Producing Narrative Photographic Work for a Small Audience

A black and white photo print of an older man on a tabletop

Producing photographs, writing, and ideas to share with others is such a wonderful way to direct creative energy, and for many, this approach involves setting themselves up as a photography business practice in some way, whether that’s offering the work as a product or as a service.

If offering photography as a product, as an object worth desiring, then there are many parallels to the way traditional artists run a business, which relies on a dedicated audience of collectors and appreciators with whom the work resonates to the extent that they want to make it a part of their everyday life by hanging it on a wall at home, or filing in an archive or album.

Social media presents a very smooth methodology for building an audience that pre-social media visual artists could rarely achieve. The sheer quantity of eyes seeing that work, comments, and feedback rushing in by the thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions, is overwhelmingly more than any pre-mass communication artist would be able to manage within their lifetime.

These huge numbers can set us up to expect that as the norm and make us feel inadequate if we fail to meet those expectations. In some genres, there can be real financial consequences for not having an appropriate social media presence, and this can act as a chip on the shoulder of photographers who may be capable of so much more than is possible from simply following these trends.

A photo book spread of a man holding a line over water

In my experience, working for a smaller, intimate audience who truly connect with me and what I am trying to achieve with my vision has been the most rewarding dynamic, and the strongest foundation I could imagine to build from for the rest of my career. The truth is that it doesn’t matter how many multitudes of followers a photographer might have on any platform if those followers are only interested in what is being made available for free as “content”.

A while ago I adjusted my output on social media to the extent where I don’t think it’s really photography at all, I plan out my “content” for tiny screens in order to offer something small to people who enjoy it but which points towards the existence of the real thing, the scale of the work in print, the presentation I actually want the work to have.

The size and scale of the work do have an effect on the impact it can have, and there’s simply no substitution for that in a handheld digital screen. Even a double-page spread across A7 is a better way to feel the image than the screen, even if viewed full screen but absolutely not in a small square.

A photo book and smartphone both showing the same photo of a silhouetted man

It is hard to rely on people who are used to receiving your “product” in the form of those social media samples when it comes to purchasing from your business, especially when they have already appreciated and enjoyed the exact same images on their phone – there is no drive to buy the same image on paper. There seem to be so many prints and books released currently which just act as bigger, printed social media feed, and that’s a literal hard sell to an audience who don’t appreciate why that leap may offer them a different experience to simply scrolling through a feed.

I would prefer to avoid bringing in an audience of people who like the content I offer for free, which is why I try to always offer something with value even when it’s being given away. My personal blog often has more than just imagery but also insight and anecdotes, which bring a greater depth to the stories I am telling.

I’ve run my blog since 2017 and in that time across a few hundred entries have gained a small audience of readers, nearly 300. That’s far fewer than the followers I have on Instagram, but they are engaging with me and my work in a more intense way, with richer insights and a greater range of content on offer beyond tiny squares on a phone screen.

For as long as I’ve been working with film, I’ve been building up an archive of images that can be grouped together and sequenced into full, long term projects that can be experienced the way I want them to be; connected, complete with a beginning, middle, and end. These will replace my previous business model of working as a service-based photographer which involved client-oriented gigs.

A man without a shirt raising one arm

The individual heavy hitters in my lineup work as darkroom prints; aesthetically beautiful, invoking the classic methods, and have the built-in value from the manual labor production aspect which can be harder to justify for digitally mass-produced prints within that electronic workflow. I make my decisions for these based on what would work well for walls and collections, which isn’t necessarily always my best work, but I understand that the more graphic or intense imagery from my work won’t find a place as a print to my current audience base.

An image of a film negative in a photo book

These heavy-hitting images are sometimes but not always also integral or breakout images from my photo essays and stories. This is where my main attention resides, and where the majority of my effort is concentrated. I started off with experimentation using some of my archival work to produce small runs of Zines, which were popular enough to sell out quite quickly. This gave me a sense of what kinds of things people were interested in and how much they were willing to spend on an actualized physical piece of work.

Proportional to my “following,” my customers are not even a full percent, but this means that I can give my attention more specifically to those I know actually value it. Nurturing them at the expense of those who are only after my free content doesn’t cost me anything, as the growth from the positive feedback, word of mouth, and those followers sharing the work of mine they like brings in more of the kind of audience I would prefer than those who are just looking (who I don’t especially mind, it’s just I want to allocate my attention carefully and with discretion in order to be in the best position to produce the work I would like to through my career).

I don’t want to push work out just for the sake of it, I want to have something to say in these pieces, which means that after these initial productions to demonstrate the direction I would be taking I took myself mostly offline to work on sequencing a fuller narrative piece, which contained work I’d made in Bulgaria over Christmas in 2020. Coming in at 100 pages I was happy with the result after a couple of test iterations, and when it was ready I listed it for pre-order.

