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How To Photograph Friends Without Killing Your Friendships
The road to professional photography seems littered with broken friendships.
It’s starting to concern me. Alongside our profession, it seems, is the rubble of friendships shattered on the rocks of photoshoots gone bad. We need to put an end to it.
When we start a business, it’s no surprise when we turn to friends first. We have easy access to them, an established relationship, and presumably a level of mutual respect. But often, the transaction is soured and bitterness and resentment creep in, changing the friendship permanently. It can happen for any number of reasons, and I regularly get a colorful parade of emails on the subject:
Friends want free photos. Friends violate copyrights. Friends take freebies and run (then go spend their money hiring another photographer). Friends stop calling when you stop portfolio-building. Friends market for other photographers. Friends break contracts and refuse to respond to Facebook messages.
But let’s be honest – the ugliness can’t always be pinned on friends. Sometimes the photographer is at fault. They didn’t let the friend know what was going to happen or what the friend would receive. They interpreted friends hiring other photographers as a rejection of friendship. They went after a non-paying friend publicly on Facebook. Or they hid behind emails and texts instead of talking in person to resolve any issues. They avoided contracts and disregarded their own policies in the name of “being nice.” In short, they mixed friendship with business unprepared, and were surprised when it blew up into a hot smoking mess.
This doesn’t have to happen. If we can accept and act upon a few simple ground rules, friendships will be spared – if not strengthened – along our professional journeys. Some of these may be tough to hear, particularly when you have been burned, and particularly when it has happened recently. But it’s easy to forget the basics of friendship and trust when we have been hurt. So let’s walk through a few, together.
Ground Rule #1: Friends owe you nothing.
When I hear things along the lines of “I helped my friend’s brother last year when he started his lawn mowing business but now she won’t hire me as a photographer,” all sorts of buzzy red bells and flashing whingdings go off in my head. Your friends owe you nothing. Your friends are friends because they like you and you like them, and you wish each other the best. You do what you can to support each other, but that understanding should come with no expectations about someone hiring or not hiring you.
If you hired your friend’s brother with the baked-in expectation that they would turn around and hire you in the future, then please pause and consider whether you hired that brother for the right reasons in the first place. If you did it out of a genuine desire to help, then there should be no strings attached. If you did it out of guilt or pressure from the friend, then perhaps there is something amiss in the health of the friendship that needs addressing.
Friends don’t guilt friends into doing things.
Ground Rule #2: Emotional support and financial support are two different things.
A good friend should be there for you when you need to talk. They should offer support and honest advice. They should help you see your potential when you are discouraged. They should know when to offer constructive criticism and when to avoid magnifying your flaws and instead redirect your attention to your strengths.
But at no point does the definition of friendship include a clause about them pulling out their checkbook to boost your business. If they want to, fine, but if they choose not to, that does not mean that they don’t support you. It does not mean they don’t love you and wish you success. None of us would want our friendships to be based upon the expectation of payments.
If we are to be successful, we have to have clients outside of the “low hanging fruit” in the circle of our friends anyway. Define your target client, then go out and reach them. If friends hire you along the way, consider it a fun bonus. But if not, enjoy their emotional support and be secure in knowing that they are still there for you.
Ground Rule #3: Do not be insulted when a friend decides to hire, follow, “Like,” promote, or otherwise support another photographer.
When someone became your friend, they did not sign an exclusivity agreement. You do not own their loyalty, nor do you have any say in what they do or do not like. They are not automatic marketing outlets for you, any more than you would want to be an automatic marketing outlet for a friend who decided to sell purple homemade Snuggies on Etsy. Sure, we like to help our friends, but the more they expect our help, the less willing we are to give it.
I have friends who sell Mary Kay makeup, and none of them have gotten upset that I shop at Sephora. I have many friends who are dentists, and none of them get mad that I have to choose just one. Personal decisions have to be made, and that doesn’t reflect upon my love for my friends, my respect for their work, or my views about how good they are at what they do.
And photography is as personal as it gets – these are memories and emotions we’re dealing with. Hiring a photographer is an intricate dance between personal finances and aesthetic taste – neither of which should be judged or commented upon. You may be out of your friends’ budget, or they may just want a different look on their living room wall. It doesn’t mean they don’t like your work – there are many outstanding photographers in the world who I’m sure you’d never hire for reasons of personal taste or budget. And that’s okay.
Of course we want our friends to like our work and it can hurt when we see their financial support going elsewhere. But keep in mind that when someone places their dollars in someone else’s pocket, it doesn’t mean they aren’t still there for you (see Ground Rule #2).
Ground Rule #4: DON’T DO ANYTHING WITHOUT A CONTRACT.
