Another quick break in the booth design series, although this topic also relates to exhibiting your work at shows.

What should you do about people photographing your work at shows?

There is no right or wrong way to think about this. Some artists don’t care at all about having their work casually photographed. Others scream.

These are simply some of my thoughts about why it can be upsetting, and how it could be handled by both parties.

Obviously, circumstances have an impact. An admiring customer at a church bazaar sale snapping a quick picture is different than a team of people furtively snapping many photos of your work at a wholesale trade show, then running for the door.

Or is it different?

I’m amazed at the breach in perception between people who take pictures of other people’s work, and the artists whose work is being photographed. Perhaps if we both understood each other better, some rules of etiquette could be laid down.

I’ve had my work photographed by people I’ll call amateurs. These are people who are not professional photographers–just “camera bugs” who love to take pictures of things they like.

At my most recent show, one woman was murmuring, “Lovely! Just beautiful!” and before I could even say anything, she whipped a little camera out of her purse, snapped a shot, and walked out. I have no idea what her purpose was, but suspect it was harmless in intent. Still, I was surprised at my reaction.

I was irked.
Once I questioned a gentleman who was asked to take pictures of my work. He became indignant and defensive, but told me he simply liked taking pictures of beautiful crafts and posting them on Flicker. We checked up on him later, and sure enough, there were some nice shots of my work in his portfolio.

But my first reaction was irritation.

Early one morning at the show, a woman made the rounds of the fair shooting pictures of everyone’s booth. I offered to let her take a picture of one piece with me next to it. But she just wanted to take a picture of the entire booth. She’d already taken “dozens”, she said. I have no idea why someone wants a hundred different booth photos. When I asked, she said I was “too sensitive” and walked off in a huff. I’m still baffled.

But I also just got a bad feeling from her behavior, and her response.

Are my feelings justified? Yes. And no.

Several years ago, a woman came in while I was demonstrating and took many pictures. As she was shooting, she also spilled her drink (it was a special sales/demo booth, no flooring or carpet, so no damage was done.) She rushed out, deeply embarrassed. I was upset–I had no idea who she was or what she was doing. I wasn’t even aware she’d been photographing my work til afterwards.

I found out later she was a writer/reporter for a magazine. She did a full-page article on my work after the show (for which I wrote her a thank-you note.) This year, one of her photos appeared in a write-up about the show. It’s me, demonstrating. It’s a pretty nice image, and I didn’t even know she was taking it.

How do I feel about this?

Well, I’m glad that in all three cases, I didn’t follow my gut reaction–which was anger. And, let’s face it, fear. A lot of good came out of the magazine writer taking pictures. I couldn’t have paid for the publicity those images garnered me. The person simply loved my work and has used those images to help promote it for me.

The man with the Flicker files was willing to help promote my work, too, after I asked him.

I wish, however, photographers understood where the anger and fear come from.

The title of this essay comes from the belief of some so-called “primitive people” that photographing a person was a way of stealing their soul. I used to find that quaint. In fact, as tourism increases around the world, you now find such photographic subjects demanding payment for being photographed. Some of us may find that a jaded response to such a harmless act.

But is it harmless?

We who live in so-called “modern” cultures are photographed and filmed at the drop of a hat. We beg to appear on reality TV shows. To be You-Tubed is to ensure fame–or at least, notoriety. We’ve been conditioned to see no harm in it. Even if it’s a bad image, any publicity is good publicity, isn’t it?

Maybe these “primitive” people in other cultures have a better grasp of the dynamic. Maybe their thinking is actually more sophisticated than ours.

Artists make the beautiful work they do for many reasons–for fun, enjoyment, relaxation. Sometimes we feel compelled–there’s just an overpowering need to share our vision, our work, our message, with others.

Or we feel whole or connected to something bigger–a parent or grandparent who shared a skill with us, or a tribal tradition we want to carry on.

Some of us enjoy the rewards we get–the admiration from the public, the recognition from our peers. And frankly, some of us enjoy the financial rewards, too.

Some artists do this privately. But you can assume if an artist has paid for a table or booth at a fair or show, or if they have work hanging in an exhibit, or they’ve sent a picture in to be published, that they have taken the step of sharing their work with a wider audience.

Once art is exhibited or offered for sale, a request for exchange has been made.

We are asking you to enjoy it, to admire it, to talk about it, and hopefully, to buy it.

We ask you to exchange your time, your interest, yes, your money, in exchange for our time, energy, interest and investment.

We figure if you love the work enough to buy it and hang it in your home, then everyone is happy with that exchange. In fact, I find selling my work the ultimate exchange. When someone is willing to give me their hard-earned money for my work, it is an honor.

They are supporting my mission to create beautiful work. And helping me to create more beautiful work.

Photographing someone’s work without their permission sidesteps that exchange.

Even if it’s for private use, that action is still “taking” the image without an exchange. Without even the benefit of promoting the artist’s work.

In the worst case scenario, the image is taken, the design is copied, and the product is mass-produced in a factory overseas. It has happened to many, many artisans in our country. It is something that frightens all of us because it is so pervasive and so difficult to fight. In fact, it’s almost impossible to stop, unless you have deep pockets and a bevy of lawyers at hand.

In a best case scenerio, as with the writer, I did get my “exchange”. I just would have slept better if I’d known ahead of time, rather than waiting months to learn about her good intentions.

Arguably, the man who posted my images on Flicker felt he was sharing my work, too. On the other hand, it didn’t occur to him to list my name and credit me as the artist til I asked him to. So the “sharing” wouldn’t have done me any good without that.

It’s also important to remember that in our “how-to” and “can-do” culture, publishing an image sometimes gives some people permission to copy that image. Look, we’re all inspired by the beautiful work of others. But my job on earth is not to think up great ideas so someone else can copy them outright. I have bigger plans than that.

