Posts tagged: doing it for free

It’s tough to be Independent.

By , February 13, 2016 10:53 am

The sad, albeit inevitable, news of the demise of The Independent as a printed publication reminded me of an interview I conducted some 17 years ago with Colin Jacobson. The interview was about his brilliant Reportage magazine, and foretold its inevitable closure in print form. Much like The Independent today it was compelled to become an online resource, but considering we are talking about 1999 when the web was in its infancy, it was a poignant indicator of the way things were going. Why is this relevant? Jacobson was probably best known for being the founding editor of the Independent Magazine back in 1988. The Independent may be highly regarded for the quality of its writing now, but in its heyday it was universally admired by photographers for the quality of the images it used, and the prominence with which it used them. That drive to make photographs of primary rather than secondary (or space-filling) importance within the paper was in no small part due to Jacobson and those with whom he worked, and it attracted photographers of the very highest calibre to work with them. When other publications shunned black and white for being an anachronism, The Independent proudly proclaimed that it was the quality of the image that mattered, and to photographers that mattered and the paper and Jacobson were seen as their champions.

The interview may be older than the digital revolution, but what it has to say is just as pertinent now. The online version of Reportage is still available, although has not been updated in fourteen years. Here’s hoping that the Inde online is more successful.

 

 

An Interview with Colin Jacobson

 

As men of vision go, Colin Jacobson is an unlikely example. Soft spoken, bespectacled, and, it appears, utterly at ease with life. But looks deceive, and he definitely has a vision, albeit one which by his own admission is self-indulgent.

In 1993 Jacobson launched Reportage, a magazine for quality black and white photojournalism. Image led, it was inevitably hailed as a Picture Post for the nineties. But poor business decisions and Jacobson’s reluctance to compromise on quality led to its demise in 1995.

At about the same time, the arguments about the death of photojournalism became a favourite in the pages of the photographic press. Perhaps it was coincidence. Nevertheless, the received wisdom was, “nice try, but the genre’s dead.” It was, therefore, something of a surprise when Reportage was relaunched in the winter of 1997.

Working in London’s Shoreditch, Jacobson is now guiding his creation into the second year of its second incarnation. It’s make or break time and, quietly, he knows it. Files and papers all around him an exercise in controlled chaos; the hum of his Mac standing in for the insects oddly missing from a humid summer’s day, he took time out to consider how he had reached this point in his life.

Jacobson’s career seems in retrospect to have been grooming him for Reportage.

“I started as picture researcher for The Sunday Times Magazine in 1971. At the time it was a very strong magazine with topical features. They had Don McCullin going out to Vietnam. It was in the tradition of front-line reporting. My job was to find photographs to illustrate texts that were already written. It was a very good learning school because at that time it was definitely the most influential magazine in the world.”

From there he moved on to become photo editor on the Economist, before working on a short-lived but interesting magazine called Now.

“It was the first real attempt to launch in the UK a news magazine a bit like Paris Match, or Stern – a kind of hybrid between that and Time or Newsweek. A lot of text at the front and back but the centre of the magazine was visual. You always had a strong photoessay in the middle, which was usually news related. A lot of our stories were the first to be published in the world, like the Reagan assassination attempt, which we got out very quickly the day after. That was a fast moving magazine but unfortunately it closed after eighteen months because it wasn’t making any money.”

Did that set the seed for Reportage?

“Not really. Where you could say it planted a seed was my realising that the best photography always comes from a particular individual’s perspective. The way the photographer sees the story is the difference between ordinary photography and memorable photography.”

Another lesson he took from Now, was that a good picture magazine does not need high profile writing staff. The major input should be visual not textual. But he is adamant that this is not the same as saying that good captioning and well written text cannot enhance an already powerful set of pictures.

“Despite the fact that Reportage is an attempt to swing the balance towards the visual, as opposed to the textual, I do believe very strongly in good text. Photojournalism means context – photography in journalism – so it requires good headlines, good intros, good captions, good text to make it all work. I have a couple of volunteer slave labourers who help with the text. I hope that the text is not just throw-away, I am really trying to avoid that.”

From Now he moved to the Observer Magazine as photo editor for six years before a very brief excursion to another short-lived paper, News On Sunday. When that closed after only eight weeks, he freelanced for a year, editing the photography for Chronicle of the Twentieth Century before landing the job for which he is probably best known, founding picture editor on the Independent Magazine in 1988.

“The first few years of that magazine we achieved something really quite special in British magazine journalism. But all these things have a kind of life, and after a few years somebody decides on a change for no apparent reason. I left the Independent in 1995 just after the Mirror group bought the paper.”

The fact that he started Reportage while still working for The Independent is telling. Such a massive undertaking would put most people off.

“My spell at the Independent made me realise that nobody was doing the stories that we began to do. Once we started showing we were prepared to do black and white stories, and not about famous people or lifestyles, we started getting a lot of submissions. I realised just how much work there was out there that wasn’t getting published.

After three years the Independent Magazine got a new editor who wanted to make it more glamorous – much more like any other magazine really, and less like the magazine it had been. That’s the point at which I started Reportage because I wanted to find a home for this work which was either not being published at all, or if it was, it was very truncated – maybe just one big picture and a little one, and that was it.

It was a shame that somebody was spending a lot of time on a good story, producing maybe ten or fifteen excellent pictures, and then no one could see them. So I started the magazine in 1993 with the hope of providing an alternative to the mainstream magazines.”

Reportage is characterised by its high quality – quality paper, quality printing, quality design, and of course the quality images. If his motivation was to publish unseen work, surely it would have made more sense to compromise on the quality in order to reduce costs, lower the cover price, and give the magazine a greater chance of success?

