Getting signed: advice from photographers’ agents

By Rachael Steven

Creative Review: As an agent, what are you looking for in a photographer’s portfolio – what does their work have to have to make you think, ‘I’d like to represent this person?’
Rose Clayton: For me I think it really has to really take my breath away. If it makes me feel something it will definitely resonate with me. If I see an image that impacts me, I’ll have to stop what I’m doing and find out who shot it.

James Gerrard-Jones: We represent a diverse bunch of people. Their work differs hugely but there are a couple of things they all have in common. First, they are photographers whose work is an expression of themselves. People who have work you could pick out of 1,000 prints just because it’s so obviously theirs and no-one else’s.

Cian Oba-Smith’s work for Nike. Oba-Smith was recently signed to Wyatt Clarke & Jones. He was also shortlisted for the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize. See more of his work at cianobasmith.co.uk or on Instagram (@cianobasmith)

That’s the work part. Then there’s the person. We’re making commercial communication and that process is collaborative by nature. There’s simply too much involved for any photographer to handle it all themselves so they need to work well with a big team. We’re looking for people who thrive with this type of process, can cope with pressure, deadlines, compromises and when it’s all done … still want to come back for more. As well paid as it [can be], the process is not for everyone.

A lot of the best work we’ve made over the years has been where the photographer has been given creative freedom and taken a bit of a leap with the brief. You need the instinct to know when (and how) to do that and to know when to compromise as well. A balance of taking ownership, pushing an idea forward and then knowing when to let go and admit the client’s priorities overrule yours. So that’s who we’re looking for. It can’t be faked. It’s about having the right personality for this part of the industry and sharing the work you really love to make.

It’s very important to respect people’s time, so don’t just call us out of the blue and start telling us how get you are

CR: What advice could you give to photographers who are hoping to get signed? How should they present their work and how should they go about contacting agents?
RC: The way you edit and present your work is key. You need to work on making an immediate impact – agents see a lot of work and yours needs to stand out.

Be yourself, be honest about who you are, keep it short and to the point. If you are showcasing work, think about how the images group together. Do they tell a story? Does the viewer want to see what the next image is?

In regards to contacting us … it’s tricky because it can be down to timing. If I get an email and I’m not swamped and like the tone, I will click through and have a look at the work.

From a series of images recording the lives of a family in Argentina, taken by Sophie Ebrard for Save the Children. The project won Best in Book in our 2014 Photography Annual. Ebrard is represented by Wyatt Clarke & Jones and you can see more of her work at sophieebrard.com

I would usually say it’s great to pick up the phone, but honestly, in this case it’s not!… Just calling and having a conversation at what probably is always going to be an inconvenient time – that may sound harsh but it’s true, we’re usually very busy (if we aren’t knee deep in a contract or budgeting/ trying to win a job, we’re usually in a deep therapy-like conversation with one of our photographers) – is really not going to get you further. If anything, it has the reverse affect.

I think it’s very important to respect people’s time, so don’t just call us out of the blue and start telling us how great you are. Send a short polite email asking for feedback, saying who you have been collaborating with and attach a PDF with max 15 – 20 images and wait for a response. Early mornings and evenings are a good time to receive things for me personally.

Get a book together – make a single presentation rather than four books, a pamphlet, some work on a laptop and something on your blog

JGJ: Don’t second guess what you think commercial agents or advertising / design agencies are going to be interested in seeing. Show us everything – especially that really weird stuff you like doing that there’s no way anyone will ever find a commercial application for. More than likely that’s the work that you’ll be remembered for.

Enter awards, get to every portfolio review and workshop you can, work with the photographers and directors you admire. In the process you’ll find out where they’re getting their work from and, with luck, get introduced to the people who’ve been making it all possible for them.

Get a book together. Make it a single presentation rather than four books, a pamphlet, some work on a laptop and something on your blog / Instagram. The true picture will be that your work is in all of those places, especially work in-progress, but keeping it to the one presentation, both a real book and an overview book online, will make it easy for people to work you out and most importantly, easier for them to remember you.

