Ars Gratia Artis

Something that’s been bothering me lately is the tendency of others to always make art about money.

Before I go any further, I want to clearly state that I’m absolutely in favor of artists of all mediums being compensated fairly for their work, and that the above statement is relevant to a specific phenomenon I’ve encountered several times recently:

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One of my photos being shared by NatGeo’s Your Shot Instagram account. Pretty cool, right?

I’ve shared some things that I felt were cool achievements with my photography (most recently having one of my photos shared by National Geographic’s Your Shot Instagram account as part of their recognition of National Ag Day — see the above image) and inevitably I’ve gotten either comments or messages from people wanting to know if I got paid for that particular piece of work.

And you know what?

That really kinda sucks.

In fact, it cheapens the entire moment. Because, instead of celebrating the accomplishment and recognizing that hard work and persistence is paying off, it makes the entire moment about one thing: money.

Even as an advocate for artists to receive fair compensation for their work, I understand (especially as someone who does freelance work) that there are times when the rewards for doing unpaid work are absolutely worth it. In other words, it is okay to -sometimes- work for “exposure.”

In general, I hate the notion of working for exposure, because in most cases it does devalue not only the artist’s work (time, education/training/apprenticeship, materials, etc) but it also devalues the art itself. In general, I tend to loathe anyone that simply -expects- an artist to work for free after uttering that dreaded phrase, “I can’t pay you, but I can offer exposure. Often, the person making that “offer” is someone who can’t offer any real exposure, meaning that the audience for the requested work is going to minimal and the “exposure” isn’t going to bring in other work.

That said, there are times when the exposure offered can be a real thing; for instance, a local unknown band opening for Metallica stands to potentially gain more from the exposure they’d get playing in front of an audience tens of thousands strong than the bit of cash they might get paid at such a gig. (Metallica is an extreme example, of course, but it helps make the point, I think.) Similarly, my photo above being shared by a legitimate National Geographic account meant that I received global exposure on a level that I yet hadn’t; not that it really matters, but I did get paid to take that particular photo–not by NatGeo, but by the client I was doing the photo work for to begin with (Your Shot is NatGeo’s version of social media for photographers–the big thing about it is that it’s curated by NatGeo editors who select the best images from thousands of daily submissions for various features and stories, and sometimes publication in one of their magazines). Likewise, I’m currently working on photos I took for a major marketing campaign by a significant non-profit organization; I’m doing that work for free (well… I did get a great lunch out of it the day we did the photo shoot), but I know for a fact that the exposure I’m getting by taking on this project is going to boost both my resume and my portfolio while also helping with that most critical of things in this business: networking–more jobs are sure to follow because of this work.

When an artist shares something to celebrate an accomplishment or milestone in their work, asking if they got paid is a sure way to make sure they feel like shit, whether or not they did get paid for that particular work. Because what you’ve done is tell them that money is more important than their accomplishment, and you’ve immediately devalued the entire moment. You may mean well by trying to suggest that their work is good enough that they deserve to be paid, but you’ve changed the discussion at the point from celebration to money. Which, by the way, isn’t any of your business.

I’d wager that while there are artists who get paid for almost every single thing they create, every artist creates works that aren’t about money. We create because we love to. Because we have to. Because we need to. We’re driven by the need to write music or paint or draw or dance or make videos or take pictures or throw pottery or write books or any whatever our particular form of expression is. But that, right there is exactly what it’s about: expression. Most of us create artistic works simply for the sake of creating art. It’s an essential element of our being, and we’ll create even if we don’t get paid to do so.

I’m fortunate to have a great part-time photography job that ensures a regular paycheck while also allowing me to pursue my own freelance work. But I also do plenty of work outside of both pursuits, working to capture images that I want to see, just because I want to see them. If someone wants to buy them, great. If not, I’ve still gotten the satisfaction of creating just because I could. I’m extra fortunate in that for the most part, both my “regular” gig and many of my freelance jobs have coincided with a lot of my personal interests, so I get to pretty much do everything I enjoy and get paid for it.