“It was a time when the broadsheet magazines were going towards newsprint, so the reproduction was pretty mediocre. I wanted something that was going to be more collectible. I knew it was going to be expensive to produce anyway, and that it was not going to be a cheap magazine to subscribe to, so I felt people would want to get something of value.

It was an expensive subscription, particularly for a quarterly magazine with not that many pages. It started out at £12 in 1993. I wanted to persuade people that this was worth having, by having something well printed, and well designed; something that people wouldn’t just throw away like most colour magazines these days; something lasting, which in a sense, put together over a year would be a bit like a small book. You had an investment in something which you could keep.”

In the editorial to the pilot issue, Jacobson wrote that “in the minds of most people the distinction between photography as self expression and photography as a documentary tool still exists.”

“I think the guidelines are being merged more and more between documentary photography, photojournalism, and press photography. You could say that reportage is a kind of “catch all” description. But I think press photography is becoming dominated by digital technology, and to my mind suffers. What is paramount now is speed. The speed at which you can get something on the page. I think that is having a destructive effect on press photography generally, if you look at the quality overall of national newspapers in Britain today.

At the other end of the spectrum is documentary photography. This is becoming much more obscure. Documentary is getting closer to art in that it is more about personal expression than chronicling something out there in the world. It is tending to become more about a subjective assessment of a subject. Documentary photography is a lot more about combining fragments of this or details of that, and putting it all together as a show. I think that’s what has happened a lot in documentary practice. It’s becoming a curatorial product rather than a photography product.

In terms of photojournalism, I think the real problem – in Britain anyway – is that the outlets are going. Other outlets are replacing them. Like the Internet, which is available for photographers to show their work, but they don’t make any money out of it. Photojournalists are finding it difficult to survive. Some are reaching into commercial work and advertising, or company reports – well paid, but not very challenging in terms of being a photojournalist. Others are working in more focussed ways in niche magazines. These specialist magazines have good opportunities for photographers, but they are not going to give the same job satisfaction that photojournalists would get from say the Sunday Times Magazine.”

Does he feel then that the documentary rôle of photography needs to be protected?

“Yes. There is this big contemporary post-modern debate about, ‘is there any such thing as truth; can we ever talk about anything as being objective anymore?’ To me a lot of it is a philosophical game, because actually most people would agree a normal kind of reality. Like if you drop a pen from your hand it will fall downwards and not upwards. You accept this without asking if it’s true or false; it’s a common reality. What I believe is that there is a certain kind of debate about photography which is at an esoteric level of curators, critics, teachers, where a lot of mind games are being played. But I don’t think it is touching the greater public, who by and large still believe, despite all the evidence of manipulation digitally or non-digitally, in what they see in photographs. They accept it as a form of evidence and appreciate it as a kind of contemporary history. The general public are the people I am trying to get to. I am not really trying to get to the people who are happy to reject classical photography as meaningless, because as far as I can see it does have meaning if you want it to have meaning.”

So we arrive at the critics who from the outset felt that Jacobson and Reportage were trying to keep alive something they regard as an anachronism.

“That is a totally valid observation, but in the end you do what you want to do and what you believe in.

Most of what we understand about the past is mediated through pictures – a lot of it photography. Our understanding of Belsen comes very much through George Rodger’s pictures. What I can never quite understand about post-modern attitudes is that if they consider this kind of work as no longer valid, who’s going to provide this kind of history? It’s certainly not going to be through some of the post-modern work we see in the Photographers Gallery all the time. I mean what are people going to think in twenty years time when we look back on photography in the Nineties? What sense of society are they going to get? I don’t think they will get a very representative sense from this work.

I am quite happy to accept that a lot of stuff I publish is very “classical”, but I don’t see that as a pejorative word. Many of the outlets for photography on the page, apart from the mainstream publications, are into the avant-garde, and new ways of seeing. Fine, I have no argument with that, but I think somebody has still got to keep representing this classical stuff.”

If the need for Reportage is as real as he suggests, why did the magazine fold after only two years?

“The big problem with the first incarnation was that we printed far too many copies. We stupidly decided not only to supply subscribers, but also shops through wholesale distribution. We printed substantially higher numbers than we needed. About five or six thousand per issue for the first year, with about three and a half thousand subscribers at the end of that year. Our second problem was that all subscriber based magazines lose a high proportion of their subscribers at the end of the first year. You have to send a lot of letters out to people to remind them to resubscribe. Now it’s fine if you are Time or Newsweek because you can just keep doing it automatically. But every time I set up to do it, it cost me over £1000, and I could only afford to do it two or three times. So that was a reason why we never managed to get back our basic subscriber base. But maybe a lot of people didn’t like the magazine as well I don’t know.”

Having turned to other things, a chance encounter gave Jacobson the opportunity to try again. For most it would have been a case of once bitten, twice shy, but not Colin.

“To be honest, I didn’t think I would get a chance to relaunch. I hooked up with this publisher in Holland who is publishing it now. We met at Perpignan during the first incarnation and he rather off-handedly said he would always like to help. When I bumped into him again I told him what had happened and he asked if I would like to try again if he could raise the money. To which I said sure, I don’t want to lose my own money again! So eventually we did this one-off prototype for the new series. Then he managed to get a grant out of Canon Europe, which took us through to the end of the first four issues, and Canon Europe undertook to provide the same money for the second four issues. So we have that cushion. It’s not ideal to be dependent on sponsorship or grants. What we aim to do is to increase the subscriber base so that we can feel like we are our own people.

With the second incarnation we have a much more coherent strategy. We only print enough for our known subscribers plus some extras. The unit costs have fallen dramatically, but it’s still not cheap.”