When you are starting out you’ll feel like you are shouting into the void a lot of the time and getting nowhere. Don’t be disheartened

When you are starting out you’ll feel like you are shouting into the void a lot of the time and getting nowhere. Don’t be disheartened. Concentrate on the work and the rest should follow naturally. [And] one more thing: don’t be the victim of the ‘one brilliant project’ syndrome.

Whilst having the brilliant story or idea to showcase your work is a great thing, no matter how good it is or was, letting yourself be defined by one project is dangerous. It narrows down people’s view [of] who you are and it makes it really hard to work you out as a photographer as well…. It’s only when you start getting two, three, four projects together that you start to build a picture of the person behind all the work and what they are bringing to it all. With that in mind I’d strongly recommend keeping a few projects on the go at any one time – even if there is one stand out project that’s getting all the attention, you can’t afford to let that represent you, no matter how many awards it’s winning.

Subterranean Kitchen, from Juno Calypso’s exhibition ‘What To Do With a Million Years’. The exhibition is on display at TJ Boulting in London until June 23. Calypso is represented by We Folk and TJ Boulting
Immortal Bodies (above and lead image, top) from Juno Calypso’s exhibition ‘What To Do With a Million Years’. See more of Calypso’s work at junocalypso.com

CR: Can you give any examples of photographers recently whose work has really stood out to you and why it stands out?
RC: I have to say for me the ladies are killing it at the moment!! Today I saw two pieces of work that stuck [with] me. One was Juno Calypso’s What to do with a million years (above, and also featured in our pick of Photo London’s Satellite events).

Also Bibi Borthwick, another young and upcoming photographer we represent, just sent me her edit for an editorial she had shot. Watching her develop over the last couple of seasons has been amazing … Bibi can make the hardest line soft and feminine [and] she really makes clothes come alive with her photography.

JGJ: Cian Oba-Smith is the person we signed most recently. Although Cian’s still only mid-twenties we’ve actually know him and his work for a good while – we met at a workshop at the Magnum Print room when Cian was still at university and was already getting his work noticed as part of their graduate award scheme. Seeing a young Londoner shoot London afresh was really exciting: the work is natural but really optimistic, there’s something in the colour you can’t quite put your finger on. And then there was Cian’s first big commission for Nike. That’s the real crunch moment. Not all the best photographers are also great on commission … but the finished Nike work was just brilliant.

Another image from Sophie Ebrard’s series Finca La Prospera for Save the Children. You can read our 2014 interview with Ebrard here

It’s important for an agent to be honest and set realistic goals and be able to have frank conversations

CR: What should a photographer expect from their agent in terms of help and support?
RC: Strong negotiating skills are crucial. Your agent has your back. You need to trust your agent as they will fight on your behalf. It’s hard to trust someone you do not like or click with and as you will talk to each other most days, often as much as 5 -10 times a day, so it really really helps if you like each other!

It’s important for an agent to be honest and set realistic goals and be able to have frank conversations, all of which can be hard. A photographer’s work is personal, their work is a part of them. When it doesn’t work, or is not on brief, it can be hard to hear. [But] being able to receive constructive criticism is crucial. We know our clients and the market. Whilst your art may be what you like, does it make commercial sense? Part of my job is making the feedback constructive. Clients can be harsh, but knowing my artist helps me to use negative feedback in a constructive way.

The ideal is that you work with an agent that supports who you are as you evolve

JGJ: The key to it all is trust…. If you trust your agent and they trust and support you back then everyone can keep moving forwards with what they need to be doing. The photographer gets to concentrate on work. The agent gets to concentrate on getting the work. Allowing your agent free rein to get you work should also mean allowing them to have the portfolio they need to do that job so you’ll need to resign some control when it comes to the edit of that (or at least trust the feedback you’re getting and take it on board).

Trust on our side means giving photographers space to produce work that means something to them – freedom to go down some creative dead-ends and explore things that don’t necessarily make much sense…. The really great work doesn’t come from watching what other people are doing and copying it – you need to be free to explore. The ideal is that you work with an agent that supports who you are as you evolve.

