Proudly Unsponsored

Unfortunately some who have achieved leadership in the profession often dictate from a confused throne of success—a success which may be more financial than otherwise.

With a few exceptions, publications of the photographic world are founded on the desire to stimulate the photographic trade; materials, equipment, gadgets have been in high flood of production and sales and the advertising of these countless items have been the backbone of this publishing. The dangerous suggestion that you can hire someone to do the drudgery, plus the encouragement of superficial thought and methods, has robbed photography of much dignity, clarity and effectiveness.

—Ansel Adams

I have been away from the public eye and the buzz of media for a bit. The reason is not important to the point I wish to make, but it did give me some time to chip away at a backlog of reading, and to listen to a few podcast episodes that lingered in the queue.

On one such podcast, a photographer of some new-found social media notoriety spoke proudly of having secured sponsorships from a number of companies at a trade show, which reminded me that upon being invited to speak at an upcoming event the organizer also asked me if I was sponsored by any companies who may cover my speaking fees in exchange for promotional opportunities.

I have only been tempted to align with corporate brands a couple of times in the past and am not likely to consider it again. Other than my innate resistance to having any “strings attached,” especially when it comes to potentially limiting my ability to speak my mind honestly, what turned me off the most was the inevitability of such arrangements leading to encounters that to me are too close for comfort with some bureaucrat dedicated entirely to doing the bidding of his or her employer—being “all business,” as the saying goes—a corporate soldier offering no glimpse into his or her being anything other; a human form channeling some corporate creed, ready to promote and to defend its masters’ interests without question and without remorse. Such people, I admit, played a great role in my decision to part ways with the corporate world some years ago.

I don’t begrudge anyone the desire to excel at their job, whether such excellence can be justified by any quality other than the sense of being good at something and being appreciated for it. But admittedly when such desires find expression in an “all business” attitude obscuring the individual, obfuscating whatever identity, empathy, dignity, sense of wonder, and whatever values he or she may possess outside their corporate role;  I find that person and that attitude to be incompatible with, if not outright toxic to, the things I care most about in my work.

As stated by Bertrand Russell, “Art springs from a wild and anarchic side of human nature; between the artist and the bureaucrat there must always be a profound mutual antagonism, an age-long battle in which the artist, always outwardly worsted, wins in the end through the gratitude of mankind for the joy that he puts into their lives.” And one may consider the outcomes (perhaps not all bad) of what the absence of such antagonism might lead to: when an artist and a bureaucrat collaborate, and the motives that may drive such collaborations. At the very least such artists, if only in appearance, give up a degree of credibility and freedom of expression, which to me is a cost exceeding whatever benefit I might gain from sponsorship.

And so I am, proudly, unsponsored—an independent explorer (of many things); an unprejudiced ambassador (for wildness and for creative expression); an artist (and not just an artisan). I have to be. Doing what I do, in my mind, is in too many ways not compatible with the motivations of corporations.

Should you wish to chide me that accepting such sponsorships is, “part of the game,” consider that this is not a game to me. It’s my life, and I wish to keep it free of some influences to the degree that I can help it. And should my reluctance to align myself with corporate brands seem worthy to you, consider please that it also means I have to generate income without the business benefits of such sponsorships: by the support of those who appreciate what I do.

Liberated by Light

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14 thoughts on “Proudly Unsponsored

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  1. Totally, totally, TOTALLY agree! Independence, if it can be achieved and maintained, is the best way to remain genuine and open.

      1. Been a long time indeed. Many changes over the past few years. Yes, I’ve chosen to stay here in this low desert by Joshua Tree, surrounded by desert wilderness. It’s a powerful place and all I could hope for and more. Thanks Guy.