Once more he finds himself holding his breath to see if people renew, which is, perhaps, a bigger question than the first time given the big increase in the subscription price since the first incarnation. If being a conduit for good contemporary photojournalism is Reportage’s guiding philosophy, what does Jacobson see as being its future?

“We have always hoped we could achieve a subscriber base of five thousand – internationally – over a period of years. That would be our ideal target, especially when we hit America, which we are trying to do now. Then we would be in a position to commission work, as opposed to trawl it in.”

That kind of support would also raise the possibility of the occasional colour story. While his preference is for black and white he is not averse to colour.

“If I could afford to publish colour I would probably do one story per issue, but it would have to be a special story where colour actually added to your understanding of the pictures.”

Contrary to suggestions that he is antagonistic towards advertisers, Jacobson suggests that quite the reverse is true; he would welcome advertisers, but can’t get them because Reportage is too small.

“My experience is that it’s more difficult to get people in the UK to help or sponsor than in Europe.”

Is this symptomatic of a British malaise? Evidence on the street would suggest not. Photography seems to be going through a renaissance, and black and white is more popular than it has been for years. But how is it seen at the publishers’ level? Jacobson’s view is rather bleak.

“What I detect is a growing disrespect for photography in that it is seen as just there to fill a space. There is no real belief throughout a publication that photography has a contribution to make.”

Clearly his own view is diametrically opposed to this, and his belief is strong enough that he doesn’t take any pay from the magazine. Indeed, almost all those involved in Reportage are giving their services for little or nothing.

There is no question that Reportage is an excellent and unique magazine, and Jacobson will continue to put it together for as long as the money is available. It will be interesting to see how history reflects on the man and his creation. By rights he should succeed. Whether or not he does is down to the greater public he aims at. At £32 for four issues it is not cheap, but then again, things of value very rarely are.

 

Original published in The RPS Photographic Journal

I’ve had enough

By , March 6, 2013 10:42 pm

The following is a genuine request from a genuine bride:

Ideally I would just like a photograper for the day and a disk of images taken. I don’t really want a book. I’d prefer to store them digitally. However, a large price seems to have been placed on “wavering [sic] copyright” when giving disks of digital images. This is disappointing as we do not have a large budget at all and a huge price tag just for a CD of images is quite depressing.

Excuse me for asking, love, but what, exactly, is it that you think you are paying for? This may come as some surprise, but it is not a disc of images, the physical cost of which is about 50 pence. Perhaps that’s how much you think you should be paying for wedding photography.

Consider, for a moment, that this was another service purchase, for example, an architect. How would it go down if someone were to say, “I’d like you to draw up plans for my new building, but a huge price tag just for a couple of bits of paper is really depressing”?

The fact is, what you are paying for is content. It is the know how, the creativity, the vision. I can pick up a guitar and make a noise with it, but it doesn’t make me a musician. Equally, just because someone has a camera it doesn’t make them a photographer. If you want cheap, I have no doubt you can find it, but don’t come complaining when the pictures you end up with are, well, cheap.

I know you don’t think you will, but I have at least two couples come up to me at every wedding I shoot and complain that ‘they got married six months ago and they really wished they had used someone like me because their pictures were crap’. Well here’s the thing: someone like me was available, but they just didn’t see why they should pay for it. You pays your money, you takes your choice.

But there are other costs as well, so we may as well debunk a few myths while we’re here.

The first is that now things are digital, it’s cheaper for us photographers. Sorry, if anything it’s more expensive. Why, well professional grade digital cameras are about four times more expensive than the film ones used to be, and they need replacing about three times more regularly. To put numbers on that, a film camera used to cost £1500 and need replacing about every seven to nine years depending on how well you looked after it. The equivalent digital cameras are about £3500 and need replacing every two to three years. I know you can get a camera body for £500, but if you really are working as a full time professional those cameras won’t last more than a couple of months of heavy use. Then there’s storage. Storing negatives is cheap. Digital files are comparatively expensive and time consuming, and they need constant backing up.

Which brings me on to the next fallacy: digital is quicker. On the whole, no. In the days of film you could finish a wedding, drop the films into a lab to get them proofed, and do a bit of paperwork. Now a day’s wedding will include a day of post-production preparing and processing the images for use. I don’t know what line of work you’re in, but I am willing to bet that if something started to take twice as long, you’d be looking to charge twice as much. Most photographers moving from film to digital have swallowed that extra cost, in effect they are earning half what they used to be earning, and all the while the customers are wanting them to cut their prices.

It’s also worth remembering that print sales used to form a significant chunk of wedding photographers’ sales. While I understand that people’s relationship with photos has changed now (I am human too, after all) the fact that a digital file can so easily be replicated and sent to anyone means that passing over a disc necessarily kills those sales. Is it reasonable to expect photographers to give those discs over without some form of suitable compensation?

Then there are the costs of being in business, things like rents, rates, heating, phone bills, computers and IT, professional insurance, travel, taxes, accountants fees, stationery, advertising, training. These things cannot be covered doing 40 weddings at £100 a time and giving you the disc, and that’s without, god forbid, suggesting that I might like to feed my family, put clothes on their back and a roof over their heads, and maybe have a holiday camping in Wales once a year.

I wish I could say this was an isolated experience, but sadly it is becoming all too common.

Here’s another one:

I understand everyone needs to make a living but unfortunately I simply can’t afford quotes of £1000 plus. I am having a February Wedding; it is out of season because I am hoping for out of season prices. We would ideally love to have the “getting ready” shots, wedding shots and some reception shots, first dance shots would be perfect. We are having an afternoon wedding at a church and a reception within half an hour drive of the church. I would like a mixture of good natural shots of us and guests as well as some classic posed group shots. With regards to an album, I would be happy to hear some quotes but this is not the most important thing to us. The main requirement is that we can have a DVD of high quality images to store digitally and maybe print out ourselves to make a low cost album in a few years’ time. The main “nice-to-haves” are; I would guesstimate about 5 hours of photography and a DVD of high res images for us to keep.

