Student Class and Workshop Demo Ethics

San Diego — I was irritated this morning at a failure of ethics.  I received a notice of a video portfolio from a former student of mine.  Some of his self-promotion verbiage is a bit pretentious but, hey, this is a tough game and if you don’t tell your potential clients that, photographically speaking, you walk on water then who will?  I get it.

I’m bothered by it because I come from a dead or at least dying culture – definitely dead here — that felt it was coarse and prideful to brag on yourself and you should let the work speak for itself.  But I’ve now been in California long enough to understand that self-aggrandizement, sort of as a function of image, is common place and even expected.  Even if you are famous only to your mom, still, I guess it is at least semi-honest to refer to yourself as a famous photographer.  And, the sad truth is the way most people become “experts” is to call themselves one.

But there still are lines that, when crossed, I cannot accept as OK.  And one of those comes as a result of work done during a class or demo at a workshop.  At workshops, conferences, seminars, and classes it is common for the instructor to create a set, style it, light it, and shoot a copy and then to let students take shots for reference when they are reviewing their notes and going back to their own studios and learning to do something as you just did it.  Wit that practice they could gain a working knowledge of the techniques and tools involved so they could use it in their own work.

But the shot from the demo is not their shot.  It is the instructors’ shot.

This former student took an independent studies class in advanced lighting with me.  He would bring in a shot from a magazine he would like to learn how to do.  I would analyze it, tell him what props and materials were needed and then we would go into the studio where I would set up, style, light AND SHOOT something with the same techniques involved as used for the example.  He would then also take shots, sometimes with the camera still on the camera stand where I had placed it when a composite of exposures was needed or the lights so carefully angled that nothing could move or the effect would be lost.

I was hard pressed to contain my irritation and sense of ethical betrayal when I started seeing shots from those sessions showing up in his portfolio as his.  A shot stealing student once got a gig based on one of those shots then had the nerve to ask if I could help him do the real shot since he really did not know how it had been done (even though he was there, watching and shooting as I did it during the demo).  Now THAT redefines chutzpah!

So when I looked at the video portfolio this morning two things struck me.  One was that he had tried to use every transition available in his digital video effects application so it was a bit hard to watch.  But what really got my main attention was seeing one of my old class demo shots show up again… in HIS portfolio as if he had done it.

I believe in karma and “what goes around comes around” though I confess, a character flaw of mine is that I often would like to be the vehicle that brings it around.  But the day that would have pushed me to very public and pointed castigation for their lack of ethics has passed.  For one thing, I’ve observed that given time, sleaze will out, eventually, just as does class.  Coming from the culture of the west I have regained my willingness to give someone enough rope to hang themselves.  For another, teaching full time now, I no longer need to worry about real competition.  Besides, someone who steals other people’s work is never serious competition anyway.

But mostly it is because the ad hoc “partnership” with the lady who has been getting me to help with the restaurant shots (from the last few posts) has shown me that there are still honest, ethical people out there.  In contrast to the student of stolen shots, Cynthia Sinclair has insisted on giving me credit for work, sometimes even for efforts better seen as stemming from her as the lead photographer.

Her approach bespeaks not only honesty and common courtesy, it tells clearly of someone secure enough to give crdit without thinking it somehow diminishes her to do it.  Such integrity not only resonates with hired gun/assistants, like myself, it resonates with the clients as well who see in it a rare ethical mindset and know this is someone to trust to tell you the truth and do everything possible for the job, someone who will bring in whatever resources are needed, and put in all possible effort needed to do the job on time, on budget, and to the client’s satisfaction.  When someone in an already ego-riddled discipline and who earns their living by their skill is willing to share credit for work, you can usually count on them being as honest about other things.

I’m no longer shooting for hire though I love shooting and love assisting her because I love the challenge of solving visual puzzles.  But others have asked and I’ve turned most of them down.  I agreed to help her because I like working with someone completely honest and ethical down to their toes.  And so do most crew members.

So if you are attending events where experts in the field are setting up demos and trying to teach you how to do new things, do absolutely pay attention to them and if they allow it, take your own shots for reference.  Then take those shots back home and, applying your notes and memories of the demonstration, practice them and learn to make the techniques your own.  There are no secrets, only such a broad world of possible approaches and techniques that it is likely there are things I know that you don’t and equally likely that you know things I do not.  But that is not because there are true secrets, simply that each has been exposed to something the other has not… yet.

You will discover it is only the aspiring want-to-be practitioners that closely guard what they are learning and act as if they are paranoid that anyone trying to learn their approaches is somehow going to “steal” them and become better.  But skill and techniques are not a zero-sum game.  You do not diminish someone else’s skill by learning from them; that action does not render those things unavailable to the instructor from then on.

Hearing how to do something is not the same as actually doing it.  And if someone is seen truly working hard to learn what you are sharing with them, treat them like a good friend because, as my old mentor Jim Katzel would say, some day you may want them to tell you how THEY did something.

The good ones will learn from you but instead of copying what you do they will take those techniques and apply them to their own visions.  The weak ones will try to copy you and in the end fail because they are learning ONLY the techniques and not that they are simply tools that need to be applied to their own visions, and so their work will be derivative and weak and therefore not really competitive.

My uncle used to pound in to me that one way to tell how big a person is was to look at how big a thing it took to get them mad.  People that try to claim your work and call it their own are really little people with little minds and even less ethics.  Let their own small world deal with them and you go on to worry about getting better and better with what you do.

Obviously if it has cost you money then go after them.  But if not, let it go and simply continue doing work they can only aspire to.  The good clients will know.  And the clients that don’t or can’t see the difference are ones that you really do not want anyway.

About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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