The Do's & Don'ts of Collaborations
Oh, what would we do without Collaborations?
Unless you're just really talented at everything, collaborations are a crucial part of the art world. As a photographer who isn't really comfortable in front of a camera, I would not be able to bring my ideas to life without the help of other people. If we're being completely honest here, the majority of my shoots are collaborations. While it would be great to always get paid for every shoot, sometimes I just need to shoot for the sole purpose of creating art. That being said, I have gotten very selective when it comes to the people I collaborate with and the ideas I choose to bring to life. When you're just starting out, collaborations are so necessary for building your portfolio. Even as a more experienced photographer, collaborations allow you to create the work you want to eventually get paid for. However, collaborations can quickly feel like free work so how do we know where the line is?
The number one way I decide whether I want to take on a collaboration is whether or not it will benefit me creatively. Now, you may be thinking, "isn't it a little selfish to only do things that benefit you?" The answer is no. If you do not see the benefit in a shoot, the only person you're hurting is yourself. You will have million and one people take advantage of your talent and you'll be the one left drained. I can't lie, I've done many shoots out of obligation. It's so easy to feel (especially when you're starting out) like you aren't in a position to turn down people because you need all the experience you can get or you should just be happy anyone wants to shoot with you. This is so false and took me so long to grasp. There will be other shoots. There will be other artists wanting to collaborate with you. Your art and your creativity come first. On the flip side, when reaching out to other artists, be mindful of the ways the shoot can benefit them too. If it's only benefiting one party, it's not a collaboration, it's free work.
Now that you've set boundaries with yourself about when you should do collaborations, here are a couple things to keep in mind when reaching out to new artists to collaborate with.
Number One: Your first message is your first impression so make it good. Too often I'll have people DM me on Instagram and the message only says "Let's shoot!" No introduction. No explanation about what kind of shoot. Nothing of value. It may sound harsh but I've gotten to the point where I either ignore messages like that or immediately send my rates. I don't have the time or energy to deal with it. If we've never spoken before or we don't follow each other, I have no idea what you do, what you're looking for, or even what you look like. Provide the person you're reaching out to with a professional message and it sets the tone from the beginning that you respect their time and skills. Tell them your name, what you do, what you bring to the table in a collaboration, etc. You don't need a completely solid shoot idea right away but at least give them a little idea of what kind of shoot you're trying to create.
Number Two: No one owes you a collaboration. If someone sends you their rates or turns down your collaboration request, just move on to the next. Rejection sucks. I can't even tell you how many times I've reached out to a model and never heard back. It happens and it can hurt but it's not personal and it doesn't mean your art isn't good enough. I promise you there will be people who say yes but that's only going to happen if you keep reaching out to people. I've declined collaborations for many reasons. The main reason is usually I can't afford to do too many collaborations. Even if it's just you and one other person, there is still the cost of getting to the location. Then add any props or materials needed for the shoot and it can get expensive to shoot without getting reimbursed for any of it. Don't forget that time is money too. We all have busy lives that just seem to be getting busier so not everyone has the free time to collaborate.
Number Three: COMMUNICATE!!! I know not everyone is glued to Instagram 24/7 but if you're collaborating with someone, communicate with them in a timely manner. Communicate your ideas, your availability, your goals for the shoot, your inspiration, etc. As someone who majored in Communication in college, I should be better at it but it's tricky. I tend to over explain things but it's really easy to have messages interpreted the wrong way. Making sure everyone is on the same page before a shoot helps everyone be more comfortable and it makes the whole experience more enjoyable. I've gotten a lot more spontaneous as I've grown as a photographer but nothing stressed me out more in the beginning than people who would go quiet for days then the night before we planned on shooting, they would finally get back to me & I would have to scramble to find a location, pick a time, etc. It's taken years but now I let things roll off my back & I know I don't need days of mental preparation for shoots like I used to. That being said, it doesn't mean I don't appreciate and prefer those who communicate with me well from the beginning. The next one ties into to communicating but...
Number Four: Don't ghost people. If you change your mind about collaborating with someone, don't really like the direction the collaboration is going in, or just don't feel like doing it anymore, let them know. It goes right back to communicating. Ghosting used to really both me. I took it to heart and let it mess with my self-esteem. To be honest, if someone ghosts you, it reflects on poorly on their professionalism, it's not on you to hold their hand and check back in with them a million times. If someone really wants to shoot with you, they won't disrespect you and your time that way.
Number Five: Be willing to compromise! If you want a shoot to be 100% your idea and don't want the input of those you're collaborating with, hire them. It's work for them at that point. A collaboration should be a combination of everyone's ideas and input. Don't be afraid to suggest things you think would work better or ideas you've come up with. If someone gets offended or immediately shuts down your ideas, take a moment to re-consider the collaboration. There have been so many shoots where I'll have a specific vision in mind but then someone I'm working with will suggest a location they've been wanting to shoot at or a model they've been wanting to work with, and it usually ends up so much better than I could've imagined on my own. Now, if you're absolutely set on doing things your way, make it worth it for the other artists involved. For example, I've had makeup artists ask me to shoot a specific look for them, and in return, they offer their services for a future shoot I want to do. Collaborations are like any other relationship, it's all about give & take.
At the end of the day, the artists you want to collaborate are still people just like you. Everyone has their own goals, their own life outside of art, and their own issues. As long as you're professional and respectful, the people you reach out to should be too, regardless of the outcome. Building a team of people you collaborate with regularly is the best feeling but it takes work to get to that point. I have a good handful of people I could message right now, ask to shoot tomorrow and I know they would try their best to make it happen but it didn't happen overnight. It's taken shoot after shoot to build the confidence and trust required for that. Like I said before, collaborations are just like any other relationship. It takes time to build them. One good collaboration can lead to another then another but that time it's with a friend of the person you collaborated with and it just snowballs from there. The first year and a half of shooting portraits, I seriously collaborated with just two models because I was terrified of reaching out to new people and never put myself out there. Then, slowly, I had more people reach out to me, I built my confidence and it grew from there. No one starts out collaborating with a million people. Your network grows as you do so give it time but also don't let fear hold you back. I still get hesitant about reaching out to some models I really want to shoot with because I wonder if they even do collab work, will they like my work enough to want to shoot with me, etc, but the only way to find out is by asking. The worst thing they can say is no.
Photos featured below are a collaboration with Audits +/- Edits and Drew Mills.