OK, let me see if I have this right: you want everything, but you’d like me to pay for it because you can’t afford it? I’d like a Bentley but I can’t see them giving it to me for the price of a Ford Focus just because its outside my budget, can you? If you really can’t afford it then you need to lower your expectations and look at the quality photographic services you can afford.

As for out of season prices they relate to venues as a rule, the reason being that they were finding everyone wanted to get married on a Saturday between May and September, and that’s only about 22 days out of 365. As a result they hiked the prices on the peak demand dates and offered incentives to couples to book less “popular” days. That doesn’t really apply to photographers. If someone asks me if I’ll do a discount for shooting a wedding on a Wednesday, my response is to ask if they want me to provide the same service I’d give on a Saturday. It’s not that out of season is cheap for venues, it’s that the peak season prices are artificially inflated with venue hire charges and such. If you don’t think that’s true go to a wedding venue out of season and buy a pint, then try again on a Saturday in August – any change in price will be minimal and nothing to do with the time of year.

I know the world of professional photography has changed, and frankly it’s for the better. I welcome the increased competition, and the driving down of prices for the benefit of consumers. But there has to come a time when a little dose of reality comes into people’s thinking, and that time really is now.

I try to provide options for everyone on all budgets. I have a number of wedding schemes, and they range from £450 up to about £2,500. You’re not going to get everything for £450, of course not. But you are going to get quality. More importantly, I never destroy anything. So if you’re feeling flush a few years down the line you could always get that canvas or the disc then. It allows you to plan, budget, and spend in a way that is suitable for you.

I have a clear data management policy, so you don’t need to worry about the photos. They’ll still be there for you six months or six years down the line. Whether you buy your disc or not, if your house burns down, I’ll still have all your pictures. In fact, if my office burns down I will still have all your pictures – it’s all part of the service.

In the end, if you are getting married there are two things you need to ask yourself: the photos are virtually the only physical thing left when the dust dies down on your big day, does it really make sense to cut corners? Secondly, given what I have said about the costs of being in business, if someone says they can spend all day photographing your wedding and then just hand over a disc for a couple of hundred quid, might that not just strike you as being too good to be true?

There are lots of good photographers out there. Some are cheaper than I am, some are more expensive. But you won’t find any that care more deeply about your photos than me. Come and talk… you might just be grateful that you did.

Great Fosters with a storm brewing. Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2013

Great Fosters with a storm brewing.
Photo: © Michael Cockerham 2013

 

Resumption of service

By , July 28, 2010 11:37 am

I apologise, dear readers. It has been far too long since I wrote anything.  My last post came just days before the birth of my third child – you will be hearing more about him – and so much has happened since then. So much to extole and praise. But I need to get on my soapbox first.

A recent post on Black Star Rising has attracted a lot of attention, and I find myself fuming because of the illogical responses of so many commentators. I feel like screaming out “get over yourselves!” For some reason photography attracts a type of person who feels they have a God given right to be a professional photographer, and they regard the fact that they don’t earn a living as everyone’s fault except theirs. The reality is that not everyone who wants to be a photographer can be one. That might seem harsh, but it is no different to saying that not everyone can be a Premiership footballer or Oscar winning actor. The problem is that it is almost impossible to “pose” as the footballer or actor, but so easy to pick up a camera and say “I am a photographer”. All you need to do is show evidence of your work and you’re all set, right? Well it might be, if you charged. And there is nothing worse than hearing “photographers” complaining that there is no money to be made – there is, you just have to ask for it, like any other business.

The last exchange of comments between “Jonathan” and me, were, I thought, worthy of publishing on Blue Filter. Interesting to see what others make of it all:

Jonathan said:
July 26th, 2010 at 5:23 pm

This sounds like someone who is quite bitter. It’s not the 80’s anymore folks! Budgets are smaller! It’s sad – but right now, NOBODY knows what the photo budgets of the future will look like. Who knows if they will exist at all… All the bitching in the world is not going to stop the YOUNG, TALENTED, and PASSIONATE photographers of tomorrow working for $0. In terms of gear/money, all you need is a consumer level camera and cheap computer…

Michael said:
July 27th, 2010 at 9:36 am

@ Jonathan. Your comment is astonishingly ill-conceived.

Yes budgets are smaller than they were. True, no one knows what the budgets of tomorrow will look like. BUT, there is always going to remain a demand for professional photography in whatever form that it exists. As long as there is media of any type, there will be a demand for professionally crafted images. The key word in that statement is “professionally”. If a person or organisation approaches a photographer to ask them to produce images (be they social, editorial or commercial in nature), then they exhibit a demand. It is, always has been, and always will be the case that anyone expressing a demand for a commercial transaction should be prepared to pay for the service. Absolutely every other person involved in the provision of a website, brochure, magazine, advert, TV programme, print etc will have been paid for their input. For some reason it is ONLY photographers that seem to labour under the misapprehension that it is OK to work for nothing. Why? Primarily because they go to college to be taught how to take pretty pictures of trees and leaves and rusting car wrecks, but no one thinks it is necessary to teach them anything about running a business. As a result, when they enter the big bad world of commerce they feel as though they shouldn’t really be there, and are embarrassed to talk about money.

I have lost count of the number of times I have heard “photographers” start a negotiation by saying “my rate is $xxx, but I am prepared to negotiate”. For goodness sake, don’t undermine yourself by offering to negotiate before the client has had a chance to respond to your “rate”.