In the end, it’s ultimately up to the artist to decide if they deserve to be paid for their work, and to negotiate what they feel is fair compensation, or to take on a project under the promise of exposure. A lot of us will fall into the trap of working for free too often and for too long, but at some point there is responsibility on the consumer’s end of things to not ask artists to constantly work for free. Unfortunately, there are enough who always will that I don’t know if that’s a cycle that will ever get broken.

Ultimately, my point is what I’ve said a couple times now:

Let an artist celebrate their accomplishments when they choose to share them with you. Don’t be the person that opens up a public conversation about whether or not they got paid for that. Whether or not the artist got paid isn’t any of your business. Just enjoy their moment of success with them. If you can’t do that, just enjoy that they shared their art.

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What’s In A Name

On Monday and Tuesday of this week I was honored with the opportunity to display some of my social awareness and humanitarian related photo work at the 8th Annual Indiana Campus Compact Service Engagement Summit. The ICC promotes socially and culturally aware social service and engagement, with a focus on developing leaders in the field through the college and university communities. The theme this year was social awareness and social justice, and I was honored to be one of the featured guests at the summit, alongside keynote speakers Eva Mozes Kor and Amal Kassir.

This was the first event of its kind that I’ve displayed any of my work at, and I went into it with a lot of trepidation. Aside from the usual worries of the artist–Is my work good enough?–the big concern I had was whether or not the images I was putting on display were right for the event. It turns out that they were, if I am to judge by the reactions and responses of those who spoke to me about them, and it’s encouraged and fortified me in continuing to do what I do. I’ve also been giving some serious thought to the idea of developing a short speaking presentation about the kinds of images I’m working to get, and how I hope they’ll impact the world. More importantly, I was exposed to some incredible people doing great things to try and change the world, as well as people who are almost certainly going to change the world themselves.

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Eva Mozes Kor speaking at the 2018 Indiana Campus Compact Service Engagement Summit. Photo: Rob Salem

 

The Monday evening gala’s keynote speaker was Eva Mozes Kor. A survivor of Auschwitz and the experiments Mengele and the Nazis did on twins there, she’s become an advocate for forgiveness as a way to move past the transgressions others have done against us–not for their sake, but for ours. And as a Jewish woman imprisoned as a child at Auschwitz who found the ability to meet with and forgive one of the Nazi doctors who worked there, I’m inclined to believe that she is absolutely an authority figure on the subject. Mrs. Kor is an extraordinary woman and I feel fortunate to have been able to hear her speak.

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Amal Kassir leading a “Social Justice Through Spoken Word” workshop at the 2018 Indiana Campus Compact Service Engagement Summit. Photo: Rob Salem

 

Tuesday morning’s keynote speaker was Amal Kassir, a vibrant spoken word artist who speaks boldly about social injustices such as discrimination and prejudice, among other things. She is inspired energetic elegance, and her lyrical presentation is graceful enough to enthrall you even as the points it makes hit you like a train. One of the main themes in her presentation, which is also prevalent in her TEDx Talk (embedded below), is how we assign names to each other before bothering to ask each other our name. In other words, we make presumptions and assumptions about each other without allowing others to define themselves to us beyond what we perceive of their appearance.

Amal speaks passionately about the notion of allowing others to tell us who they are by simply asking them their name–it’s an idea that hinges on the idea that the name a person gives you for themselves humanizes them instantly: a name is the first step in seeing past the outward appearances that cause us to see others through our own biases, and it’s a step towards a conversation that allows people to bond through their differences rather than be divided by them. By asking someone to tell us who they are, we dignify and humanize them, and recognize their inherent agency by allowing them to define themselves to us rather than telling them who they are because of only what we see, or think we know.

