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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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.

Musings From The Porch: The Storm & The Vigil

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“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!” – Hunter S. Thompson

A year ago I wrote about sitting in a coffee shop in downtown Chicago, watching stories of the world unfold. The organized chaos of that day is starkly contrasted by the disorganized calm I experience now, sitting on my porch in the Indiana countryside, not so much watching the world go by, but rather -feeling- it go by. The occasional car, truck, or tractor rumbles along our ragged stretch of cracked and worn asphalt, but other than that, it’s a fairly sedate existence out here. To say it’s quiet is both an understatement and a falsehood, illustrating the contradictory nature of life.

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Resignation & Resolve – A Moment’s Notice

We reach points in our life where we are forced to choose new paths. Choosing a new path very often means resignation of the old, and often of the life that went with it, for the sake of the new. Sometimes, we can hold on to aspects of the old path, the old life, if nothing else as reminders of where we have been, what we have done, and that we are otherwise the sum of the moments we have experienced up to and including the moment we presently exist in.

But that’s just it:

We exist only in the present moment. All of eternity exists here, now, in you, in me, and only in this moment, the one that you are experiencing now, the one that you are creating simply by observing it. The future exists only as we wish it to, and never as anything but some dream beyond reach.

The interesting thing… every moment we experience is the point where the past and the future meet, where what was and what isn’t become what is, and in every moment we are faced with taking a step forward into the unknown.

But to do so requires resignation-the willingness to let go of the old. It also requires resolve. The resolve to embrace the unknown, and to find out what’s out there.

Resignation.

Resolve.

And a moment passes.

It’s A Dog’s Life

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~3 million stories, each unique, no matter how similar to another. 3 million lives that interact and affect each other, most without ever realizing it or understanding that though they are but one drop in an ocean, there would be no ocean without every single one of them, and that each ripple caused by each drop causes waves that affect the entire ocean.

Thanks to the generosity of some friends, I’m sitting this morning in a bookstore cafe in downtown Chicago, watching momentary glimpses of each of these stories –

The businessman in his neatly pressed suit a table over from me, anxiously watching his phone, watch, and the door; who’s he waiting for? What’s got him anxious?

The guy that just walked by, stopped in the middle of his stride to dance and turn to the music in his headphones, oblivious to the world around him, or the attention (and lack thereof); I wonder if he knows that he caused a couple people to smile, and for just a moment, he made their day a little brighter?

The young woman who looks a bit lost while seemingly trying to fit in with the rush around her. Is she new to the city, trying to make a life here? Or has the eagerness of youth been swept away by an overwhelming cityscape that doesn’t seem to care that she’s even there? Maybe she just hasn’t had her ritual cup of coffee this morning, or is already on her way out of the city this afternoon to her weekend plans?

The photographer with his expensive camera and vest, himself capturing moments of life that will forever keep the secrets of the moment while betraying to later viewers that in that moment, there was life happening, there were stories unfolding, writing and rewriting themselves, and the grand play that is life was carrying itself out. Maybe I’ll come across one of his pictures someday, and recognize the moment he captured? Maybe, and perhaps more importantly, someone else will see those pictures, and be inspired to create their own stories in their minds, inspired by a moment stolen and shared…

I suppose, as a poet, a writer, an observer of people, and a traveler that I am inclined to watch the world around me a little more than some others and wonder about all the stories being written, all the stories that are yet to be told, and in some way, even if at least in my head, craft my own version of them based on a moment. Moreover though, I not only wonder about the stories of the people I encounter, but I often wonder at how my own interaction with those people in their moments changes their story.

How do the ripples I create as I wander through life affect the rest of the ocean?

How do yours?

We are each of our own making, and yet… we have all made each other.

Every story fascinates me – especially the ones that I will never hear, nor ever write.