Jonathan, you state: “All the bitching in the world is not going to stop the YOUNG, TALENTED, and PASSIONATE photographers of tomorrow working for $0.” My response to that is that if they are not being paid, they are not working. Remember, there is a qualitative difference between working for nothing and working for free. It is normal for photographers to approach others and offer to work for free for someone because it gives them access to something tangible and significant that helps their careers. But if someone approaches you there have to be very very compelling reasons for agreeing to work without pay.

It’s all very well saying that all you need is a consumer level camera and a cheap computer. I disagree with that statement, but even if I agree with it, these things still have to paid for. How exactly are the “YOUNG, TALENTED, and PASSIONATE photographers of tomorrow working for $0” going to pay for these things (and that is without mentioning PI, PL, EL, and equipment insurance, or all the other costs of business, and don’t even think about paying rent, feeding yourself, having a life etc etc.)

The real reason that this problem exists in the industry is there is a perception of glamour. There are so many people who want to call themselves “photographers” and they just can’t get a break by charging, so they prostitute themselves instead and do it for nothing. But that act undermines the industry they want to see themselves as a part of. It is more of an issue since the digital revolution because they can strafe the subject and hope they get a few acceptable hits. When I started out you actually had to understand exposure and composition and film characteristics because you could not afford to waste materials. I used to have an annual lab bill of $40,000. You can only afford that if you are charging to do the work. Just because there is no film cost does not mean that there are no costs. My pro spec cameras get worn out in about two years. In practice, every time I press the shutter release it costs about 3 cents. If you buy a consumer level camera it will actually cost more, not less. Then start looking at storage costs, backing up, software and computer upgrade costs. How are you going to pay for that if you work for nothing?

In the UK for the last few years there have been 10,000 people annually gaining some form of photographic qualification, chasing at best 500 jobs (and that is being generous). The competition is already really huge. Neither I, nor any other good photographer I know, has any problem with competition. But the reality is that whether you charge or not, if you are setting out, the likelihood is that you will NOT succeed. It is not enough to be a great photographer, you have to be a good business person too. In fact, the vast majority of successful professional photographers are not and never will be considered to be “great”, but they are good business people. That, whether you or anyone else reading this post likes it or not, is an absolute irrefutable fact. Where there are exceptions, those people employ agents or managers to look after their business affairs – and you show me an agent that sells their photographer to a client for free. In fact, it is well known that the reason for using an agent is that they will get a MUCH higher fee for their photographers than the photographers would get themselves. So much higher, that even with a 50% commission the photographer is usually better off.

So, where to do we stand with this whole working for free thing? I’ll tell you where I stand: a customer approaches me and asks what I charge. I tell them. If they say that they cannot stretch their budget that far, I will discuss with them what they can pay and what, realistically I can offer them. If we cannot reach a compromise, I walk away. I know that they will go to someone who works for less, and I have no problem with that. What I hope is that they do not go to someone who works for free, but if they do, in the long run it is ALL photographers that suffer.

There will be some people who read this that will disagree in a very visceral way. If you are one of those, ask yourself why you feel like that. Then ask yourself if you would do a different job for free. The fact that you like being a “photographer” is not a justification for doing it for nothing. The only justification for doing it for free is as a pastime, in which case the client is you, not some third party.

For myself I am busy and well paid, and I KNOW that that is because I conduct myself professionally and produce good work. I employ professional services to assist me (lawyers for contracts etc), and as a result clients know that I am serious and in business.

Yes I negotiate, but in a business like manner.

For example, I have just taken on a commercial job that the client thought was three days, I made the case strongly that it was simply not possible in so short a space of time, and told them it was at least six days, more likely eight days. After negotiation they agreed to eight days, and I made some concessions on the rate, but they are paying more than three times what they originally thought it was going to cost. Why, because they see that the value I can add to their project will pay them back at least a thousand fold what I am charging them (and trust me I am earning well from it) – in short it makes commercial sense.

And that, in a nutshell, is what every photographer should be asking themselves before they commit to a job: does what I am about to engage in make “commercial sense”? If the answer is always yes, then with luck you will still be a photographer 20 years from now. If not please post back in a few years time and tell us all what you are doing instead… and whether you do it for free.

Jonathan said:
July 27th, 2010 at 1:43 pm

If you don’t like the term “working” than consider the term “volunteering”. Whatever you wanna call it, I speak truthfully when I say that I know of many many cases where a photographer has produced images for a commercial body or magazine for nothing other than a photo credit and bragging rights.

Here’s a pink elephant, my vision of the future (I’m sure this will be very unpopular): Out of all of the folks who call themselves “professional photographers” about 0.1% will be actually paying for all of their costs of business, their mortgage, their assistants, (everything) and turning a profit to boot. They will be shooting for big business clients, ones who want the very “best of the best”. Then there will be about 5% of the “professional photographers” out there who work another job to make ends meet (such as IT) and shoot jobs about once a month. They will be paid, but poorly. Why? Their competition will be so fierce from about the other 94.9% of “professional photographers” who shoot for free or next to free. Oh wait, I’m not talking about the future anymore but rather the present… Hmm..

M, maybe we are coming from different worlds. I shoot fashion. I assisted some quite well known fashion photographers in the early 2000’s. After looking at your site, I see you shoot different things than I do. I like your pictures and I can see your talent would be an asset to a commercial client. However, the fashion budgets are horrific right now. I am assuming that the rest of the markets are not doing so well either, judging from the comments above.

