Wait. You’re not paying me? (Lessons in freelancing.)

What do you mean you’re not paying me!? Those dreaded words screamed through my brain for the first time since starting my business in March 2013. A month shy of two years in a full time photography business I had my first non-paying client. I thought long and hard about what to do. Do I tear this company a new one online with my resources (and there are many), do I yell and scream and leave angry voice mails or nasty emails? (I’m not really that kind of guy) , do I take them to small claims court? (For the amount owed and another day wasted in court; not really worth it), do I show up at their office and raise all kinds of hell? (again, not really that guy – although it’s very tempting) Do I patiently wait outside their building and confront them face to face? (tempting again-but oh so wrong) So what’s the answer? As of now I don’t know. The most I can do at this point is leave polite voicemails reminding them to settle the open invoice and email along invoice reminders.  I can also write. Sometimes I forget that I’m pretty good at that. Award winning some might say.

The big lesson learned here is to protect yourself as a freelancer or small business owner. In my case this was a weird gig to begin with and should have trusted my gut when my client called me in a huff the night before the shoot while I was at my in-laws (Lesson 1: Don’t pick up the phone during family time. Your family is more important than the anxiety driven drivel coming out of someone’s mouth at 7:30 at night) My gut said: “Tell this person; no thank you, please find someone else.” BUT why did I accept? I try to make the most out of every situation and opportunity. As a photographer I’ve walked into most scenarios with an open mind and you never know who you’re going to meet or what you’re going to learn. However, after the fact I felt like I was shanghaied into this job. The dead giveaway? Me suggesting to give the casting process another week to see who we can come up with to better suit the clients idea of the shoot – within budget – only to be told that the shoot HAD to be done in three days. That doesn’t leave much time to find someone reliable. I went with a trusted model I have worked with before, had an established rapport with (if you’re spending all day with someone on a shoot – you gotta make sure they’re cool!), and with whom I’ve created some great images. (Lesson 2: If your client is cornering you into a shoot…walk away. Not all that glitters is gold.) 

The day of the shoot comes.  (I’ll not subject you to the atmosphere) and what should be a somewhat quick and straightforward day turns into a long 10 plus hour day full of micromanaging. (Lesson 3: Don’t let anyone tell you how to do your job.) It wasn’t the worst experience and I can’t complain about what I do because I love it; but it was one of those long days that kind of sticks with you to the point where I didn’t even mention it to my wife. You know the kind. The kind that makes you question what you got into as far as choosing a gig to work on. That being said; the real macguffin came when it was time for post- work. Since the client was being a bit anxious and a tad complainy about the images THEY okayed over my shoulder I gave them an out saying they could by all means outsource the work and I’d even be happy to help them find someone to do the post work and give up the money owed. I was assured that I was to be the one to edit the photos. That means I’d be getting paid right? Nope apparently not. I was given a run around, an email saying “they want to ask for a refund but figure it would be a hassle,” and then your basic stonewalling. Texts nor phone calls returned. Wow. What is this shit?

I can’t answer that.  (Lesson 4: Know who you’re dealing with.) I have been on countless shoots with many people. I consider myself a people person and love meeting everyone. In this business you have to give yourself to your subjects or the gig you’re working on. I’m not saying I’m the greatest guy or the best photographer but I damn sure know my worth as a person and as a photographer. Sometimes you just clash with people who you don’t jibe with or won’t jibe with outside of a project setting. Would I ever be at the same restaurants, ball games, or bars as these folks? Probably not.  They DID refer to the selected model as “a commoner” (cue Debbie Downer face) Do I know not to waste someone’s time? Absolutely. Do they? No, sir. They do not. To me the classy thing to do on their end would have been to pay the balance due and respectfully tell me that they will be looking for another photographer instead of having me complete post-work and simply not pay. Does it burn? Oh yea. A couple of months ago I shot a gentleman by the name of Paul Viollis (look him up – cool guy.) From the balcony of his office you could see every bridge in NYC and then some. And even though his view was from the top; he was by far the most grounded and down to earth person I have met in my two years of working for myself. Why bring that up? We had a short talk about not wasting people’s time or energy and about being direct with who you are dealing with as a business and person. That small conversation will always stick with me as a building block of future interaction with anyone I meet. (Lesson 5: Don’t let your time be wasted)

So what do you do? I think I’ll keep doing what I do and kill with kindness. BUT in the future I may do things a bit differently when it comes to clients. (Lesson 6: Have it in writing.) The bylaws of photography can be a bit vague. Who owns the pictures? Who has the rights to the photos? Without a contract those things are up in the air. I have a vault on my hard drive marked “NDA,” which will never see the light of day. Why? Because I signed  contracts. Do things like this make us better freelancers? As unfortunate as some situations can be; I think they do. I certainly learned a few things not only business wise but shooting and editing wise as well. (I should have hard-coded those damn images!) It could be worse. There are a million things on Earth that could be worse than being owed some money by a small group of shitty people. Does that make it right? No. Does it mean I can get some free self-therapy by writing about it? Hell yes. (Lesson 7: Suck it up. Turn your situation into a positive and learn from the mistakes made) More than likely I won’t see that money owed. (I’d like to thank Lauri Flaquer for some last minute advice as well!) But, the situation gave me the impetus to be more careful in the future, the creative drive to write at least a couple hardcore/punk songs poking fun at the situation, and the clarity to try and avoid similar situations going forward. These are my two cents and I felt like I needed to get it out there. Plus, I get to come up with really outlandish and often Sandler-esque scenarios about getting my money while laughing about it like a teenager with my lovely wife (Hi, babe!)

Thanks for reading everyone. You guys rule.

Love always,




Debbie Downer