That’s why, if you are someone whose hobby is photographing beautiful artwork, it would be nice if you a) introduced yourself first; b) explained the context of your interest and tell how the images will be used and c) asked permission.

If you are an artist, you can choose to limit all photography in your booth. You can post a sign to that effect.

Or you can simply ask people who pull out a camera, what their intention is. Most camera bugs simply don’t know how we feel about it. Or they mean well, but are too shy to ask first. We can choose to make this a teachable moment.

Most members of the media will ask, but they are just people, too. Some of them know they should ask, some don’t. Taking a deep breath and staying pleasant may open publicity doors you’ve only dreamed of before.

And just in case anyone thinks I’m being “too sensitive”, most galleries and stores do not allow customers to photograph artwork. Trade shows and wholesale craft shows do not allow cameras, except to credentialed members of the press/media. Nor do performances (plays, concerts, movies) allow photography. Our local Y now forbids cell phone cameras in changing rooms.

We’re beginning to understand that, in a time of almost effortless photography, we also feel the increased need for parameters–and courtesy–governing it.

Author: Luann Udell

I find it just as important to write about my art as to make it. I am fascinated by stories. You can tell when people are speaking their truth--their eyes light up, their voices become strong, their entire body posture becomes powerful and upright. I love it when people get to this place in their work, their relationships, their art. As I work from this powerful place in MY heart, I share this process with others--so they have a strong place to stand, too. Because the world needs our beautiful art. All of it we can make, as fast as we can! Whether it's a bowl, a painting, a song, a garden, a story, if it makes our world a better place, we need to do everything in our power to get it out there.

11 thoughts on “STEALING SOULS”

  1. I was hunted by those thoughts too a while ago, found myself afraid of not having control over the way photos would be spread when taken.
    I couldn’t agree more with this article! Very nice words and hopefully just as I bumped against this and felt better about my “fears” I hope many others will too, and avoid calling artists “too sensitive” or “paranoid”.
    Thank you very much for sharing this!


  2. Wow! that got me thinking !

    I don’t photograph, I don’t sell what I make but your comments really opened up my eyes.

    I never thought about it that way.

    I reacted as you did though got angry and it’s not even my booth!

    Thanks for explaining it helps a lot!


  3. I am guilty of being one of those ‘lurkers’ afraid to ask because I don’t want to offend and/or be told NO. And I think my reasons are innocent! but do understand the artist being irritated. I take photos of work I like so I remember why I picked up the card of the artist! I always HOPE to find them again at another show or maybe log online and find and then ‘think about it’ which almost always never happens but I don’t sell or use or copy the photos or the objects! It’s just for my memory… I understand your points here and I promise to ask next time!! thanks, C


  4. Mission accomplished! :^)
    C, thank you for taking the time to write and share your side. And btw, my business cards and postcards have images of my work on them. You won’t forget what you saw! :^)
    If you were in my booth expressing these “wishful thoughts”, I would ask you gently, “What’s holding you back?” What’s holding you back from collecting the work of an artist you like so much, you want to remember them and find them again?
    Sometimes it’s the money–we can’t have EVERYTHING we want, though affordable alternatives and layaway plans can handle that, too. Often, though, it’s because we don’t trust our own judgment. We’re afraid we’ll choose poorly and regret it later.
    I say, if your heart has spoken, if it has leaped a bit at the work, then trust it. Sometimes it’s wrong–but rarely.
    If it is, you have a great Christmas gift for someone special!
    And if it’s right, you will have a thing of beauty that will give you joy for many, many years to come.


  5. So understood this post and agree with what was said. I better understand my adverse feelings on having photos of my work taken now. It’s a tough call isn’t it. I still wish people wouldn’t do it…or would at least explain their intentions first-as you said. Thanks for writing on this!


  6. I think the more we understand about WHY something angers us, the better equipped we are to decide how to deal with it.

    Once we understand the dynamics of what’s going on, we can talk to each “shooter”–and decide just how much we choose to give them. “Nothing” to someone hoping to profit from our designs. “Something” to casual admirers. “A lot” to people in a position to further our marketing and help us grow our audience.

    We still may not be able to educate all the “shooters”–the one woman I tried to talk to got extremely defensive–but if both sides understand what’s at stake, maybe we can come up with a great compromise!


  7. Well stated! This is becoming a more common occurance for me these days. I had someone snap a picture of a piece in my case with their cell phone and quickly leave the booth, but I think he did it to remember the piece a friend liked when they were in earlier. Then I had a woman stand in the aisle and take a number of photos of my booth — unforunatley I was alone in the booth with a crowd of customers so I didn’t feel like I could do/say anything without making a scene so I let it go and hoped that she was just looking for booth design ideas. I hope that more people begin to understand that it’s simply not polite to take photos without asking. The other thing that I find amusing is how many people would take a camera into a department store and start taking photos? If you wouldn’t do it in a store why would you think it’s ok to do at an art show?


  8. If you’re in a public space you have absolutely no right to forbid photography. The only people who have a leg to stand on are booths exhibiting photography, and then only if the photographer is taking shots of single images in a way that might be considered a copyright violation.

    I usually buy a piece or two at art fairs I attend. I’d never spend a dime on an artist who was trying to police photography in a public space. (Doubly do when they pull that nonsense in a city park) Fortunately, it’s usually booths full of … I’ll be nice and say “things that are not to my taste” … that get pissy about it.

    Asking them to provide a link to your site, your info, etc sounds quite reasonable, but if I’m snapping an entire show to give a feel for it to people who couldn’t come, I’m unlikely to remember very many of those if I received more than a few requests.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s