KO-ed by a rookie error: get that model release signed first!

Recently, I got taken out by a small person with a large ego. And it’s all my fault.

Wasting time on Facebook, as one does, I clicked on a ‘friend’s’ picture, which took me to her album. ‘Hmm …,’ I thought, ‘we can do better than this …’ and dropped her a mail, asking if she would like to do a shoot with me.

She replied almost instantly, and most enthusiastically. Within minutes we had set up a meeting to discuss and, before I knew it, there I was, sitting in a coffee shop, listening to her life story. All very pleasant, cosy, friendly. She was a little stressed, having just been retrenched from her day job, and was looking forward to doing something a little different. She’s not usually the model, she said, but the stylist, and so this was quite exciting for her. I told her that I was working with a poet friend who wanted me to photograph images to accompany some of his work, and that I was to send him some images to inspire – I hope – a poem or two from him. I also mentioned that I had a slow-brewing plan for an exhibition (one day) and a book (ooooone day). She asked me to send her some examples of what kind of images I had in mind to shoot, we set a date, and parted ways, hugs and air kisses all round. It was all going so well …

I spent some time trawling through my inspiration folder, did some Googling and Flickr-ing, and sent of some pics that showed the kind of mood and style I was after. Then off I went to a costume hire company and hired some outfits, photographing them and MMS-ing them to her before hiring them, to make sure that she was comfortable wearing them and that they would resonate with her creative muse. We were going to collaborate. This was going to be a creative experience and together we were going to make some spectacular images – off-beat, creative, artistic.

She would have some great shots for her portfolio (she’s an actress), and I would have some pics for said exhibition, book, poet friend … maybe. If they turned out okay. I have learnt that things don’t always work out as we expect, and so wasn’t picking out galleries and publishers just yet.

Because I don’t have my own studio at the moment (long story), I hired studio space at a half-day rate (notice the dollars adding up …), loaded the car with all my equipment, off-loaded at the studio, got set up, and waited for my muse to arrive. In she breezed, dragging a wheelie suitcase behind her, stylist sister in tow, giving updates on her general state of exhaustion, her most terribly busy life, how it’s all so crazy, CRAZY, hand and hair blurring through the air. Then he flipped open the very stuffed suitcase, hauled out hair dryer, make-up, outfits, accessories … the Me Fest had begun. And the half-day arrangement was looking rather elastic.

She proceeded to pretty much dominate the shoot, having her own ideas about what outfit to wear and how it should be worn, and how to pose. Thinking it would be best to let her do her thing if I wanted to get the best images out of her, I let her direct herself for the most part, keeping myself to sorting out the lighting, angles and apertures. I did some direction, of course, and got some shots that I wanted, but mostly it was like trying to catch a butterfly in your hands, and I realised that I really wasn’t going to get anything remotely like the kind of images we had spoken about. Luckily I had set out being flexible about my expectations.

No sooner was the shoot over when I started getting phone calls, text messages, inbox messages – when can she see the pics; she’s so excited! We took hundreds of pics, and sifting and editing was going to take a while. I put together a shortlist of about twenty, though, setting aside other (income generating) work to do them. Then, when she saw them, she wanted to meet so that she could tell me which ones she wanted edited – lines around the mouth to be removed, pics to be deleted where she didn’t like some body part or other. Me-me-me …!

And then came the final flourish:

She couldn’t allow me to use the photographs. Not because she didn’t like them, but simply because she couldn’t allow it. They were purely for her portfolio and mine.

‘I didn’t sign a model release anyway, so you can’t use them.’

Just like that.

Because, see, I spent all those hours and all that money simply to provide portfolio images for an actress of no reputation who is not even an acquaintance of mine.

Now, of course I know about model release forms, and of course I get them signed. But this time I got carried away on what promised to be a creative experience, and didn’t whip the piece of paper out at the first coffee meeting. My understanding was that she had done some shoots before, as I had, on the arrangement that the payment for modelling is a selection of good photographs – TFCD. A good portfolio can be expensive, and if you’re a mostly-out-of-work actress, there is not much spare cash around to pay for updated portfolios.  I would get to the model release form a little later, I thought. We are both adults. We both know that the point of taking photographs is so that they can be shown  … and all the more so if I earn my living from taking (and selling) photographs. She is in the media industry anyway – if she wanted a different arrangement, she would have the savvy to say so.

Anyway. It all got a bit ugly, with her telling me what she would allow and what she would not allow, and me trying to get to grips with the notion that even thoug it was I who had spent all the money and many hours of my time, it was she who had all the rights.

So, in the end, we both lost. She has no photographs, and nor do I. They are sitting on a hard drive somewhere, and will never see the light of day.

Moral of the story: get the model release signed early. Don’t assume anything. Get it signed even if you have no intention of ever selling the pics – you just never know what might come up in future. Get it signed, no matter how sweet or friendly or accommodating your model seems. Just have a printed form handy, and get the model to sign it. It will avoid a whole lot of unpleasantness later on.



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Filed under Photography, Portrait Photography

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