All you really do need is a consumer level camera and a cheap computer. These kidos generally already have a computer. The camera can be gotten. The part time job maybe could finance it? Bank of mom and dad? Or Visa? What about the cost of doing business? Well, you said it yourself; these people are not actually working. So, they’re not actually doing business. Equipment insurance? Why insure a $1000 camera? Paying rent? Feeding yourself? Uh, thin is in… Bottom line is though, these kids are talented and produce images at no cost to clients. So yeah, “clients” are happy and (most importantly) not using the other “professional photographers” (who cost more).

Hey, it sucks. This is what’s going on in my world though and all the photographers out there who read this take warning, it’s coming your way. Try and be in that 0.1 percentile and you’ll be OK. OK?

“It is more of an issue since the digital revolution becasue they can strafe the subject and hope they get a few acceptable hits. When I started out you actually had to understand exposure and compostition and film characteristics because you could not afford to waste materials. I used to have an annual lab bill of $40,000. You can only afford that if you are charging to do the work. Just because there is no film cost does not mean that there are no costs.” You sound just like the guys I assisted and I totally agree with you. However, it also sounds like you’re upset. Again, I don’t blame you. But please, don’t contest what I’m saying. I’m living it. You don’t have to understand film exposure anymore and composition is subjective. Even though pixels do cost money, a lot of people don’t know they do (like a lot of clients) and let’s be honest – they are cheaper, less than a $40,000 lab bill. Storage costs? Computer upgrades? Uh, my MacBook Pro (the 2004/5 model) along with my pirated copy of Photoshop can handle a file from a P45 no problem let alone my digital Rebel. Yeah, it’s a little slower than your MacPro but who cares?! I can’t afford a new computer and it works fine!

“You show me an agent that sells their photographer to a client for free” – I could, but we’re in public. OK, I couldn’t tell you how much the client paid the agent, but I could tell you that the photographer shot the job for free/bragging rights.

“What I hope is that they do not go to someone who works for free, but if they do, in the long run it is ALL photographers that suffer.” Already happening, see pretty much all the comments above as proof.

“The only justification for doing it for free is as a passtime, in which case the client is you, not some third party.” True. We’re going in circles. The clients, in the end, gets nice HighRes photos for free. Neat.

I think you have a good business sense (probably better than mine!) but you are a little in denial about what is happening and where we are going. I know I sound very defeatist. I just hate surprises. I mean, there’s a reason this blog post got written in the first place.

Michael said:
July 27th, 2010 at 6:37 pm
Jonathan, you suggest that I may be upset and in denial. I am far from upset, my business is lean and efficient and turns a decent profit. I own my own house and have a wife and three children, all paid for by photography. My business is growing, and every year I improve my margins by finding more efficient methods of practice. My software is legit, my equipment is top end. In the next three months I expect to upgrade my studio lights, my computer system, my data archives, and my cameras and some lenses. All of this is paid for through a profitable and reasonably well run business. There are still things I could do more efficiently and I address each issue that bothers me in turn. In short, I am far from upset. The digital revolution has been difficult, but I have come through it well placed. Next up is the stills/HD video revolution. Where will that take us I wonder?
As for denial, I have no illusions about what is going on in the industry, and like I said, there are occasions when shooting for free (not for nothing) can make commercial sense. For example, you say you are in the fashion world. Well, I know a photographer (very well known in the fashion world) who shot an entire campaign for a top drawer designer for free. Actually, the shoot cost him about $20,000. It involved A list models, sets, makeup artists, retouchers etc. Why did he do it? Because the designer was so high profile that he was GUARANTEED a ten page spread in every edition of Vogue in the world. It was a loss leader that generated an enormous amount of business for him. Naturally it was a contractual obligation that the designer did NOT tell anyone that he had shot for free. The thing is, he was already shooting for some of the biggest names in entertainment and fashion anyway, and that is how he got the chance to pitch for such a big account.
So what then is my problem? What is it that is making people write blogs like this one? It is the simple fact that I feel like I have come across a group of people who are complaining that their house is burning down, and yet their solution is to pour gasoline (petrol) on the flames!
I am fed up with hearing people moan that there is no money in photography anymore, and then blaming the market, the editors, the art buyers, the PR people… everyone they can think of except themselves. The simple fact is that the people who are screwing the photography industry and making it impossible to earn a living are the photographers, not the buyers. The buyers are responding rationally to a situation created by the glut of people who want to call themselves photographers so much that they will pay for the privilege. Every time a photographer agrees to work for free, or starts a negotiation by saying that they can negotiate on price before the client has responded to the quoted rate, they hammer the nails into the industry’s coffin a little further. It is that that pisses me off.
It is time for photographers around the world to wake up and smell the coffee. It is not that the business has gone sour, it is that they are not treating it as a business. Instead of going to another free Photoshop seminar they should be paying to go to a negotiations workshop. I know of one company that was approached by one of the biggest companies in the world to do some work for them. The company’s response? “You can’t afford us!” Red rag to a bull. It made the approaching party more convinced than ever that they could NOT afford NOT to use them.
Stand outside the world of photography for a moment and look at it dispassionately: none of the arguments make any sense. Yes budgets are getting tighter, that is the reality of the world we are living in at the moment. But in every other industry it mean restructuring to meet the changing climate. Some companies will fail, and others will actually grow through recession. But in no other industry will you see companies working for free – it is a luxury that they cannot afford. As a result, although most sectors have seen falling demand, the industries themselves remain properly balanced. Now consider photography, lets consider fashion specifically, since that is the area you mention. Budgets are constrained, but they still exist. Designers are still trying to run a business, the fashion magazines are still selling and drawing advertising from design houses and companies with lifestyle products and services. Fashion shows are happening, models are being paid, as are set builders, chandlers, make up artists, lighting companies, events coordinators, caterers, security companies, PR agencies… I could go on. All of these people are being paid. So how come when it comes to the photographs – the very things which the fashion industry absolutely needs in order to maintain consumer interest and as a result cash flow – there is suddenly “no budget”. Of course there is budget. But if you were in their position and you KNEW that “young talented and passionate photographers” would work for nothing, what would you do? You would say you have no budget, book someone, and then laugh about their gullibility with your colleagues over a bottle of Bollinger paid for out of the money you saved by not having to pay the photographer. I repeat: it is not THEIR fault, it is OURS.
The facts are these: not everyone that wants to be a photographer can be one. Just like not everyone can be a Hollywood A-lister or drive a Bentley. If ALL photographers stopped this working for nothing (not free) bullshit at once, and started to behave professionally, the future of the industry would start to look very different very quickly. Do you seriously think that if we all charged or refused to work that we’d just have no pictures anywhere anymore? Of course not. The budget would suddenly appear because it was always there, lining the pockets of the clients that should be giving it to you.
You gave me a vision of the future. I’ll give you mine. The number of “professional photographers” will shrink, but there will be plenty of paying work for all of us that treat it as a business, not just as an art. Even the art photographers I know that are successful treat marketing and business very seriously, that is why they are publishing books every year and getting funding. That is why I have signed a commercial contract in the last three months that is worth a quarter of a million dollars over the next three years. What will it take to make my vision come true? It will take everyone that is a photographer, or wants to be a photographer, starting from the basis of believing in themselves and believing that what they do is important and adds value. Know your worth and stick to it. If you think the state of the industry sucks, then do something about it, because our future really is in our hands.

