Igor Emmerich shoots documentary images for clients such as the RNIB, who commissioned this photograph.
24 Jan 2011
Ask an Agent: Where can you get commissions?
How do you get commissions if you're a documentary photography shooting gritty social issues? Lisa Pritchard, the London-based agent who looks after Laura Pannack, Julian Calverley and Jenny Nordquist answers your questions...
Q: I am a portrait photographer photographing social issues, based in the northwest. People are always telling me I should be looking for commissions. But where? Where do I get commissions from?
A: As with any business it's about finding a market for your product, so you need to do some research. Look at the different markets that buy photography and identify those for whom your work is relevant and appealing, in other words those who have a need and a history of using photography of social issues.
It's important to understand who the buyers are and how they use photography if you don’t already. There are three main markets for photography:
1. The editorial market. Commissions come from magazine, newspaper and book publishers.
2. The commercial market. Commissions come from communications agencies (advertising, design, branding, marketing etc) and corporations and businesses directly.
3. The consumer market. Commissions come from the general public eg wedding, social photography and fine art.
The good news is that your photography will appeal to all three of these markets. Social documentary photography is widely used in the editorial market, you just need to go into a newsagent to see the plethora of magazines and newspapers commissioning photography similar to yours. The Freelance Photographers Market Handbook published by the Bureau of Freelance Photographers is another good starting point and lists all the magazines, newspaper and book publishers plus their publications.
There are obvious client sectors within the commercial market your work will appeal to, such as the government, charities, education, banking, healthcare and corporate. The image featured about is from a shoot by Igor Emmerich, which was commssioned by the RNIB - a charity that supports blind and partially sighted people. The brief was to travel around the UK and shoot candid portraits of RNIB staff and the people they care for. Igor doesn't only shoot social issues, he is often commissioned to shoot lifestyle imagery and general portraits for the commercial market and with this in mind has kindly offered some further honest advice.
He says: "My experience in shooting social issues for a living is that there is little money in it. Most of the potential clients are charities, volunteer groups, council run bodies, most of which operate with very tight budgets, even smaller now with the government cuts. The plus side is that the work is generally very rewarding and you meet some really inspiring people, not to mention the fact that you are often helping worthwhile causes. So I think this is something that you do because you are interested in it or want to help, or feel strongly about an issue, and which you back up by earning a living in other areas of photography. However if you are happy to offer your services for very little money, then I think you should be able to find work and very grateful clients. Never for free though - people never appreciate anything given for free."
As Igor's comments suggest, a natural, ‘real’ style is still very much in demand in the commercial market, as long as it isn’t too gritty and depressing. Bear in mind you'll be considered for more jobs if you present some positive, uplifting portraits as well as the grittier stuff. Consumers want to look at attractive but believable models they can identify with when being persuaded to buy a product or service.
Have a look around at advertising campaigns and other marketing materials to see how photography similar to yours is being used commercially. Buy listings of the agencies and corporations such as bikinilists.com and filefx.co.uk, and research the sort of photography being commissioned by looking at the websites. Several of the photographers I represent shoot social documentary photography, so you can also have a look at my blog for some more examples of commissions for this niche.
With regards to the consumer market, I know several social documentary photographers who also have had success as fine art and even wedding and social photographers, albeit with a slightly glossier version of their work for weddings. This is also an area worth looking at.
One final area to investigate is other photographers' websites. Look for those who shoot a similar subject matter to see where they have had success in gaining commissions. I’m not suggesting you try and poach your fellow photographers' clients, but you can use this as a way of affirming where your photography is commercially viable.
Big cities such as London commission the most photography, but these markets are often the most saturated. As you are based in the North West I suggest targeting local agencies , publishers and businesses first. There are several big design and advertising agencies in Manchester and Leeds for example, not to mention a bit further north in Scotland.
Now you’ve identified where to find some potential clients, all you need to do is let these people know you exist and convince them to give you some work. Easy!
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