Dear Photographer. An Open Letter from a Photographer’s Agent.

In the 15 or so years I have been in this business, I have represented almost 20 photographers and consulted with countless more.  I am proud to say that many of the photographers I represented when I first started are still with me today.  That is one of my most proudest career achievements.

I share this with you because I want to be clear that the letter below is not based on any one experience with any one photographer.  Instead, it is based on years of experiences with not only my current photographers but with the ones I consulted with, gave advice to in conversation, ended relations with, discussed with other reps, read about in articles, listened to at speaking engagements, met at events and kept in touch with over the years.  

I write this letter in the hopes of starting a conversation between agents and photographers that will remind us that we are in this together; each of us trying to make the other a better photographer, agent, partner, therapist and friend.

Dear Photographer,

We have been getting to know each other for almost 20 years.   We have experienced the high of the Dot Com together and the low of the crash.  We have created websites and redone portfolios together.  We have traveled, made new friends and created great imagery.  We have worked together to reframe our businesses to survive in a new market.  We have argued, disagreed and ultimately pushed each other to be better at what we do.   While it wasn’t always easy, I do know we are all thankful for each other and the opportunity to work together in such a creative industry.

Looking back over our experiences, I thought it would be valuable to share some insights into what motivates agents and makes a successful photographer/agent partnership.

•  If we both agree that we should partner, it will be because our goals are in sync, we believe in each others talents and trust that we will do right by each other.  It will be because we have similar values and a shared approach to this business.  And, assuming all of those things exist, for us, it will ultimately be because you were nice.  Yes, just plain old nice.

•  We both work very hard.  We both are dedicated.  We both are passionate about your images.  You choose to be a photographer because you can’t imagine doing anything else.  We choose to be an agent because you can’t imagine doing anything else.   Let’s help each other stay true to these ideas.

•  Your talent and creativity are the most important part of the process.  If you didn’t produce great work that inspires you and others, we would no longer have a role.  We recognize that and value that you have chosen us as a partner to help guide you.

•  An agent is a valuable part of the marketing process and a direct link between the creative community and your work.  We have our fingers on the pulse of what is going on out there and we work hard to stay connected. We will have feedback for you that sometimes you will not like and we hope that we can talk about it reasonably and honestly.

•  We are your sales and marketing managers and if you do not believe in either of those things and instead  think all you need is for you work to speak for itself, you are mistaken.  In today’s commercial photography market, you need to promote yourself and your work in many different ways;  more so than any other time in our industry’s history.

•  You need to shoot new, relevant, good work often.  Again, you need to shoot new, relevant, good work often.  I wish it were different and you could just shoot a few really compelling, award winning, images a year and everyone would remember you and choose you first for all of their projects.  But that isn’t the case.  Competition is enormous and if you aren’t shooting the new work, someone else is shooting it.  We need that new work to cheerlead for you, update websites, create email blasts, update portfolios, write blog posts, post to Facebook, send to clients on your wish list and plain old brag about you.  Without it, our “to do list” for you is very short.

•  Finding your own marketing voice is crucial.  Creatives, art buyers and clients enjoy hearing from us but they need to hear from you as well.  And in today’s market, the paths in which to take to share your voice are abundant.  To name a few, go on appointments after a shoot, travel with your agent, write a blog, share personal photos on Tumblr and Instagram, post on Facebook, attend industry events and network.  If you are not shooting new work, the single most important thing you do is make connections.

 •  Be connected to your work.  Connect us to your work.  Share things with us.  Update us on what you are working on and tell us when something good happens in your career.  Let us see the work you are creating, even if you aren’t in love with it.  You never know what suggestion we may have.  If we don’t know what you are working on , we cannot offer guidance.

• Know that we understand that when money is tight it is very hard to spend it on marketing and promotions.  However, we also know that you need to spend money to make money and just as with any other profession, you need to update your toolbox and advertise your service.  Pushing pause on your marketing is not always the best way to save money.  Something to consider in this situation is re-evaluating your finances, revising your marketing plan to adjust to your financial situation and readjusting your expectations.

•  We are in business together. When you do not get a job, neither do we.  I know it hurts your wallet and ego but it does ours too.

•  We have expenses too. Big ones.  We may not spend a lot of time sharing them with you but they exist and just like your expenses, ours keep going up and up too.  We do not get to pass any of our expenses on to a project and we do not have cost centers where we can cover items that go over in other areas. At Heather Elder Represents, we do not pass along our travel and promotional expenses, but in other groups they do.  I am hearing more and more that rep agencies are requiring photographers to pay for travel and even charge consulting fees for projects such as portfolio and website reviews.  I suspect these type of trends will continue.

• Our time is our inventory.  So when you ask us to cut our fees because your friend referred you a job or because you had to remove travel from the estimate or you handled the estimate on your own, please remember that we do not charge you by the hour and there are so many things that our fees need to cover.  If you look back at the end of the year and do not think we were worth the dollar amount you paid us then please speak up.  But I am guessing that if we are doing our job, then the dollar amount is a fair representation of what we accomplished together with you.

•  For those of us agents that still do not handle the billing for our photographers, please recognize that we are often last in a very long line to get paid.  If you owe us money, please pay us.  Do not put us last on your list.  And, please honor your contract and pay within the stated time after receiving your payment.  We understand you may be busy, but waiting until timing is more manageable, causes us cash flow problems.   If you cannot pay us, tell us.  Do not avoid the issue.  Please do come up with a plan to pay, even if it is a little bit at a time.