Photographs by Bibi Cornejo Borthwick. Borthwick is represented by We Folk. You can see more of her work at bibicornejoborthwick.com

CR: Where do you tend to find talent – is it through events? Instagram? People contacting to you? And how has this changed over the past few years, if at all?
RC: All of the above. A lot of the time it’s recommendations too. If I see work I like in a magazine or someone suggests a photographer I’ll look them up on Instagram straight away. That’s why it’s important that you are networking and putting yourself out there. Every rejection means you have been seen! Keep creating, keep sharing, keep going, try something new, and review your work often to see where you can improve.

JGJ: We’re all involved [at Wyatt Clarke & Jones] with judging awards, speaking to students, workshops with the AOP, Magnum, BJP, D&AD etc. When it comes to emerging talent, [people] tend to come to our attention via these sorts of events or the network of art buyers, picture editors, producers and photographers we know.

At any one time we’ll be actively helping as many of the best new people we can with folio edits, production contacts, helping with quotes and generally being supportive. It’s a really hard industry to crack and we want the best people to find their way through.

Because our time is limited we have to keep this to a small group of people … some of them [might be] the artists we want to be representing next year or the year after.

Image from Cian Oba-Smith’s Concrete Cowboys series, shot in the US

CR: What are the biggest challenges facing photographer’s agents right now?
RC: Clients have budget limitations and the economy being what it is means we are constantly battling for our artists. The role of an agent is to understand both sides, the client and the photographer’s. Dialogue must go through an agent as we are the interface, aware of the intricacies of the artist and the needs of the client. We connect all the dots and smooth the road to production but not everyone understands that or appreciates how effective we are at our jobs. Maybe it’s because we make it look effortless – we keep a calm exterior but a lot of the time we’re screaming inside! It’s a really hard and stressful job but ultimately very rewarding.

Anything that takes you out of a comfort zone is going to lead to development

JGJ: Not having enough time and money to make work in the way you’d hope is the ongoing one. The sheer volume of work needed at the moment is way beyond what it used to be – for that reason, budgets are spread more thinly. The real challenge is how you navigate that and still make really unique work. Where once you’d have a full day and a pre-light day to work on one advert, now more typically [a client] needs three ads, each in several formats, plus two short films for social. On top of this, there might be someone filming behind-the-scenes footage, all while the photographer tries to get the work done on time and make something everyone can be proud of. A lot of what we’re doing day-to-day is fighting for the space to do things properly so that quality doesn’t suffer and creatives have the time and space they need.

From A Girl’s Guide to Egg Freezing – another project by Juno Calypso, which won Best in Book in our 2017 Photography Annual.

I think it’s more the artists themselves rather than the agents that have had to do the adapting and actually … we’ve seen the influence play out in really brilliant ways. One example [is] the photographers who are also now directors. That’s industry pressure leading to an unexpected creative outcome.

Directing isn’t the only positive spin-off of this new world … but that’s part of collaborating and putting yourself out there for commercial work. You never know what shape it’s going to take or where it might take you as an artist. Anything that takes you out of a comfort zone is going to lead to development, so generally, pressure and change need to be welcomed as drivers of adaptation and creativity.

The best work is going to come by trying not to worry too much about how it might be used, processed or fit in with what seems to be current

CR: Have you seen any trends emerging in photography of late – anything that clients have been asking you for?
RS: Clients are asking for a lot more deliverables. It used to be a series of max seven shots. Now, its eight campaign shots, then shots for Instagram and social media, oh and ‘can we have a film with that too?’! A lot more is expected of the photographer in the same amount of time, but with the same quality of work, and all within the same budget.

JGJ: We do notice trends but they tend to be ‘micro-trends’ – for that reason we don’t pay much attention to them…. If you shoot to order, what happens is by the time you have [put] the work out, so have 500 other people. [And] never mind that – the micro trend has moved on and your work is already last week’s news. It’s the easiest thing to say and the hardest to put into practice, but the best work is going to come by trying not to worry too much about how it might be used, processed or fit in with what seems to be current.

We Folk also represents Carlota Guerrero, the photographer behind the beautiful images for Solange’s album, A Seat at the Table. Read our Exposure piece on Guerrero’s work here or see more of her work at carlotaguerrero.com

Rose Clayton is an agent at We Folk (wefolk.com). James Gerrard-Jones is a Photo Agent and Partner at Wyatt Clarke & Jones (wyattclarkejones.com).

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