staff to whom I can delegate my administrative, marketing, creative, financial, and managerial tasks. And I am most certainly not a one-man Fotomat. I am a thoughtful, kind, and generous person who’s first loyalty is to spread awareness and provoke thought, dialogue, and positive change. My second priority is to inspire mainstream society to consider other ways of living and being through pointing my lens toward unapologetically genuine and unique individuals, creatives, and alternative lifestyle communities so they may be inspired to express themselves authentically, to perhaps recognize and break from the prescribed reality. My third is to co-promote the various grassroots creatives who I appreciate and respect, and who do what they do for the love of it or because they cannot be untrue to their calling. So, in order to maintain the facility to move about freely and without distraction to discover and share lesser understood realities, I have forsaken creature comforts, geographic stability, and the soul sucking job that holds most of us firmly in place so that I may honor this purpose.

So as to give the reader a sense of the history and compounded gravity of these demands without consideration of recompense, it all started in 2000. At that time, I was still shooting film. At that time, I provided small prints at no cost to my subjects. However, at $30 a roll (through film, processing, and printing costs) plus event entry fees combined with the effort it took for me to do a shoot, travel to and from the lab, and edit the photos, I was fast going broke. It was in 2002 when, disheartened, I looked down upon about 500 unprocessed rolls from my early years that I had to consider either going digital, or deny my passion as a visual artist and activist. I, of course, chose to go digital. However, in doing so, I incurred an enormous up-front expense to purchase a new camera system and the computer that I still use today. And to boot, I still have over 400 of those 500 rolls yet unprocessed.

Ironically, after I started to shoot digital, I was soon overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of images that I had to manage, while also becoming responsible for post-processing, which up to that point was mostly left to the lab… unless I was printing for a show. Nonetheless, some people would say, “Just send the photos as they are!” Maybe this is just my ego talking out loud, but that’s not the way that I operate. I am interested in quality, not quantity. And the level of quality that I hope to attain, and that which I wish to attach to my name, requires effort. And though there are more than a few photos that might be considered excellent, I am only capable of applying my efforts toward one or a few before moving onto the next project.

What surprised and disappointed me most, however, was when such a statement would come from the mouths of artists, dancers, musicians, or performers. This is because these, of all people, are the ones who should most be able to understand where I am coming from. I want only my best and my finished work to leave my possession, to perhaps enter the public realm. And where a painter might, for example, complete one painting per week, I am often dealing with up to 3000 images per week. I have often wondered how some of these people would feel if I demanded that they paint, dance, sing, or perform for me halfway… or for free.

Another surprise is how more than a few of the people who I have photographed – who live materialistically minimal, and sometimes spiritual, alternative lifestyles – could become so attached to the idea of a picture of themselves. Then, occasionally, expressing dissatisfaction with receiving only one or a few images. It frustrated me most to know that some people would retroactively corrupt a genuinely fun, creative, and productive photographic experience simply because they based their entire experience on the expectation that they would get something beautiful for free… while assuming that, for me, it was all just cake.

So, over the past year, this growing accumulation of unmet expectations has weighed heavily enough so that I have actually asked myself, “Should I stop taking photos of people? Should I just photograph places and things that won’t demand so much from me? Should I leave the camera home during moments of great creative potential? Or during historically relevant moments?” Then, after a lot of thought, and considerable melancholy, I decided, “Hell no!”

Though I am not a religious man, I feel blessed. I was put on the Earth with a gifted ability and a purpose. I will not be made to feel as though I should stop chronicling beautiful people and important moments simply because a few spoilers can’t see the big picture. To choose to not take photos, and to not share what I am able to provide with the world at-large, would seem to me to be short-sighted, selfish, and personally self-destructive to not heed my calling.

So, with the exception of a few people who really seem to get it, I am sometimes made to feel alone in my endeavor, and separate from some of the people who I otherwise respect, admire, and/or enjoy being around. Thankfully, the people who understand me and appreciate what I am doing make it all worth it. Nonetheless, each time I aim the lens and push the camera’s button, though I tend to feel that I have taken one more step forward and am actively making a difference, it feels as though my ability to manage my works is pushed back another ten steps.