•  Please return our calls, emails and other requests for to do list items.  Our needs for imagery, emailers, mailers, blog posts and other marketing tools are never ending.  But, it is for all of our benefit. Without them, we cannot market your work and are left with no promotional tools.  We understand that you cannot get to every email or every request – especially when you are on the road.  But, when we have to continuously follow up with you, it is not a good use of our time.  Wouldn’t you rather us working to get you new work rather than annoying you again with our requests?

• If you don’t currently have an agent, do not email or call asking us if we will represent you.  Consider a different approach.  If we are not looking to add to our roster, the conversation is over as soon as we tell you that we aren’t looking.  Why not open the door for a connection?  Ask for an opinion, let us know that you will be looking for a rep in the future and will be keeping us updated on your work.  We may not always reply but we are usually good at looking at your new work.  When the time comes, if we start looking for someone new, we always start with the photographers that have consistently kept in touch with us.  Every rep has a short list of photographers that they stay connected with in the hopes that someday we can partner together.

Thank you again for all of your trust and support.  Thank you for your creativity and resourcefulness.  Thank you for your patience.  And, of course, thank you for your friendship.

I hope that this letter starts a conversation between us and I welcome the questions, comments, input and feedback.  Please do consider writing your own letter as I would love to share it with the photography and agent community.  The more we keep talking the more we will understand each other and the stronger our relationships will be in the future.

39 thoughts on “Dear Photographer. An Open Letter from a Photographer’s Agent.

  1. It was always a sincere pleasure to work with you as a former art buyer- your integrity speaks volumes!

  2. Having been a extremely fortunate photographer to be signed with a agency in South Africa only a year ago this piece has struck a chord with me with regard to how you ‘treat’ your agent, for lack of a better word.

    I treat my agent, Sam, like she’s my sister! 🙂 I send her thank you mails for every new estimate she gets me, keep her updated with all my personal projects and have a steady stream of new images and work reach her to make her job easier and thus creating more opportunity for new work and exposure for myself, simple really!

    I actually treated her to lunch just last week to thank her for securing me a really nice ad agency job. 🙂

    I really enjoyed this piece and will be sharing it, even if only one more photographer get’s the same message I did. 😉

  3. Great insight – as a designer with a foot firmly in the artist promotional world, a lot of these points cross over into the working relationships we have with our photographers as well. If theres anything worth adding – it’s that a lot of our clients do see the value in marketing and promotions, typically at the advice of their agents, but far too many see these as “extras” that happen when time and money are plenty.

    Quality social media content, interactions not just ‘posts’, and unique thoughtful promotions is what drives new business – being passive in these parts is just a waste of time and money. And please, when your agent is asking for assets, that should ALWAYS be first on your todo list – its typically because they are taking the extra time to put your work directly in front of a client (weather it be for an emailer, printed promotion, or imagery request) and that is the single best place for your images to be… except, maybe in that clients next campaign too 😛

  4. I am neither a photographer nor an agent. As a consequence, I cannot judge the correctness of most of your claims (but just have to register them as an interesting perspective).

    However, there are at least two items that strike me as disputable based on first principles:

    o As I understand (please correct me, should I have misunderstood) the paragraph following “Our time is our inventory.”, you wish to be paid based on the photographers revenue (or some similar measure), even when part of that revenue has arosen without your doing. This is a position that I have to consider ethically disputable or even outright wrong. In addition, it would be pragmatically unsound from the point of view of the photographer and society, because it gives him and his potential customers from other channels a negative incentive.

    o The last item could be subject to large individual variations. Notably, if agents are as busy as you say, many of them could be unwilling to take the extra efforts of studying the works of “new” photographers in the manner described—this in particular if they are inundated by new messages from photographers who have just read this post. For myself, I suspect that I would prefer a one-time query with an example portfolio, based on which, and on what amount of resources I currently had available, an equally one-time acceptance or declination would follow. (Where “acceptance”, depending on circumstances, could imply just a short-listing for deeper evaluation. “one-time” obviously allows a re-application at a considerably later date when the market may have changed or the photographer’s skills increased.)

    In addition, as in all fields, some of the photographers are likely to be sufficiently poor that they simply are not competitive and never will be represented by a serious agency. In such cases, it is better for all parties that a quick “no” settles the matter rather than keeping false hopes and your respective work-load up.

  5. This really stuck with me: “You choose to be a photographer because you can’t imagine doing anything else. We choose to be an agent because you can’t imagine doing anything else.” Really makes it about them more than you – awesome way change perception on the relationship.

  6. I have to say this was one of the most truthful, honest open letter I have ever read and I hope it really resonates with those in the industry that reads it.

    The photographer / agent relationship is about teamwork, pure and simple.

  7. Everything in this post is spot on! It can not be said better. So excited to be a part of this awesome team, there is so much wisdom and knowledge in these words, thanks for taking the time to improve our industry! Awesome!

  8. Thank you for writing this – couldn’t have come at a better time for me: about to look for an agent. Loved your views on the agent/photographer relationship, that’s the kind of relationship I hope to have with a future agent. Great advice, I’ll get in touch soon asking for your opinion!

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  13. Very nice read. A lot of truth. My reps retired back in the early ’90’s and it’s been a struggle ever since. Granted, our creative output is important, but without an amazing rep utilizing their skills it’s all too easy for a good shooter to fade into oblivion. Our photography may be an art, but so is the work of a good rep. Big cyber hug to all the great reps out there taking care of their flock.

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