Copyright is the battleground of the digital age

By , April 8, 2010 1:17 pm

Well, the government had their way, and with the collusion of the Tories the Digital Economy Bill was passed for a third reading with barely two hours of debate, and it will get royal assent and pass into law before Parliament is dissolved. The good news for photographers is that the Tories did manage to wrangle some concessions from the Government, not least of which was the dropping of Clause 43. Stop 43 a coalition of photographers has been quoted as saying:

“The UK government wanted to introduce a law to allow anyone to use your photographs commercially, or in ways you might not like, without asking you first. They have failed.”

But it is clear that the issue of copyright in the digital age is not going to go away. Dominic Cooper, the General Secretary of the Chartered Institute of Journalists has just sent me through this:

Google’s sweeping digital book settlement is facing extra complication and delays as photographers and illustrators prepare to file a fresh class action lawsuit against the internet company over images used in the publications it has been digitising.

The American Society of Media Photographers and a number of related trade associations are expected to file the case against Google on Wednesday in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York.

The action is separate but similar to a class action that is the subject of a pending $125m settlement filed against Google by authors and publishers related to the Google Library Project, which aims to scan some 18m books on to an online database. Photographers and illustrators were not allowed to join the existing class action suit, and have opted to file their own case.

“Google is scanning in books and publications with visual images, which impedes the rights of the copyright holders of those images. We are seeking compensation for that,” said James McGuire, founding partner of law firm Mishcon de Reya, who is leading the case.

The reality is that the rapidly changing business models for photography are resulting in increasing numbers of amateurs being content to earn a few bucks here and there through sales of images via photo-sharing sites like Flickr without being overly concerned about tracking usage and third party syndication  or other copyright infringements. Many are simply chuffed to see their images in print, and while there is nothing wrong with this in principle, it is leading to a wholesale dilution of the market’s expectations of how “photographers” regard their intellectual property. As a result, while many professional photographers are learning to shift their business strategies and diversify by playing the amateurs at their own game with frequent submissions to similar sites and microstock agencies, they are having to fight a rearguard action to protect their work from big business which has the power to ride roughshod over photographers as a whole.

For any amateurs reading this, the moral is simple: there is more than enough room for you and the often excellent work you produce, but if you don’t place a realistic value on it then others will treat it as worthless, and in the end that makes photography as a whole all the poorer.

So on the subject of photographers protecting their jobs, it seems a good time for some more What The Duck:

What The Duck strip by Aaron Johnson

Job Security © Aaron Johnson 2010

UPDATE: Have just discovered that Michael Fallon MP (whom regular readers will recall I had written to on this issue) voted against the bill as a whole. Thank you Mr Fallon. I would like to think my letter had some influence.

The threat to our living – update II

By , March 3, 2010 5:53 pm

Busy, busy. Half way through a shoot for a bespoke bed manufacturer, very interesting – never knew how complex making a bed was, at least that is the excuse I gave my mother as a child and my wife now!

Anyway, a little belatedly, I have had a reply from Michael Fallon MP. I assume from the tenor of his reply that he is seeking reelection:

Dear Michael Cockeram (sic),

Thank you for your email of last week about the Digital Economy Bill. My apologies for not replying earlier.

This Bill is in the House of Lords and has yet to reach the Commons but we are already aware of the substantial concerns about authors’ rights and “orphan” works. The Conservative Party wants to ensure that the Bill does not damage the exisiting rights of content creators, not least those of professional photographers, and that it prevents identifying information from being stripped out from a digital image.

Some amendments are due to be made in the Lords next week but we shall want to scrutinise this part of the Bill very carefully when it reaches us, and improve it if necessary.

I am copying your concerns to our Conservative spokesmen here.

With all best wishes,

Michael Fallon

Well, the good news is that he appears to be on the side of professional photographers (I wonder how many reside in his constituency, and if you’re one and you didn’t notice apparently he is Conservative and there is an election?), although I am a little troubled by the “improve if necessary” bit. I think most photographers that have taken an interest would say that it was necessary, so no ifs, just improve, please. I might then even forgive your spelling my name wrong.. poor that, really poor, and there is an election soon too!