Not using a contract is NOT actually “being nice.” It’s putting your relationship at the peril of miscommunication and misunderstandings, which are multiplied exponentially when money is involved. Don’t play
Russian “contract roulette” with your friendship – the odds are not in your favor.
Contracts aren’t indicators of distrust, and they don’t mean that you are being too formal with a friend. Using a contract shows that you care about the relationship and want to make sure they understand exactly what is going to happen.
Ground Rule #5: Decide up front how you will handle discounts and gifts.
It is not uncommon for friends to get free stuff from friends – that’s just how the world works. So if a friend noses around for a freebie, it does not automatically mean they’re a mooching freeloader. It happens, and you need to have a game plan for when it does. So before any specific friend is involved, decide now how you are going to handle requests for freebies/discounts. You might not do discounts or freebies at all, charging everyone full price. Fine. Or you might only give free sessions as gifts for important events (e.g. a birth of a child). Or you might have a special rate for close family members only.
Whatever you decide, set a policy right now, and decide exactly who it applies to. Just family? Closest friends? What about vague acquaintances who email you because they just LOVE your work? Close friends of close friends? Third cousins? Make sure you’re explicit about the details and scope of your policy. That way, when someone bats their eyelashes and comes sniffing for a good deal, you can respond confidently without missing a beat. Policies that you invent on the spot are hard to enforce – you just haven’t had a chance to think it through. If you waffle around, it will only encourage the more forceful discount-seekers to press you and guilt you into doing something for them. Make a decision that you feel good about, be confident in presenting it to them, and you’ll have nothing to resent later.
Another reason that it is good to decide a uniform policy up front is that it prevents you from making different exceptions for different friends. That’s another minefield you don’t need to step into – no one wants to feel less valued than someone else because they got a better deal. One policy, created in a non-emotional state, is the way to go.
Ground Rule #6: Give people the benefit of the doubt – not everyone understands the inside baseball of photography.
There are countries where it is considered rude to burp at the table, and countries where it is considered a compliment to the chef. Certain hand gestures are innocuous on one continent, and insulting on another. Cultural and social norms are easy to trespass without even being aware of it.
As photographers, there are intricacies of legalities and courtesies that we follow (e.g. acknowledging who took an image in a caption, providing a link to further work, posting only watermarked images, never re-editing someone else’s image, etc). Not everyone is aware of these legal and cultural rules, especially non-photographers. Your friends do not know which actions or requests might be insulting or illegal. They just don’t know. So don’t expect them to. Get the legalities straight in a contract and make sure they understand the contract. If the thing they did that’s bugging you is merely a courtesy issue – let it go. No need to steam about something when they probably didn’t know any better. If it’s not illegal and you didn’t put it in the contract, let it go.
Sometimes friends do violate contracts.
In these situations, it’s critical to have a two hundred dollar attitude in addressing them. (Don’t know what I’m talking about? Read this.) When violations occur, stop and check yourself first – what might you have done to contribute to the situation? Did you send them the contract at 2am the morning of the session so that they couldn’t possibly have read it? Is there any ambiguous language in the contract? (Always good to have a lawyer and a non-photographer check.) Did you take time to introduce the contract and its importance? Did you say anything to them that might have diminished their expectations of the agreement (such as “oh yeah, I just have everyone sign this, don’t worry about it”)? If they’re a repeat client, did you add any clauses that weren’t there before? I’m not saying you’re always at fault, but there are two sides to every issue, and it takes two to communicate. Don’t just focus on their wrongdoing – first identify any trouble spots you may have created.
Then handle it cheerfully and professionally. Do it in person or over the phone, and do it early before misunderstandings are made worse by the unreliability of email/text communication. Give them a quick and easy way to resolve the situation, help them understand why the policy is a policy in the first place, and listen. The more you seek to understand rather than just fix the issue, the more successful you’ll be at getting the resolution you want. And refrain from allowing any past grudges to color your view of the situation (I don’t care if she spilled nacho cheese on your new white couch last year – that has nothing to do with what’s happening right now.) Focus your attention only on the issue at hand, and check outside issues at the door.
Don’t forget: Friends are, well, FRIENDS.
And we became friends with them for a reason! They tell us we’re wonderful (even when we’re still producing blurry, mistake-ridden ‘masterpieces’), comment on our earliest blog posts, and protect our fragile egos as we take our first steps into making a living as a photographer. They tolerate us when we can’t talk about anything besides bokeh and business, and put up with our constant chatter about our newest projects. Bless their hearts. We couldn’t do it without them. Let’s make sure we take care of them along the way, shall we?