Industry Insights: Sue Ireland on building a commercial career

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In collaboration with Direct Digital – the leading international photographic equipment rental service – 1854 Media and British Journal of Photography presents Industry Insights, a series delving into the ins and outs of working in the photography industry.

East Photographic’s Sue Ireland shares advice on developing portfolios, navigating negotiations and “trusting your gut”

Sue Ireland, co-owner of East Photographic.

Founded in 1996, East Photographic (East) is a creative agency based between London and New York, representing artists in photography, moving image, and set design. “Our main ethos is being personable and being kind,” says Sue Ireland, who has co-owned the business along with Roger Silveira since 2004. “It sounds a bit cheesy, but it really is about treating people how you want to be treated.”

Ireland is in close touch with her whole roster, and the agency places particular emphasis on personal projects – it opened a gallery space in east London in 2019, designed as a platform for artists to showcase personal work – and runs a bi-annual professional mentorship programme for emerging photographers.

“All of the people that work in the US and the UK teams are extremely passionate about photography,” Ireland says. On both sides of the Atlantic, East staff dedicate time to looking for talent on Instagram, on photographers’ websites, attending shows, and in editorials. “We come together regularly and we share who we’ve seen; we’re very proactive.”

© Agnes Lloyd-Platt.
© Scandebergs.

Ireland is keenly aware of the fact that the photography industry today can feel saturated and competitive. “We’re bombarded with imagery now because of social media,” she says. How can a photographer differentiate themselves? “I think something has to strike a chord in you,” says Ireland. “It really is about the artist having a distinctive voice. Normally it’s when there’s real meaning behind the subject for the photographer. It’s authenticity. That’s the work that speaks the loudest to me.”

On that basis, she explains that a photographer just starting out shouldn’t necessarily rush to show work. Time spent patiently developing a confident voice is essential, as is making sure your portfolio and website are coherent. “A lot of the time the work can be a bit all over the place, there isn’t a common thread through it,” says Ireland. “It’s much better to have a stronger, cohesive portfolio of work when you’re about to show people, even if it’s in its infancy.”

Staff at East regularly meet with early-stage artists whose work intrigues them, whether they were discovered, or if the artist has reached out themselves. “It’s nice to start to be on that journey with them,” says Ireland, “and give them advice and keep in touch. Often that develops over time”.

If they encounter a photographer who is ready for representation, they will set up a portfolio meeting and begin a more formal process. “One other way of meeting new talent is encouraging people to apply for the East mentorship. We get a huge amount of applications, and it’s a really nice way to see new talent,” she says.

© Andrew Jacobs.

For early-career photographers without agency representation, the business side of the industry – fees, contracts, licensing – can be difficult to navigate. How should a photographer, approached by a commercial client for the first time, handle negotiations? “I would start by asking the client what budget they have,” says Ireland. “It’s a good way to be upfront and see what figures people are saying. Record all the information so you’ve always got this to go back to as you’re building your client base and you’re working more.”

“Be confident with your negotiations,” she continues. “If the fee that you suggest gets agreed, don’t wish that you’d asked for more; and if the client walks away once you’ve quoted your fee, be sure that you wouldn’t have done the job for any less. It’s about deciding what value the job has for you at that particular time.”

She also emphasises the necessity of reading agreements and contracts as carefully as possible during the negotiation stage, particularly regarding image usage. “We often find that photographers have negotiated a limited usage license, and then in the paperwork they’ve actually signed giving away copyright, which is awful; you can’t let that happen.”

“Don’t be afraid to ask for advice. More often than not people do really want to help”

“Trusting your gut is also something to think about,” she goes on, “And as you get to know more people in the industry, and as your peers start to work more commercially, don’t be afraid to ask for advice. More often than not people do really want to help people starting out. As you build your network you can start to think about people that might not mind helping bounce off a fee structure with you.” Ireland also suggests the AOP (Association of Photographers) as a good resource in the early stages.

Once an artist has developed a voice through their personal work and begun to feel confident in their portfolio, they shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to editorial themselves. Often, a photographer’s early commissions will be from editorial clients. Editorial can offer an opportunity to, as Ireland puts it, “dip your toe in, in terms of presenting your work.” An artist could tailor a portfolio of portraiture or fashion and reach out to a magazine. “You may well get your first commission from that platform,” Ireland suggests. Mentorships, like the kind that East runs, are another potentially helpful developmental structure for artists to keep in mind.

East Photographic's gallery space in Dalston, London.

Attention to social media and websites is also key. “They are the shop window,” says Ireland. “They are the first place that people will go to see. You need to be 100 per cent confident that everything on there is updated, relevant, and true to the artist.” As with preparing a portfolio, the emphasis should be on coherence. “Often we find that less is more in those beginning stages,” she explains. “It’s about putting on the website what feels right, instinctively. You feel that it actually reflects you, not putting it on for the sake of it because you’ve shot something.”

Unsurprisingly, the past year has been challenging for East, but the agency rallied fast as the pandemic took hold. “During this time we really relied on each other to keep spirits up,” says Ireland. “We’ve had an inevitable increase in communication, which has bonded the team more.” All hands have been on deck, finding ways to tackle the new limitations; artists have been working, both commercially and personally; the exhibition space now faces outwards, towards passers-by in the street. “It’s actually been really energising,” says Ireland, “to have that challenge, and to rise to it and succeed.”

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Alice Zoo

Alice Zoo is a photographer and writer based in London. She is interested in the processes by which people construct meaning for themselves, often focussing on its expression in ritual, celebration, and recounted memory. Her work has been exhibited in public institutions such as the National Portrait Gallery, Royal Photographic Society, and Royal Albert Hall, and published in British Journal of Photography, FT Weekend Magazine, The New Yorker, and elsewhere.