Am I getting punked? How to avoid fake businesses online.

It used to be easy to tell a real photographer, make up artist, or shoe store from a fake one. You’d walk along the street and look at storefronts, pick up and test their products. You could even try stuff on BEFORE spending hundreds of dollars on shipping and border crossing charges.

Nowadays, anyone can have a website. With the popularity of Facebook, it’s even easier for an individual to pretend to be a business, taking your money and never delivering on their promise. We’ve all seen those horrifying reality/expectation posts but in case you’ve forgotten:


On the flip side of that awful coin, industry professionals with a genuinely good product are being lost in the deep holes of the internet, relying on a handful of loyal customers to survive. Trustworthy people are being shut out by ever-growing swarms of internet trolls hell-bent on carving out a piece of the pie for themselves.

That’s before you consider the amount of theft that occurs online. Artists and photographers are particularly vulnerable to having their work stolen and sold by someone claiming to be the original creator.

My opinion on this is going to be a strange one: I think we need MORE trust, not less. Here’s why:

  1. New creators aren’t necessarily bad at what they do. My first experience as a creator was walking into a newspaper office with my knees shaking, as a thirteen year old kid, and asking them if it would be okay for me to write an advice column for kids. I didn’t know a damned thing about writing for a newspaper, didn’t know a single person in the newspaper industry. All I had was a sample of my writing and a desire to write that column. Cat Chat debuted in the Hamilton Spectator in 1993. Nobody ever asked me how many twitter followers I had, how many of my friends would read this column. They published it because it was a good idea.

There are a lot of kids like I was out there. Kids who are doing their hair or their sister’s hair, or their makeup or their boyfriends nails, sewing outfits, drawing pictures, and putting their work up on instagram and other sites. Those kids don’t have anything except a good idea. They’re just as worthy of notice as any other creator.

2. Experienced professionals don’t always have time to prove their worth to you.

Since being a knock-kneed kid walking into a newspaper office, I have published four novels, entered a number of art shows, worked as a background actress in several productions, and done hair and makeup for photo shoots and shows. I have done hair, makeup and fx makeup in indie productions and written a few scripts as well. My goal in life was to make a living on creative pursuits, whatever those may be.

I worked for my father’s event planning business for five years as a photographer and worked another five years for Sears Portrait Studio.

I finally settled on my first love-writing-and started a publishing company ( but I still love to audition for indie productions, create costumes, mess around with makeup and do hair.

Because nobody puts baby in the corner.

I have found, since the advent of the internet, that it is both easier and harder for me to find work. Easier, because there are so many people posting online looking for photographers, face painters, hair and makeup artists, and the like. Harder, because those people call me a liar the minute I don’t have a ten thousand image portfolio of every picture anyone on the internet has ever taken (and then some).

Which has the unfortunate effect of making unprofessional photographers look professional, and the opposite is true also.

Often, professional photographers, particularly those who work on movie sets and at large events, do not have access to their own photos. I offered to help out with photographing a fashion event recently and was turned down because “You’re a professional photographer but you don’t have a portfolio?”

Yes, I worked as a professional photographer but I don’t have a portfolio. I started typing a response to this woman, who didn’t believe I was real. I wanted to tell her that when you photograph a large private event it’s different from a nightclub photobooth. You are often required by the client to keep your photos private, or to exclusively provide them to the client. ¬†When you photograph office Christmas parties and the like, it’s unlikely that the client wants you to distribute their photos. Weddings, doubly so.

Working for Sears Portrait Studio is like working for the photo CIA. You shoot onto a memory card which is wiped the second you put it into the computer. The photos are ordered directly from the computer and you can’t print anything out in-studio. You are forced to sign both a non-competition clause and a sheet saying you will not take any of the photos or products home.

In other words, if I had taken home any of my photos, I would have been breaking the law. ¬†Photos Unlimited just went on a massive firing spree of Sears Portrait Studio employees, so hundreds of photographers with 10-25 years of experience were let go. Those people will take AMAZING images of you or your family, because they have literally years of experience. But if they try to get work? Sorry, you don’t have anything on instagram.

And the flip side of THAT issue is scary as hell. I was invited to help out with a photo shoot in Hamilton, and thought nothing of it. The “photographer” needed a hair and makeup artist to do “pin up style hair”. I had never done pin up style hair but thought it would be really fun.