A portrait of a person wearing winter clothing

Taking pre-orders meant that I didn’t need to invest in copies that would never sell. Instead, my print run would be dictated by the audience that responded via the platforms I marketed on – Twitter, Instagram, my personal blog mailing list, and a few outlets I write for. Aside from the time I spent on marketing pieces, I didn’t “spend” on this campaign.

I ran pre-orders for about a month before I started to fulfill orders, after which I raised the price a little and bought some reserve copies as extra so that people could still buy ahead of this. I had plenty of people thank me for doing it this way, as pre-orders rather than sales from limited stock meant that people could buy at their own pace and to their own financial convenience – things like payday could come and go and my timetable wouldn’t exclude those with odd income situations.

I sold just over fifty copies by pre-order which was enough to cover the expenses from the trip, the print run, and with about 50% profit overall.

After this, I invested all of my evenings into putting together a hardcover book – although Bulgaria had been a dense project it still felt zine-styled to me, whereas hardcover has an entirely different connotation. For this I set my expectations a touch lower, as the cost to print was quite a bit more expensive, meaning to cover the cost and make a profit on top I needed to charge close to double Bulgaria, but also wanted to make sure the content was as valuable as I would be assigning the monetary worth.

When D.C. Exclusion Zone was complete and I had run my test copies to satisfaction, I knew that while I was very pleased with the piece itself it would have a niche appeal to those interested in me, the conditions in D.C. during the Inauguration, or those interested in this kind of situational documentary work.

At £55 per copy, I would be making roughly £25 on each book as the hardback cost was around £30 for any reasonable quantity I was likely to print – I did estimations on 20 through to 50 and decided to try for 20 as I could always print further runs if demand exceeded my expectations. The format was physically larger than Bulgaria, and while only 30 pages more contained 121 photographs that all genuinely work together to convey the ideas I want them to, with very little excess – hopefully something unique and enjoyable and rewarding with every page turn.

A hand holding a photo book

It may not be a grand ambitious number, but I decided to realistically aim to sell 20 copies by Christmas, with an October launch date. At the time of writing this, I have sold 18. These are not huge production runs where economies of scale come into effect, and many of the people who bought a copy are those who have supported me previously, although a few were first-time buyers of my work they are people I’ve spoken with on social media or interacted with in some way in the past.

Although I made less than on Bulgaria with this, I actually preferred the feeling of tight communication with those few people, who were able to access a serious in-depth print production, and not just see some superficial, contextless images on a social media feed or website portfolio. Instead of spreading myself too thinly, giving myself away, I felt fulfilled.

At one point I would have been disappointed with the idea of not selling a large run of 500 copies, and it would obviously be incredible if I had the capacity to sell 500 copies of any of my work, but there are many practical hurdles to overcome for a feat like this – the cost of production, let alone storage of what would amount to hundreds of kilograms of books in my small shared apartment. That’s the strength of large publishing houses with distribution deals, and until I attract the attention of one of those realistically I and many others along this road should continue to approach the process within our means, looking to slowly and steadily build up, snowballing effort while rewarding that dedicated audience with something they genuinely can’t get elsewhere.

It’s difficult, but it is a strong foundation to continue in small steps, with patience to produce value to those waiting to enjoy it. True connections with that dedicated audience who know me beyond scrolling past my work on social feeds.

A photo of a street sign behind a barbed wire fence

The next move I’ll be trying to make is to reach out beyond the bubble of a photographic audience – that is, to concentrate on those who are not photographers or interested in photography much themselves, but would see a different appreciation in my images. I mean the broader art and documentary world, including sociologists/anthropologists, humanists, commentators, who may derive interest from my studies of humanity which converge with those fields of interest.

I know that the people who bought D.C. Exclusion Zone were about 50/50 people who liked my work purely as photography, and those who were interested in what the project represented culturally and politically, and many orders shipped to the US, as well as a few to other countries, which was nice to see.

Interest in photography is a low threshold to meet, as of course everyone with a smartphone is technically a photographer the interest reaches further than those who own dedicated cameras, which leaves little to be gatekept. However, this does often make me wonder if the audience for photography is just other photographers and if there is any merit in wanting to reach people with a message contained in photography but not exclusive to it.

Books and gallery shows and even online spaces are geared towards communities of people engaged in the same practice as you which sort of means you take interacting with those practitioners as if they are the audience when there is a world outside of them – perhaps this is my perspective because social media is where I started out, but more and more I don’t want it to be a major aspect of how my work is seen at all.

Essentially, I don’t want my main audience for my photography to be people who “know.” I want my photographs to have a role in reaching people who “don’t know”. Having a small, dedicated audience is a good foundation, but also allows me to partially rely on those people while focusing my attention on new people who are outside of this photography bubble. It means I can accept pre-orders to fund a project that can then reach out to people outside of that dedicated audience.

About the author: Simon King is a London-based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work through his documentary collective, The New Exit Photography Group, and on Instagram.