Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Should our professional bodies be responsible for our business practices?

What is the role of a professional body representing a group of artists? I have been a member of a couple of professional bodies over the years - photographic and travel writing - and there's always been debate over what exactly the role of the body is.

The majority of Australian organisations seem to think that the body's role is to elevate the level of the work of its members through competitions, workshops and other learning opportunities. The more gold points you get in print competitions the higher your grade within the organisation. The theory being that a rising tide floats all boats and that, as a result of everybody's work getting better it is seen by the general public that it's worth hiring a member of said body of professionals. In other words, by being a member you have a marketing advantage because you're seen by people outside the organisation as producing a top-notch product.

But is this where the resources could best be applied? My problem is that they often emphasise the artistic/creative side of things whilst pretty much ignoring the 'professional' side of the equation. In the photographic industry in particular, I don't think we got into the mess we're all in today because of the flood of crap imagery. I mean, let's face it, the stuff you find on photo sharing sites like Flickr, 500px et al is often brilliant. I mean truly exceptional.

Even in my local arena, a small country town of less than 2000,000 people, taking a look at the websites of photographers working around me it's often beautiful, refined work that any working pro would be proud to show. So I think that the professional bodies' emphasis on raising the quality of the art is a bit misguided. The marketplace will do that for us. Produce shitty work and the entire world will know about it seconds after you post it online. Try getting any more clients after you totally overexpose every shot from a wedding, or shoot a commercial client's brochure in low quality Jpegs. If your work isn't good enough technically or artistically then you're not going to be in the game for too long at all. And I hate to be condescending but, you don't scare me!

So who am I scared of, and where do I think the professional bodies need to be focussing their attention? I'm scared of the capable photographers who don't know their cost of doing business, what kind of a profit margin they should be aiming for, or what the going market rate is. The ones who are happy to take a job at any cost, damn the consequences for them or those around them. That's who I'm scared of and that's who I think needs help from our professional bodies.

Granted they run lectures and symposiums, online discussion groups and other stuff. But is it working? Do people care? Do they pay attention? Here's a radical concept. Instead of not allowing people of a sub-standard technical ability to join (which many do through pre-membership portfolio reviews etc), let's change things up and say 'You can't join our professional photographic body unless you prove that not only do you know how to run a profitable photography business, but you put that knowledge into practice.'

Let's make it so that our professional photographic bodies stand for 'professionalism' not just in terms of our abilities behind the camera (which I would again argue the market will judge for us), but by our abilities in all aspects of our 'business'. Hold the members accountable. Undercutting a job just so that somebody else doesn't get it? You're outta there! Deliberately lowballing so that you get as much work as possible without thinking about its effect on the market around you? You're outta there!

Unintentionally charging less than you need to run a sustainable business? Well that's where the professional body can help you through education. Discussion groups, mentoring, online articles etc. And when you can prove that not only have you read this stuff, but you've taken it to heart and are using it day in and day out...well then we'll let you in. And your clients will know that when they're dealing with a member of a professional body that they're not only going to get a great product, but they're going to be dealing with a complete and total professional.