The flip side of that is that people -are- who we decide they are, whether that’s right or wrong (and it’s wrong a lot). For instance, I’m a 6’4, long-haired, beareded, beer-bellied, tattooed, middle-aged white guy. I know (because I’m told) that because of how I initially present to a lot of people, that I have names that include “Intimidating,” “Biker,” and “Viking.” The only one of those that isn’t correct is “Biker,” but only because I don’t ride; otherwise, I’m aware that I fit the established stereotype pretty well. But I have other names, too: Father, Husband, Artist, Poet, Photographer, Student, Social Activist, Caretaker, Musician, Metalhead, College-Educated, Middle-Aged-White-Guy, and more. And each of those is correct. But most of those are lost in the first impression that I make on people who don’t know me or know anything about me. What they do know is that I’m a large, long-haired white guy. That I come from a place of privilege because of my gender and skin color. And for some, that automatically means I’m the bad guy. For others, it means that I’m a potential asset because of my privilege and the opportunity that’s come from it. For others, it means nothing.

Now imagine being someone like Amal–a hijab-wearing Muslim Syrian-American in the post-9/11 world. She was born and raised in Denver. Her mother is from Iowa, her father from Syria. Yet she speaks of how her mother is told to go back to her own country, among other really uncool things. I won’t presume to speak for Amal, since she does it so well for herself (and I can’t possibly know her story beyond repeating what she tells us) in the video below, but the point is that because of who she appears to be, who she is, and who others -think- that makes her, she wears many names–and that all of us do. Her “Social Justice Through Spoken Word” workshop, makes that especially clear, as the way she helps you construct a poem forces you to think about who you are, where you come from, and the external influences and internal ideologies that have shaped you. It is a brilliant way of forcing someone to have a conversation about themselves with themselves, and to understand how many differences–and even contradictions–there are in their own personal ecosystem.

If only we thought more about the names we assign others, and instead asked them for theirs, maybe there’d be more conversations that build bridges rather than assumptions that build walls. By listening to someone tell us who they are, we learn that they’re more like us than our outward appearances suggest; and even if there are significant internal differences, the thing that makes our differences is the same in each of us: our humanity. That’s not to say that the names we assign each other aren’t ever right, or even appropriate, but rather only to recognize that our humanity is a shared trait, and that through dignifying others we dignify ourselves.

Ricky

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Photo by Rob Salem. Copyright © 2017. No use without permission.

Meet Ricky.

Looks like a happy guy, yeah? He was happy to talk and happy to let me take a couple photos of him, especially after my partner in Nova Vox handed him one of the sleeping bags we had to pass out to homeless people that night.

This is the photo of all the photos from that night that’s going to haunt me.

Ricky’s on his way to being a statistic. 

Ricky is homeless and an addict.

When we happened on him, he was hitting a pipe. He was either coming off his high or just starting it, and wasn’t completely “there” when we started talking. But he was there enough to understand that some random stranger was offering him a way to try and stay a little warmer. The thing is, I don’t think he was cold–or at least he didn’t know he was cold. Or he didn’t care.

I’ve been thinking about Ricky since we met him, and thinking about how, with his apparent addiction, it’s gonna be somewhat of a miracle if he survives a winter on the streets, if he can survive whatever it was he had in his pipe.

It’s sobering to consider that you’re trying to do something for someone who may not live long enough for the thing you did to have made a difference to them. It feels like futility. It feels like not doing enough. And there absolutely are feelings of guilt over those things. I’ve had to remind myself that I didn’t start Nova Vox to pass out sleeping bags or supplies to the homeless. I started it with the goal of using my camera to try and help the disenfranchised regain the dignity they deserve as human beings, and that maybe in doing so they’ll eventually find opportunity and in that opportunity, hope.

So this is Ricky, in the most dignified way I can introduce him to you. Smiling, happy to be seen and heard, and in his way gracious for the small thing we did for him. And whether or not I ever meet him again, or what happens in his life, remembered as the human being he is.

2017 Solar Eclipse

Just a short video I made from the footage I shot of the total solar eclipse over North America on Monday (Aug 21). This was filmed under mostly cloudy skies in north central Indiana, outside of the path of totality, so it’s only a partial eclipse from this viewpoint. The clouds worked both for and against me, making for some great moody imagery while also causing the sun to appear fuzzy and out of focus. Overall, it was a cool experience.