Well, I guess that’s my bane… and the spoiler’s loss. Because, though I do have the desire to be generous and make people smile, I have absolutely no desire to compromise my purpose, nor sell short my creative soul. So, I repeat… I was put on the Earth with an ability and a purpose. I intend to use my talents to the best of my ability, while continuing to do my very best to be kind, generous, and true.

With that said, though I will continue to take the time to capture historically relevant moments and co-create artistically provocative imagery with a knowing and consenting subject, I think it important to state that my talent, my time, and my person is of value.  And how I choose take photos — which at this time is expressed through black and white photography; and what I choose to release to the world, which are images that I deem worthy of investing my efforts toward retouching; and how I prioritize my shoots, which first honors paying work, then low- or unpaid social/environmental/economic justice work, then speculative fine art portraiture, and so on — is my prerogative.

In terms of my documentary imagery, if you enter the public realm, where any number of other recording devices may capture your likeness, or you are in someone’s space where I have been given permission to photograph, I will, whenever possible, be among the first to ask for your permission beforehand.  Additionally, I will do my very best to one day share the selected image or images with you to post on your website, MySpace, Facebook, or whatnot.  But in saying so, it will be on my own terms, by my own quality and selection standards, and if I am not offered some form of compensation, in my own time.

And though I recognize that the subject’s time is of value too, I will no longer commit to a photo shoot with a person if they cannot first understand the position I have stated in this essay.  So, if one day I should approach you to ask if I may take your photo, and if, in your heart, you are attached to the expectation of an end product without any thought or consideration for my priorities, my livelihood, or the resources I must own and maintain in order to take and process the photos… or if you cannot understand my commitment to being an artist, a visual historian, and a hopeful agent of change… or if you cannot appreciate all of the heart, and sacrifice, and effort that goes into bringing what I capture through my lens to completion… or if you have difficulty living in-the-moment, enough so as to at least engage in an experience simply for the joy of being creative… then you should probably politely decline my request.

But, on the other hand, if, you trust my eye and know that my intentions are good, and you wish to one day be able to see and share the strange and wonderful keepsake that is an artful photographic memory as seen from my point-of-view, then, in recognition of all that is necessary to make it manifest, I would, at the very least, appreciate a smile and a “Thank you!”.

8 responses to “The Conflicted Photographer…

  1. hey yeh, I feel yah, I love creating, but certain types really burn me… I’ve had certain people not only expecting free work…but DEMANDING! with deadlines! wtf??? and then tell me that if I don’t do it, they’ll find someone else to do it for free…this makes me feel, oh not so good about helping people out.

    sorry, gas & hard drives cost money..and if people don’t understand that, then yeh sorry. you wouldn’t put on a music show & not pay your soundboard operator would you? If you want your event documented…chip in & help pay for their time. It’s understood, if it’s a subculture event, most people aren’t making a living off of it, but anything helps…and honors, and respects your contributions.

    I’ve worked for free for plenty…but demanding a service for free, it just burns me. and the fact that said person will just find someone else to do it for free, burns me more. ech, sketchies!

  2. Her Craig. I read your article. You’re right on. It’s a tough living to make without selling my soul to shoot weddings or other crap that doesn’t interest me. People always want documentation of their lives and events, but for some reason don’t see the value in it. It’s valuable enough to want someone’s time to do it, but not valuable enough to pay… Read More for that time? In a point-and-shoot world, our work has been bastardized by the masses and thus, cheapened in the eyes of consumers. It’s a constant fight but one that I think is worth it!

  3. The irony is that sometimes people who expect photography for free are also people who would never perform without some kind of compensation – free entry to a show, share of the door, etc.

    This isn’t always the case, of course.

    I know a ton of people here in Sf who have day jobs and can afford extremely expensive gear – who are also amazing photographers who donate their time to shoot bands and dance groups who simply could not otherwise afford their services..

    I can’t count the number of times I’ve paid money to get into a show to shoot my friends because I know that in part, my ticket is helping to pay for their meals for the next week.

