A few days ago, a creative director with an axe to grind threw up a poorly conceived website aimed at stopping what he calls "photo spammers". He named specific photographers who he claimed were guilty of being "spammers" because they had sent unsolicited e-promos. He, along with a handful of other creative directors (note: no art buyers signed the list) pledged to not hire these blacklisted photographers. The photo blogosphere lit up (see aphotoeditor.com and mediabistro.com), with people pointing blame at certain photographers, reps, database products like Agency Access and Adbase and email marketing products like MyEmma and Mailchimp. Said creative director claims he was just trying to start a conversation about a system which is broken.Well he certainly got people talking, but not very constructively.
What nobody seems to be mentioning is that the problem is not the fault of any one party. The problem lies in the fact that there are just too many photographers trying to make a living doing what they love and not enough jobs to go around.
The barriers to entry into the profession continues to dwindle. Technology has made it very easy to make good looking pictures. iPhone photos are winning World Press Photo and being published in Martha Stewart and The New Yorker. (I'm not saying all you need is an iPhone to be a good photographer... of course you have to have a good eye and a sense for what makes a compelling image). Technology won't slow down, so this is a given that we have to accept.
And at the same time that it is getting easier and cheaper to make great pictures, there are fewer ways to make a decent living doing it. This has been argued to death on other sites and I won't go too much into it. But it's important to admit that the pie is getting smaller and there are a lot more people wanting a slice.
Staff changes at the places that hire photographers have made it so that art buyers, photo editors and creative directors are responsible for a bigger workload than ever before. So they have even less time to be sifting through e-promos, yet the amount they are getting is at an all time high.
Not to mention the erosion of copyright and the licensing model...
To say the system of self-promotion is broken is too simplistic. A well thought out and well-targeted marketing plan that uses a combination of producing new work, sending print promos, e-promos/newsletters, social networking, in-person networking and following up is still essential.
My advice for photographers: DO NOT send any kind of promo (print or email) to someone who does not work on projects that you are right for. For magazines, this should be pretty easy. Just go to the newsstand and look at them. When pitching to art buyers, make sure you know what accounts that agency is working on. If you can't name what a certain creative on your list does, then you probably shouldn't be marketing to them. This takes a lot of discipline and research time but it is very important.
Also, make sure you are complying with the CAN-SPAM act, which requires you to include a physical address and an unsubscribe link in every email.
And most importantly, make it a priority to increase awareness of your work through non-promotional means. Create new bodies of work or personal projects at lease once a year. Share your work with others, start an event in your town, put together a DIY exhibition, print limited edition books, participate in the online photo community, attend festivals, do portfolio reviews. Get offline and concentrate on creating and sharing and creatives will learn about you in a way that feels more genuine than any promo could.
My advice for creatives who feel inundated with unwanted promos: Feel the pain of the photographers who are trying to get jobs. You get paid a salary, they do not. Their agents only make money when their photographers make money. Think of the silver lining, that you have people who value what you do enough to spend time and money promoting themselves to you. And use that unsubscribe button.