So you want to be a freelance photographer (part 5)

I feel so angry this morning.


Sitting at my desk, checking emails and thinking back to this weekend’s shoot.


I had a Bar Mitzvah to photograph on Saturday night. Now, I really dislike events photography. Sometimes it’s fun, especially if it’s a corporate event – the people are nice, they treat you like a professional, the money is good and I leave feeling quite energized and positive. Often, though, people want your lowest price and treat you like one of the waiters … which says more about the people than it does about the waiters and about how waiters should be treated.


Saturday night was one of those events. I knew it would be like that, though, as I had worked for this guy before. He wants your cheapest price, then doesn’t pay on the night, and later pays in cash, a little bit now and a little bit later. And then he has all sorts of extras … please arrive earlier than agreed, please take some more photos, please place these extra photos in the album … it’s more, more and more. Actually, hang on, ‘please’ doesn’t really feature. It’s ‘you can just …’


So I had been anticipating this Bar Mitzvah with a pit in my stomach. I just didn’t want to do it, but I had said yes when I should have said no.


In case you don’t know when that would be, here are some guidelines:


  • The guy phones you outside of office hours, notably at nine o’clock on a Sunday evening, or at lunchtime on the weekend. This person has no respect for your private time and so no respect for you. He will continue to treat you this way throughout the transaction.


  • The guy asks for your ‘best cash price’. As a photographer, chances are you are working on a cash system anyway, i.e. you don’t have a credit card facility. And, since competition is stiff, and you probably want the work, your price is competitive. So why should you give this stranger your time and expertise for the lowest price? If he is a regular client, sure. We like to reward loyalty. It works both ways. But some guy who is shopping around for the cheapest photographer should keep shopping until he finds the lowest price. You shouldn’t lower your price to suit him. This means you are simply a number to him, a lackey, and not an experienced, creative professional who should be paid a professional fee.


  • The guy makes a big deal out of paying you cash. Now, we all like a bit of cash in our pockets, but dangling the idea of crispy bank notes in front of you, as if you are a street vendor, is distasteful. It also tells you more about the person: he prefers crispy bank notes, or any kind of bank notes for that matter, because he doesn’t put the cash through his books. He’s not paying tax on all his earnings. He is lying about his income. This guy is a shyster. And you can’t be a shyster part time. He’ll be a shyster in his dealings with you too.


  • The guy talks too much. You’re not old mates. You don’t need to know the ins and outs of his interesting and exciting life. You need the brief for the job and you need to agree on a fee. There’s not much more shooting the breeze to do after that. Someone who keeps on talking after talking is no longer required, is loving the sound of his own voice. Again, it’s all about him, with no consideration for your time or opinion. You don’t need these people in your life – not even for money.


So, with all the boxes checked, I heard myself say yes when I really meant to say no. And it all continued as expected.


I arranged to do the family shoot at five. He changed it to four. He tried for 3:30, but it ended up at four. The light was harsh and impossible to work with. He pushed the shoot until past sunset, so the one-hour shoot became more than two. The agreement, verbally and in writing, was that I would be paid at the shoot. I wasn’t.


The pics were to be provided on a disk. An email arrived: he needed three copies of the images, so three separate disks. This is extra cash out of my pocket – DVDs don’t fall from the sky. I dropped off the images and expected to be paid. I was handed some cash. Only half of the money, and one of the notes was torn. I handed back the torn note and arrived at his place of work a few days later where the receptionist counted out the balance of the notes for me. I felt like a courier delivering a parcel.


Then came the Bar Mitzvah. My word. What a circus.


Someone who checks all the boxes I just listed will not for a moment think that you will need, at the very least, a chair to sit on from time to time, or somewhere safe to put your camera bag and tripod while you’re not using them. He certainly won’t offer you a glass of water. He had me arrive 45 minutes before the guests arrived. I have no idea why. But there I stood, in an empty hall, being shown his shitty pictures on his camera’s LCD panel. At least it gave me enough time to find a chair to put my camera bag on and hang my jacket on. (No, there was no table either.)


The 150-or-so guests arrived and by nine o’clock it was a free-for-all. The beanbags and cushions were used as weapons of mass destruction as boys hammered one another. Holding the beanbags at the thinner end, they would swing them over their heads like caveman clubs and either catapult them across the room or pummel each other with them. Or they would hold the beanbags against their chests and launch themselves onto someone until they were piled up four high, like a beanbag-and-human Dagwood sandwich.


It had to happen: someone got hurt. A girl lay motionless and miserable on the floor as medics tried to see what injury she had sustained to her neck. She was wheeled out from the party on a stretcher, her head held rigid in a giant, red neck brace. As the double doors closed on the back of the last medic, the DJ cried out ‘Let’s get this party started!’ And it was as if the movie had been suspended in freeze-frame for just a moment, and then had been switched to fast-forward: the beanbag-flinging and body-launching started up again, only more frenzied this time.


And no one, no adult, no member of staff, no DJ, no one, said ‘Hey guys, let’s show some respect. Let’s party but let’s leave the furniture alone.’


I decided that this was going to become dangerous for me, and certainly dangerous for my equipment. I packed up. It was time to go.


But my man needed another photo. I had to take the camera and flash back out of my bag, set up and take a few more pics.


Then I was free to go. As for the cash? Well, I’m still waiting.


Then he called at 4:30 on Sunday afternoon, and again later on. My phone, for some reason, was set to ‘block all calls’, so he couldn’t get through. He tried my landline, which I rarely answer, and left a message: he has another 380 photographs, taken earlier at the service at the shul and some from the PhotoBooth guy, for me to put in the album. He’ll get the disk to me when he gets back from holiday in July.


And this morning I find emails from him, again telling me that he has extra photos for me to put in the album, and asking to have the album ready a month after giving me the disk.


The man is a chop.


The world is full of chops. And you may read this and think you would handle it differently, that this wouldn’t happen to you, that you know how to handle people. But it will. It will happen to you because some people have chopness so bad that they are sociopathic, and you cannot win against a sociopath. Believe me, I have tried many different tactics over the years. The only tactic that works is to check the boxes and then say ‘NO’.


And this brings me, briefly I hope, to people who work for no money. These guys always find a ‘friend’ who is so keen to get into photography that he or she will shoot the event as a favour. Now, you cannot anticipate that you will have to duck flying beanbags at an event or will have to fish popcorn out of your camera bag afterwards, so you cannot be blamed for agreeing to give your Saturday night away in exchange for sweet bugger all.


But if you have read up to here, you now know that it is possible for such a thing to happen – even at an upmarket venue for rich people’s kids. Think carefully about saying yes to work for no pay. Because this guy is not going to refund you for your smashed lens or slushpuppy-drenched camera. You always stand the chance of damaging your equipment at an event. Work-for-no-pay could end up in no work again, ever, because you have no equipment with which to work.


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