    This is part of the reason I joined Flickr. Burning dvd’s and cd’s for people is time and money, I’m happy to share my work with other
    people, and they are more than welcome to pull the fully retouched image of themselves from my photofeed! Like you, I don’t release unretouched work – that’s my art, and a painter would never show an unfinished painting, a musician wouldn’t release a half-done album, or a dancer get on stage and walk off halfway through a song because they weren’t done with the choreography. ; )

    It’s a struggle to keep your heart open – I HAVE gotten paid gigs from people I’ve shot for free for years – sometimes it’s does pay out.

    And I’ve shot plenty of people who do appreciate my work and whom I know for a fact don’t have any money. So it’s like you said.. that constant balancing act and working to not close off your heart and soul.

  4. i feel you. i was actually having this conversation last night with someone. It takes extreme efforts to do deal with photographing the world today. People’s wants need to be given with respect, the underpaid photographer is not respected. I fully understand and I am with you. It is quite alright to make up a small card that paragraphs this and hand it to the next person that asks for usage of your photo. In turn they would give you 5 bucks or a thank you. Or tell them to Fuck off. Keep up the good work. joos

  5. perhaps this is the burden the artist carries. Because, just as you discovered, wether we make money at what we do or not, we will continue to do what we do. Wether we are thanked or not, we will continue to give. It is a passion deep within us that drives us and it is this very passion that undermines us. You are succesful Craig. Keep doing what you are doing until you simply can’t do it anymore, and even when that happens, so long as your heart still beats and your mind still connects to this conscious world, you will find a means of delivering your message to the people. While I do not walk your path specifically, I, like all of these other people, walk a similar journey .. a journey driven by a need to create community and bring people together who would otherwise be divided by hate and greed and all those things we choose to turn our heads from. I have seen your vision Craig. You are gifted. You have a purpose. It is your reason for being, but know this and understand this. There is a yin and a yang to everything. A blessing and a curse to all that is.
    The people who appear to not appreciate, value or otherwise acknowledge what you do for them do appreciate and value your gifts. But the bubble of this knoweldge sometimes takes many lifetimes to reach the surface of consciousness. Your images resonate deep within and sometimes, because their impact is so intense, our conscious selves do not allow the meaning to surface. Do not think that this means people don’t care.
    Your work has already contributed to the mindset that changed the political climate of the USA. Your work is needed as we look to bring peace to the Middle East, Africa and Beyond, as we try and bring Universal health care to the world and as we attempt to unite all peoples on this planet towards the common goal of harmonious co-existence and self-sustaining community.
    Give my friend. Give yourself freely as you have always done. Every image you create, every word that you whisper, it all goes towards the greater good. Towards the collective Mind of
    Hope and Love.
    You are on the Path of Self-Actualization.
    Those who are given even a glimpse of your shadow are blessed.
    Money means absolutely nothing.
    Equipment means nothing.
    All that matters is what is in your heart.
    Do not allow that to be tainted by the corrupt.

  6. Thanks for your thought-provoking post Craig. As a photographer, musician, and business owner (recording studio) I have dealt with these issues for years. Yet somehow there are always gray areas, and times that I feel under-appreciated. It is vitally important to attach value to one’s work and/or creative time, and stick to it as a policy whenever possible. Sometimes it is part of your job (on top of all the other jobs you mention!) to educate people about the true costs of being an artist. Your post articulates this very directly and succinctly.
    I think it would be useful for you to have standard model release form, combined with an abbreviated version of your basic policy regarding distribution of your images. And perhaps a suggested donation as well. Having such things in writing gives them added gravity, and may help to “weed out” the problem friends and ex-friends you describe.
    In addition, sometimes as humans we just have to be flexible and bend our own rules. But it’s easier to do that when we feel validated in our artistic work, and/ or have some money coming in. So I wish you success, great art, and flexible humanity on your artistic path.

    Happy new year – Myles

  7. I feel it necessary to chime-in with a real world example of what amounts to nothing short of pathological behavior from a former photography subject.

    I met a person, oh so briefly, in 2005 while photographing a performance on the West Coast. I was invited to photograph this performance, both backstage and on-stage, by another person, a long time friend who was a contributing performer. Nonetheless, the subject to whom I am referring (I’ll just call this person “XYY”), who was a make-up artist for this particular event, was included in a few images during which I photographed the performers.

