Contracts as a Demonstration of Systems Theory


Photo by Barry Schwartz

Any contract, at its simplest, describes an exchange of one thing (a service or product) for something else (usually, money), and is defined by deliverables and payment. On the surface. A contract – even a bad contract – is a reflection of the experiences of the participants – practical, business, even aesthetics. It is a representation of a relationship.

As a supplier, I think of my contracts as the point of a pyramid, with all the years of training and developing skills on the bottom leading to a highly-defined agreement at the top. Like the pyramids in Egypt or Central America, something is hidden in plain site: the process it took to get them built, including the cultural beliefs that informed their construction. Contracts are just as much a reflection of the culture in which they are written, and much is hidden (or at least not spoken of).

That is why, in negotiations, people skills are the most important part of the process. As a supplier, no matter how good my intention and skill, if I’m not able to communicate I’m capable of providing what the other participant needs, there won’t be a contract to deliver upon. That contract will have gone to someone else.

People skills are more than a display of good manners while focussed on what the other participant will pay for. Each party has responsibilities which may be hidden during negotiation, but the larger cultural context is never hidden: it is the world we both live in.

I document the built environment as a large part of my work as a photographer, and commonly negotiate contracts with architects. I’m highly aware they need pictures for their websites and to submit to magazines and competitions, and to show their own potential clients. As I develop a proposal based on the specifics of a project, however, there are any number of things I might never be told. For instance, the architect may not think it’s necessary to inform me they have been lazy about marketing and are feeling sheepish about the possibility their non-marketing has led to business being slow. Maybe they have not been able to afford upgrading their office equipment and software, and are worried they may be forced to lay off people who have worked for them for decades and with whom they have personal relationships and for whom they feel personally responsible. They see hungry young architects coming up behind them, differently attuned to clients’ needs and willing to work harder for less money because that’s what everyone does when they’re getting started. They have a child about to enter college and they’re wondering how they’re going to pay for it. Maybe their back hurts.

I don’t know about any of that. The architect doesn’t know anything about my own worries crowding my mind during negotiations. If I’m awarded the project the architect simply expects I will do what is necessary to get them the photos they need. None of the drama in our lives needs mentioning during negotiations, nor, really, should be. It’s best if the architect and myself think of ourselves as potential partners during negotiations, as though we were on a first date. (People who spill their guts on a first date rarely have a second one.) If we sign a contract, we will, in fact, become partners – legally – for the duration of the contract.

In a good relationship, we have a common understanding of what I need from them and they need from me. The architect and myself are part of a system we are so deeply embedded in there is no need for either of us to define every little thing; a contract can be two pages long – or less. Much is unspoken yet very much understood.

I have funneled into the contract all my years of photographic skill as well as what I know about my potential partner and their profession. The same is true of the architect. That, and the culture in which we both live, is what allows us – essentially strangers – to work together.

So our contract is not so much a set of words that define deliverables and payment as it is an acknowledgment we both live in the same culture, in the same system. And if I ever forget that’s how it really works, I might as well go get an honest job.