‘The Image Hostage’ and Other Freelance Photography Horror Stories

By Elaina Ransford June 3rd, 2014

Most freelancers have a few horrible moments during their careers when they can empathize with Janet Leigh in Psycho. Whether they’re tormented by getting paid seven months late, enduring the unnecessary wrath of a client, putting up with ridicule over pricing, or losing friendships, freelancers know their jobs comes with cruel insecurity.

When I talked to freelance photographers, a thread of common horror stories emerged—as did tactics that fellow freelancers can use to avoid such dreadful situations in their own lives.

1. The bad friend

Working for a friend usually comes with risks, especially if that friend wants to bypass standard business practices because of a personal connection. Evan Dalen, a freelance photographer based in Portland, experienced this dynamic firsthand when he offered to shoot a promo video for his friend’s band.

“I was basically doing him a favor,” Dalen said. “The payment was split between the band, and I’d charged next to nothing in the first place.” Two of the three bandmates paid Dalen, but the third, the friend who had contracted him, skipped town. “I didn’t hear from him for six months. No reply, no matter what I did. He got his product, paid me two of his bandmates’ money, and I’m assuming kept the rest.”

This incident occurred when Dalen was first starting out as a freelancer, straight out of college. Although he still works for friends, since he was shortchanged, Dalen developed a policy to treat people he knows the same as any client he didn’t know beforehand. He also requires payment upfront for small shoots. And for weddings, he requires a deposit with a signed contract and full payment a week before the wedding date.

2. The image hostage

William Thomas Cain, an award-winning photojournalist and editorial photographer in Philadelphia, has threatened to take magazines to court for non-payment—and with good reason.

He was once hired to shoot a three-day event in New York City, but when he arrived at the event, the client said he would have to send an invoice to the marketing department instead of being paid upfront. Cain shot the event, sent the invoice, but didn’t receive payment. His solution? Keeping the work. “The images are mine,” he said.

He was accused of “holding the images hostage,” but after he spoke with the creative director of the agency, they worked out a deal. “The next day I received a check for half, and then exactly ten days later, the balance showed up in the mail,” Cain said.

Now, Cain requires his clients to sign a contract and give him a 30 percent deposit before he does any work. “I find that I have more leverage before I hand over the imagery,” he said. “Once the client has the images, I’ve lost my edge.” He asks for the full balance on the day of the shoot, and he does not release or edit the images until he has received full payment.

“My attitude these days is that I tell a company how and when I want to be paid, not the other way around,” he said. While every freelancer would probably love to do this, they likely need to build a certain degree of credibility before setting terms with an iron fist.

3. Matrimony misery

Weddings and startups might seem like they have nothing in common, but Tom Clarke, a commercial and portraiture photographer based in Philadelphia, would say otherwise. He has had to implement strict measures when taking on those particular clients—mainly because of sticker shock.

While many businesses are open to valuing the difference between professional and amateur photographers, Clarke said brides and startup employees “tend to be the worst offenders.” However, Clarke has learned to recognize signs that may suggest a client won’t be compliant. “When a non-photographer tells me how long my job should take, it’s a big red flag,” he said.

But when it comes to brides, he can’t always predict how his veiled clients will welcome his work. “Weddings are an area where all sorts of craziness happens,” he said. “I’ve had a bride demand all the money back after getting her photos because she hated the images…even though they were exactly what she asked for and she was posting them all over Facebook. I was crushed.”

And during the wedding parties, he has plenty of experience with drunk guests heckling, nudging, and pushing him. “I’ve had one idiot think it was funny to try and repeatedly spray me and my other shooter with shaken champagne,” he said. “The offender gets several full blasts from my flash and strobes strategically timed to pop right in [his] face.”

When dealing with clients who don’t pay or demand he finish jobs within an unreasonable timeframe, he responds much in the same way as Dalen and Cain: with contracts, deposits, and perhaps most importantly, upfront payments.

Every freelancer has to learn how to deal with unpleasant clients. Whether they do it by blinding their provocateurs or threatening a magazine to go to court, every freelancer comes up with a protocol for avoiding bad situations and handling them when they occur. As Dalen said, it’s usually the unpleasant client who ends up hurting the most.

Image via Hypesphere

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