    I again crossed paths with XYY in New Orleans late in the summer of 2007. I asked if XYY would like to be photographed, which eventually resulted in a two hour end-of-day photo session late one fall afternoon. Though there was about a half-hour of costume gathering prior to the shoot, the registered time for this session, according to my camera’s time/date stamp, was from 4:59pm to 6:47pm.

    Then a few days later, I ran into both XYY and XYY’s partner, who spontaneously agreed to set out for another pre-sunset shoot. The registered time for this shoot was from 4:18pm to 6:10pm. There was no preparation for this shoot.

    Later, on Super Sunday in March of 2008, I again crossed paths with XYY while on a parade route, and took (literally) a couple photos of XYY and two other people wearing skeleton masks. But at the time, I did not know it was XYY.

    Anyhow, the following is a recent transcript of a dialogue between myself and XYY. I have removed all names, other than my own, to respect each person’s identity and not participate in spreading the poison. However, I think it important to share this information so as to demonstrate the unnecessary drama we, as photographers, sometimes have to contend with…

    Dec 23, 2008 – From Craig:
    Wishing you a warm and wonderful holiday season with hopes that 2009 will provide each and every one of us with many opportunities for healing, joy, peace, reflection, and greater understanding. Hugs :)) Craig

    Dec 28, 2008 – Response from XYY:
    Craig, I have done work for you with no reward many times now and would appreciate the prints you’ve owed to me for years. or a CD would be great. Happy Holidays and all the best to you and yours.

    I have heard some things through the grapevine about how you have really offended a handful of people in New Orleans over the period of time you’ve been working there. You should always show the upmost respect for your subjects because without them all you would have is photos of broken junk.


    Dec 29, 2008 – Response from Craig
    XYY, I can both appreciate and empathize with your sentiments, but I have sent the best photo from our one-on-one shoot to you, as well as more than a couple dozen proofs from your shoot with —. Between the two shoots, you have spent a total of about four hours with me, and we had a great time drinking, laughing, and talking, while being creative. But in-post, I spent about ten hours providing to you what I could before needing to move onto the next project.

    I really like you as a person, and I respect you as a self-invented individual, as well as an artist and performer. But I can only do so much with the time and resources available to me. With that said, you and a few other people from over the years have inspired me to finally put my thoughts about this subject on the table. I have written about it here and hope to make my limitations clear to future photographic subjects.

    I hope you won’t take offense to what is said, because you are only one of about ten people from over the past ten years that I’ve had this conflict with.

    As for the people you mentioned in New Orleans, I know of whom you speak. And all I can say is this, — is a whiny crank. As for the others, they are either too easily influenced by —‘s position to think for themselves. Or for the couple who I have known for many years, they have never thanked me for what I have already given to them, nor do I think they quite understand, nor value, what it is that I’ve been doing.

    With that said, please don’t spread the poison. If I am able to get to more, I will. And when that happens, you’ll be the first to know. I just have too, too much on my plate at this time that has to do with more relevant issues taking place in the world. Besides this, I also have a struggles in my personal life that need attention.

    I sincerely hope you are well. And I do hope that when we do, again,
    cross paths we can be as warm toward each other as when we did the photo shoot.

    :) Craig

    Dec 29, 2008 – Response from XYY:
    I understand you have your perspective on everything Craig, but you must see it from my point of view. I have allowed you to take my photograph time and time again in the years past… It started with make-up photos that I never got back. The photo shoot I did with you I don’t even know if I have a photo from it, and all the photos I took with —… They are practically useless. They say proof all over them still. I have nothing useable or edited from any of the shoots we’ve done nor from any of the times you’ve taken random photos of me. All — and I asked for from the shoot we did with you was some images in color. We have two, and a CD with the images. I get paid to do this kind of work and I rarely do it for free. When I do it’s because I respect the person as an artist and want neat photos in return. I know some very busy photographers that have other jobs AND fly internationally all the time that wouldn’t take this long to edit some photos and get them back to someone. Months, maybe. Years? I got photos back from a drunken night at Vaughns that I wasn’t even at and
    still have no photos from the shoot I did with you. For you to say we’ve spnt 4 hours together total and you’ve since spent 10 hours getting pics back to me? That is just plain retarded. If you spent that much time the photos would be edited and I’d actually have them. I did spend more tiime than that with you too. It’s insulting. You know what I want for Christmas? Spend an hour or two whipping some photos together from both shoots that are gone over and don’t say proof all over them. I dare you.

