An American Horror Story – Client Renegues on Photographer’s Contract

No stranger to controversy, we caught up with acclaimed photographer and friend of Phogotraphy, Mariel Clayton to discuss the importance of getting buyers of your work to enter into contractual agreements before putting in the leg work out of good faith. Mariel agreed to pen her thoughts for us so our readers would not make the same mistake.
NB. We have decided to include Mariel’s client names in this article despite the author not publishing them initially. ‘East Coast clients’ refers to Paper Magazine and ‘West coast clients’ refers to FX (American Horror Story.)

My name is Mariel Clayton, and I dismember, pose, and photograph dolls in dioramas… and people seem to enjoy that.
Mariel Clayton1
Consumption | Mariel Clayton

Although my work seems like the rancid ideas of a callous, career sociopath, I like to think in real life I’m rather a nice person, who is eager to help people out. Unfortunately, that attitude backfires more often than not when it comes to working as an artist, especially in the contemporary marketplace.
I was approached very recently with what could only be described as a dream opportunity – the chance to work with a fairly large newspaper [Paper Magazine], in conjunction with an extremely popular and critically acclaimed US television show [American Horror Story] on some promotional pieces for their upcoming season. They wanted to give me free reign to come up with 4 images, based on the show, totally under my creative control (with some decency guidelines of course).. but for the most part, letting me loose in the morbid candy cave of my brain and saying ‘Go for it!’.. which, in my opinion, is fantastic since that sort of freedom doesn’t come along often.
Of course, I grabbed the offer with both hands.
Fresh Organic Produce | Mariel Clayton
When the first email came through, from the contact in New York, the deadline for the final images was only 9 days away. Now, each of my dioramas can take between one to two days to conceive, construct and then shoot, and are usually only done one at a time (there’s only so many miniature props in the collection, and they can’t all be used simultaneously). Add to that, time to submit each image for approval, time to re-shoot or edit if needed… and that 9 day deadline, was really really tight. When it’s your dream job though… you find time somehow, and since I had been planning to take a few vacation days off anyway, well it all seemed to be coming together – I could do it, well and in time.
FPS | Mariel Clayton
FPS | Mariel Clayton
Within 2 days, I’d sent off the preliminary ideas to the NY contact, waiting to get approval, and of course – a written contract. My rule is – don’t do anything without getting the contract, and if not full payment, then a 50% deposit up front. However, it was taking a while to go back and forth with the West coast. A three hour time difference, combined with tracking down the people involved meant that the time window for actually getting anything done was getting shorter and shorter, soon I would have to forego the job completely because there literally would not be enough time to do it once everything was signed, sealed and sorted.
As someone who loves to create, and who’s ideas bounce around in my brain like a cricket on speed… waiting to get started on a project is torturous. Add to that a sort of nervous twitchiness around the project due date, I had to start something, anything, just to begin bringing the ideas out, working on them, altering, expanding, tweaking. So I broke my own rule…. and I broke it good and hard.
The Photographer | Mariel Clayton
The Photographer | Mariel Clayton
After explaining to the NY contact my concern with the deadline, and how the longer we waited, the more difficult it would be to complete, I got assurance from her, vehement assurance, that the project was definitely a go, they were so excited to see the final pieces, and they would have the contract out to me first thing on the Monday, along with a 50% deposit (this was at 5pm on Friday afternoon).
The contacts are lovely people – friendly, funny, wonderful to deal with, and they absolutely adored my work, gushing about how excited they were for this project. It made it a lot easier to push down any apprehensions, and jump in with gusto. Creative excitement and enthusiasm ran roughshod over sensibility… and in the course of one morning, gathering props and supplies, I ran up a fairly large bill.
The large cynical streak in my nature didn’t quite buy it though. As much as I wanted to believe that everything was coming into place perfectly, deep down, I was worried. As much as I wanted to trust the assurance of the NY contract, the absence of the written contract continued to niggle the back of my mind. I really wanted to trust the word of the person I was dealing with, but in the end – we were both let down.
The Countess | Mariel Clayton
The Countess | Mariel Clayton – One of the two images prepared for American Horror Story and Paper Magazine.
After working industriously the entire weekend, building, constructing and destroying existing props to cobble together new ones, it came to Monday, and there was no word from New York.
I reached out, even sending through a preliminary shot of one of the pieces so they could get a feel for what I was doing. The response was ecstatic – they loved it! There was so much great feedback and promise that the West Coast group would be thrilled that once again my concerns were mollified, well, some of them. So I kept working.
On Tuesday, still no word and since the deadline was imminent that was when the other shoe dropped for me, because no client with a deadline that close would take so long in getting something like a contract out in order to get things started. So that was when I put my foot down (nicely, like a Lady) nothing was getting done until I got the contract, and confirmation of a wire transfer. That night I was still working though, still hoping that my cynicism was misplaced and that everything would be fine and I’d regret wasting that time to finish up getting the props (miniature human kidneys) done.
My cynicism was not misplaced. It was not just myself but the New York contact too who were let go.
On the Wednesday morning ( the start of my ‘mini-holiday’ I’d taken off to get all the work done) I got an email from New York saying ‘I’m so sorry….. ‘. Apparently the people from out West had given her the same assurances too that everything was a go, that the project was on, that we were all okay to start. In reality, not everyone was on board and the people out West who were supposed to be involved in that decision were not all informed or in agreement, so the project was scrapped.
Going Up | Mariel Clayton - The second from the completed American Horror Story series
Going Up | Mariel Clayton – The second from the completed American Horror Story series
I think the girl in New York was more upset than I was, because for her, she truly didn’t see it coming at all, whereas for me, it seemed to be inevitable precisely because I’d done all the things I don’t usually do, in order to guard this from happening.
So, I don’t blame her, or even the people from the West Coast, for screwing us over – because that’s the nature of this business, people change their minds all the time and you do what you can to make sure you’re protected. Unfortunately this time, I disregarded that, in the excitement of being able to do something that was the best creative project I could have hoped for, in a ridiculously short period of time.
Enthusiasm and a tight deadline are no excuse for not being sensible, for not making sure that you as an artist, with bills to pay, are properly covered for your outlay and effort. No matter how lovely the people are that you deal with, how gung-ho they are, how many assurances they give, never ever take those over a written agreement, one that can be enforced should it be broken.
It’s an expensive bloody lesson to learn.

All photographs and text used with explicit permission from the artist. If you would like to see more of Mariel’s work you can follow her on Facebook.

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