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Why Photographers Need To Collaborate, Not Compete

by Hanna Brooks Olsen
featured, photo & video

photographers collaboration

Earlier this year, more than a dozen groups within the photography industry did something photographers almost never do — they banded together to fight a ruling from the federal appeals court which ruled in favor of artists who use photographers’ work without permission. Typically a solo pursuit, the photographers are finding strength in numbers.

On a smaller scale, it’s a move more photographers might want to consider.

Though it may not seem like it, photography isn’t a zero sum game. Yes, photographers are competing for clients, but, barring a serious paradigm shift, it seems unlikely that that pool is suddenly going to try up completely. There will always be weddings. There will always be moms-to-be who want photos of every step of their pregnancy. There will always be fashion magazines. There will also always be other photographers, with different styles and different skill-sets. And how you deal with that reality may change the way you work.

“A huge problem I fell into…is that I’d look at other photographers’ work and just swoon and say ‘Oh my gosh, it’s so beautiful. I could never do that.'” says photographer Lindsay Adler, who collaborated with Brooke Shaden, on a CreativeLive course, Fine Art vs Fashion. But she cautions that there’s a difference between being inspired by other work and being discouraged or envious.

“It’s one thing to admire, but it’s another thing to let it bring you down.”

Of course, it’s easier to say than to do (social media has made it nearly impossible not to compare ourselves to our peers) but truthfully, competition, rather than collaboration, can be toxic. Because with comparison comes ranking, which is almost always self-inflicted.

“We’re different artists. We have different styles. It does not mean one is better than the other,” Lindsay says.

And remember: Most people only broadcast the best stuff. Those Instagram feeds of exotic locations every day? They don’t capture the hardship of work-life balance, or the struggle to feel creative and artistic in the field. The reality is, everyone feels insecure…they just don’t talk about it. And in collaboration, that vulnerability — which is typically seen as a weakness — can be expressed pragmatically.

“Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable,” said Dr. Brené Brown in her TED talk, “The Power of Vulnerability.”

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”

And indeed, collaboration is a more vulnerable method of work; competition encourages artists to be bullet-proof. But maybe that’s a good thing.

It seems to be an idea that’s taking hold. In the last several years, more and more photographers have tried to break out of the lone wolf mentality. Photography collectives have been springing up across the United States and abroad, and websites like 500px have created virtual communities where photographers can share their work and give and receive feedback. Rather than hiding in a darkroom (or behind a computer screen),artists are showing off their work, and working through their struggles together.

Photography may feel like a dog-eat-dog world, but at the end of it, it’s really not about clients or sales tactics or even growing your business — it’s about taking beautiful photos. And sometimes, to learn more about what it takes to get a beautiful photo, or a different kind of photo, it takes a fellow photographer to show you the way.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen

Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.