What the duck

By , February 24, 2010 7:39 am

I have been aware of the satirical cartoon What The Duck for some time, as it makes its pointed comments about photography. These things, though, have a habit of getting lost in your consciousness, so I am grateful to my Canadian correspondent, Kevin Argue for reminding me about the strip earlier.

I figured it might be nice, from time to time, to embed strips that have a relevance to the preceding posts. If you love photography and have a keen sense of humour, click on the strip to be taken to the What The Duck site and sign up to receive the newsletters and strips.

Here’s the first:

What The Duck strip by Aaron Johnson

The Audacity of Hope © Aaron Johnson 2010

The threat to our living – update 1

By , February 19, 2010 12:21 pm

I have received a reply from Derek Conway to my letter regarding the Digital Economy Bill. It has all the passion of a man on his way out of politics and probably couldn’t care less:

Dear Mr Cockerham,

The reality is that the government will get its way on the Bill unless the Opposition manages to block it during the winding up of the present Parliament.

As an individual MP there is no way I can prevent this measure making progress so I hope your professional association has made the points you have given me to the Conservative and LibDem spokesmen.

Kindest regards,

Derek Conway TD MP

So much for representing the interests of your constituents! I never thought for a minute that he personally could stop it. But surely it is incumbent on him, however long he remains in the House, to hold the Executive to account? He could reassure me that he would ask probing questions and make a valid contribution to any debate. But apparently his attitude is, “what’s the point”?

It occurs to me, that with so many MPs declared to be standing down, that many, if not all, will be taking a similar approach. If so, we – the people – are no longer being represented at all, and there can be no greater justification for a call that Parliament be dissolved and a general election called immediately.

I await Michael Fallon’s response. In the meantime, this has been published today by the British Journal of Photography.

The threat to our living

By , February 17, 2010 3:44 pm

The government’s drive to enact the Digital Economy Bill before the general election poses, potentially, a far greater risk to professional photography as we know it than the digital revolution itself.

Much has been written on this quite eloquently already for example here, so rather than rehash, it makes more sense to take the problem up directly with our MPs. One wonders exactly how that will pan out given the numbers who have nothing to fight for, but I feel it is worth at least stating a case rather than lying down without a fight. On that basis I have written the following letter to two MPs – Derek Conway (Independent) who is the MP for the constituency in which I have my office, and Michael Fallon (Cons) who represents the constituency where I have my home.

I will post the responses when and if I get them. In the meantime I strongly urge you to do the same where ever you are. And by the way, if you are reading this as an amateur photographer, don’t be fooled into thinking this does not affect you. If you take pictures and post them on the internet, it probably affects you more than it does the pros.

Dear Derek Conway/Michael Fallon,

I should like to ask how you stand on the proposed Digital Economy Bill.

As a professional photographer of over 15 years based/living in your constituency, I am extremely concerned about the elements of the proposed legislation surrounding “orphan works”, and indeed anything that undermines my right as the author of creative works to be the sole controller of how and if such works are used. That right of control has been the mainstay of my living throughout my adult life. When on occasion I have discovered that my work has been used without my consent I have had the right in law to be recompensed and demand that the illegal use be stopped.

The proposed legislation will in effect remove that right, since there is no balancing item in the bill that requires publishers of such works to maintain a link between the works and their authors. Neither does the bill specify what would constitute a “diligent search” for the author of a given work. Once a work has been deemed to be “orphan” it can be used subject to a nominal payment to a government organisation. If the author subsequently comes forward, he or she gets a percentage of what was probably already a derisory sum, with the rest going to cover administrative costs and no doubt the government.

But how are such fees to be determined? A couple of years ago an editor approached me to use an image of mine she had come across, on the cover of her magazine. I rejected the request because I did not want to be associated with that publication, but had I agreed, the appropriate fee would have been nearly a thousand pounds. If this bill is enacted, a similar editor could find such an image, not be able to “discern” that it was mine, and pay a nominal fee for its use. What then? My work is used in a way I find objectionable, and on discovering its use, my recompense is a percentage of a figure that we all know is going to be significantly lower than it should have been.

If you wonder how likely this might be, consider that it is quite common when works are supplied to a client, for the layout process to strip (not necessarily deliberately) all the embedded IPTC data that indicates the provenance of the work, in effect orphaning work that had been carefully “marked” for ownership.

I accept that the issue of Intellectual Property in the digital age needs to be reexamined, but the bill as it stands while addressing key issues for the music and movie industries, is hammering a nail in the coffin of professional photography at a time when it was just starting to show a solid potential for growth following the digital revolution. When it is also dealing with the near collapse of traditional editorial markets, and the negative effects of a deep recession, the last thing we need is for our political representatives to hand over our near lifeless corpse to Mr Murdoch and his friends on a silver platter.

I hope I can rely on you to push for the bill to be reexamined paying particular attention to its effects on all forms of professional photography at its next reading in the House.

For further information on this pressing issue please read the following.

Yours sincerely,

Michael Cockerham
Member of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

Notes from the VisCom Classroom: A Tale of Two Students

By , January 9, 2010 12:08 pm

A very worthwhile post on Black Star Rising about not selling yourself short. If you intend to be a photographer for a living, take heed:

This is a tale of two photography students. One sold some pictures to a client and was bummed out. Another failed to land an assignment but ended up feeling

via Notes from the VisCom Classroom: A Tale of Two Students.

If only it was fiction!

By , October 9, 2009 2:04 pm

A link to the above was emailed to me by my friend James Lipman – a very good car photographer.

This movie is hysterical, but oh so true!!!!!!!!!!

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