    As for New Orleans… I am not really involved in that drama nor am I spreading it… Although you haven’t ever properly gotten photos back to me that you’ve taken of me. But I’ve heard poor reviews on you from any of the many other places. All I’m saying is watch the way you treat people, you want them to desire your presense.

    I’m not trying to insult you or bad mouth you… Just open your eyes to my side of it. I put time effort and energy into the shoot we did and have nothing to show for it. Even if you did give me one photo back that’s not enough for what I did when we gathered for those photos.

    Consider actually going over things and getting my work back to me. That’s why its called trade.


    All the best. And good luck with your personal issues, whatever they are.

    Dec 29, 2008 – Response from Craig:
    Fair enough… I see your point. And thank you reading what I had to say, and for being cool. I am going to give it a go over the next couple days, but pls know that I did spend a lot of time prepping the photos of you and —, even though you consider them professionally useless. As for the “proof” watermark, I’m doing much better with them these days. In those types of pix, I let my own ego get in the way, because I didn’t want my flawed and incomplete work going into the world without letting people know that it looked crappy (by my standards) because it was unfinished.

    From now on, however, I ask that you consider the flip side of the coin, and not be condescending. I do have personal issues, as do all of us, but mine are my own, and considerable in their own right.

    You can expect a couple good pix over the coming days…

    :)) Craig

    Jan 1, 2009 – A few days later from Craig:
    Happy New Year XYY! I’ve attached a couple shots from our solo shoot, and one from the shoot with — that I was pretty certain that, if not usable for professional purposes, you would at least have fun with. And two nostalgic pix from when I first met you at — in ’05. I figure the shot of — alone might be useful for you to promote your excellent make-up skills. Anyhow, let me know your thoughts… I hope these will help to heal whatever rift I may have created by presenting these to you this late in the game.

    :) Craig

    Jan 2, 2009 – Response from XYY:
    That’s great Craig… How long did that take you? Thanks a bunch. You know I would really appreciate as many of the make up ones and the others as you can do. When I do tfp with someone the idea is I get an edited set of images back from each shoot… I know you are busy and I empathize with whatever you are going through. If it would be easier for you you could send me like 5 at a time over a period of a month or two I’m sure. I won’t pressure you as long as you make that effort every now and again. I don’t think it’s too much to ask after all this time.

    Thanks again and I wish you the very best as I said before and I mean it.


    Jan 2, 2009 – Craig:
    Those five took me twelve hours over three days. The four of you alone represented the best one from each segment of the shoots that we did, so that’s about it for me. I hope you are able to put them, along with the one of —, to good use in promoting your modeling talents.

    Looking forward to crossing paths again,

    :) Craig

    Jan 2, 2009 – Response from XYY:
    12 hours? So you are telling me that all I deserve when I do a shoot with someone is a photo or two back from each shoot? There are none edited of — and I together?!!? We did that shoot for a reason. To have amazing pics of us together that don’t say fuckiing PROOF all over them! I have none. I have been more than cool and understanding about this! I am sorry you can’t catch up with the projects you start with people but I put in my part. You are the photographer. Or you could send me all the raw images and I can have someone else who won’t give me shit about it edit them for free.


    Jan 2, 2009 – Craig:
    Who’s ungrateful? This is exactly what I’ve been talking about… under-appreciation, ego, and an enough-is-never-enough attitude. Please do not contact me again. Craig

  8. Wow, Craig. That is an extreme example but it completely proves your point. I don’t know if I’ve ever encountered something quite like that but I imagine that at some point in their careers, all artists encounter difficult people that just don’t get it. It makes us feel devalued and really want to throw the towel in sometimes. But the plight of the artist has never been easy; our art has just been bastardized in the public eye because anyone with a camera and a computer fancies themself a photographer. When “art” becomes commercialized and consumerized in that way, it is cheapened by the masses, thus seemingly diminishing the value of our hard work and vision. It is hard to succeed as a photographer in this overly digitized age, but we must. You are that good, and you know it.
    Keep on truckin’, baby. The sweetest revenge is to live well. :)

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