  2. Well said, Guy. Not sure if I agree entirely for myself, but I can certainly understand why you dislike having sponsors or being beholden to corporations. We are that way enough in this society by default. That said, I have been very fortunate to run across a few people now and then who have money, but are attracted to what I’m doing precisely because they had heard of or had high respect for my father and what he stood for and understood he was a very different kind of photographer from the rest. What I get from reading this post is that the core of your objection to corporate sponsorship is a difference in values. Therefore, that said, if you can align yourself with people who have the same values, who happen to be the leader of an organization or company, I don’t see a conflict. I have recently developed a relationship with a family that owns businesses all over the US and South America, have a health enhancing invention as their main source of wealth and own the world’s first completely sustainable wine cave and winery. They own a major organic food company and have a goal to help lead agriculture back from giant-sized to small-sized, sustainable and organic. The son of the medical inventor has become a friend of mine. I admire him as a scientist and innovator. He admires me for being a crazy, far out artist. I developed a great relationship with these people first, then later got involved in doing photography assignments for them. I had done very little assignment work before this, but I am able to continue doing nature and old-school and small-time agriculture on the assignments and keep my image copyrights. I have not yet put together any kind of sponsorship proposal and have thus remained my own person. As a result, I have thousands and thousands in new income, without any ties. They have become my well off patrons. I believe I will continue to follow this model, leaning more toward obtaining more wealthy patrons, than toward the assignments, but I am open to the latter as well if the terms are right and the people as cool and as well-aligned with what I believe in. I believe the best way to pull this off is to keep in mind what you mention about not dealing with the middle management corporate drones. I will become friends with and deal solely with the owner at the top, or not at all. That cuts out most of the baloney, depending on the organizational culture. If I could, for example, work with someone like Robert Redford, who knew my parents, or some other folks with my values, I’m all good with alignment with the big bucks people of the world. I am not against people who have money just because they have money, only if they are big jerks, as many are. My business has suffered profoundly from a lack of cash flow due to some long stories I won’t get into. I believe if I could have held onto the savings I started with and still kept Dad’s photographs, I would have been much better off, but the way it has turned out has caused me to be far more resourceful. I may be wrong, but I thought I read you writing this somewhere, that you were able to leave Corporate America and go full-time in photography with good funding to begin with precisely because of your high earnings in your previous work. Not everyone will have the ability to avoid dealing with the moneyed interests of the world and remain viable.

    1. Unlike people, corporations do not feel guilt or anxiety; they do not have a conscience to influence their decisions, they have balance sheets for that. To the extent that people exhibit moral courage in their business affairs, that is certainly admirable, but it doesn’t change the fact that—by definition—a corporation is created for one and only purpose: to generate profit for its shareholders. When a corporation chooses to act morally, it may be because at a point in time it is driven by a moral person who has the luxury of a majority ownership, or, more commonly, that such moral behavior is financially prudent.

      But the greater point is that your assertion, while noble-sounding, does not pass the test of logic. When you align yourself with a brand, those who trust you assume that you consider this brand’s products as superior. If you promote a brand primarily because you agree with its “values” rather than that you truly believe its products are superior, you are betraying the confidence of your followers, placing the brand’s interests ahead of theirs.

      Considering what corporations are—by definition—I believe that it is a grave mistake to treat them as moral agents, even if their “values” happen to align with yours. Entities considered as moral agents must be free of what economists call “moral hazard”—that is, having interests that may (even if only in appearance) compete with morality. And economic interests, as history has shown time and again, are the most powerful of these.

  3. Beautifully put, Guy. It’s a viewpoint that I’ve taken a long time to come around to but one I now share with you. I have no qualms with the decisions of others but in times past I’ve pursued these sponsorships and never found them worth the trade off required of them. I do remain open to the idea of collaborations, however, because while art and corporate bureaucracy might not make good playmates, there are many smaller companies out there run by principled people who want to make a difference and I think there’s room to play in that space without becoming beholden or entangled.

    1. Thank you very much, David! I appreciate the distinction you make between sponsorships and collaborations, and I agree that the latter, when conducted in good faith, can be both productive and beneficial to all (photographer, brand, and audience).

  4. Fascinating perspectives both in your article, and some of the comments. I’ve always been a person that, for some inexplicable reason, has had little or no money most of the time. I have been extremely blessed by having touched the hearts of others who out of the blue have provided me with cameras and lenses that enabled me to continue sharing. It’s always been free of strings or expectations which I greatly appreciate. I doubt that I would necessarily qualify to accumulate sponsors in any corporate world anyway, but the idea of doing so gives me uncomfortable shivers.

  5. This post made me realize just how much many photography websites are geared toward reviewing equipment reviews and the like. The implied narrative being if you “upgrade” to this latest piece of kit you finally be able to take the photos you’ve been wanting to take. To be fair this push for new as opposed to deeper with existing is not a problem photography has a monopoly on but it does seem to be especially pernicious in the discipline.

    I’m glad that I now know about this site which is pushing for deeper. While deeper is far harder it is also far more rewarding.

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