This man had rented a $100 a month studio in one of those new “arts buildings”. I had to walk down a long hallway and up three flights of stairs to this “studio”…hallways that smelled like pot and hobo pee. But anyone who has ever worked in NYC can tell you that sometimes pot and hobo pee happen, even on a legitimate shoot.

At first, everything seemed normal. I did the girls’ makeup and their hair, which was in perfect pin-up style. He took a few photos like that and then told me that he hadn’t meant 1950’s pin up style, he just wanted me to make her hair look “sexy”….oh-kay.

Ten or fifteen photos later, he asked the (very young, extremely slim) girl to put on a tutu and told me to put up her hair in pigtails. He was breathing heavily and visibly aroused. I started asking questions at that point.

What was the photo shoot for? A fashion brand? No. it was tfp (trade for portfolio). The model wasn’t being paid, and neither was he. Um, okay.

How did he make money then? Oh, he wasn’t a photographer. He actually worked somewhere else, and this was a hobby for him. Um, okay.

So basically, this man was luring young girls to his studio online with the promise of taking “portfolio images” for them, and then taking numerous images for himself. Soon enough, he asked me to leave, paid me half of what he’d offered to pay saying I had done a great job and he was sorry for not being forthcoming about his financial situation, and sent me home.

I wasn’t surprised when a few days later he posted an album full of nude pictures of girls.

Yes, he has a portfolio. And for the last ten years he has been billing himself as an “aspiring photographer willing to help out aspiring models by shooting tfp”. Aspiring for ten years?

Creepy faketographers have always been common, but now they’re able to congregate online and spread lies about actual industry professionals. I was shocked to find that there are entire groups of them telling people that any photographer who only has a physical portfolio of printed pictures or a website with a number of different photos isn’t “real”. I’ve even seen posts where they claim that any photographer who has pictures of different things isn’t “focused enough.” Only photographers with nothing but pictures of girls by themselves are “good.”

3. We tend to trust the wrong people, especially online.

There is a trend toward chasing rumors online. We love a good story about a “bad” person. If someone is beating their dog, eating too much, or making a crazy face, we want to know about it. Bullying isn’t just a community issue, it’s a world issue, and many of us have forgotten what we learned about bullying as little kids.

When someone started a rumor about my best friend sleeping with a guy behind the dumpster in high school, I told her what they had said, knowing it wasn’t true. But what if someone had photoshopped her head onto a still from a porn video, and posted the whole thing online for people who didn’t know her to gawk at? Would they know her well enough to understand that it was all a lie? Would they care? No. They wouldn’t even see her as a human being, just a fun story to pass an afternoon laughing about.

I think we need to trust more. When someone tells me they can make a book cover, I believe that person. I allow them to make a book cover and judge them based on their merits. If someone is lying, you’ll know soon enough.

There’s one simple way not to get screwed over by fake businesses online:

Use their services. Find out for yourself if the business is a good one. At the end of the day, any “professional” can really, truly suck at what they do.

In my business, I get a number of submissions. Some are from experienced writers, and some are not. I’ve gotten really crappy work from people who boast about how amazing they are, great work from people who say they suck, and I have even decided after one conversation about D&D that I was willing to put everything I had into helping this person write a science fiction book.

Arts careers are not, and have never been, about your reputation. An artist who has nothing but time to post their images all over Facebook is not a working professional. At my old and sage-like age of wisdom, (haha), I’ve learned this one thing: you can only trust actions. Not words.

Including mine. I’ve done a lot of things, and I plan to do a lot more things in life. At no time do I plan to justify any of them on social media. The best, strongest decision you can make for your business is NOT to engage with people who ask you to explain yourself, people with the entitled attitude that they’ve got it all figured out and you are trying to screw them. Ask yourself, do I want this pain in the ass for a client?

Likewise, the best thing you can do for yourself as a purchasing individual is give trust a chance. How did I find out which ebay sellers were scammers? By spending $1 a day on ebay products from different sellers, and seeing what came in the mail. How did I find out which photographers were actual professionals and which ones were perverts? Story for another blog post. The next one, actually. How do you find out which grocery store has the best apples?

Eat the apples.




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