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10 June 2013

The future of Photography, and giving it away for nothing.

I'm sitting in the high seating section of CISAC, which is an indoor swimming pool here in Canberra.  The kids, including Jessica's friend Saphyre, are having some pool time.  

I've washed my hair this morning, and it's feeling clean and fluffy and it smells nice, and so I have absolutely no desire to swim.  I don't feel guilty about this, because I've worked my horse on Friday and skated on Sunday.  It is strange that it's never occurred to me to sit in this little 'stand' section overlooking the big pool, because I can actually see well into all three pools, and is a much better vantage point to supervise from.  Watching 3 kids at once is tricky, because I watch one, and lose sight of the the other(s), but they are all swimming so well now that staying out of the pool is a far less probematic exercise.  

I'm trying to finish off data entry for a tax return that is again wildly overdue, so I've brought the laptop along, and I'm working on that, whilst, casting my eyes over the various pools. But this morning an idle google search led me to ponder, once again, the issue of photographers, and the quest to earn a living, particularly once you take the freelance plunge.

I read recently of the retrenchment off of the entire photographic section of the Chicago Sun-Times.  The link to the article is here.  The Sun-Times is proposing that journalists will use their smart phones to record images to go with their news stories.  What an appalling decision, and a terrible position to take.  I might be a camera snob, and I know I have high standards, image wise, for what constitutes a great quality image.   

I'm sorry, but on the whole, the images coming out of most smart phones will NEVER rival the image taken by (1) a proper camera and (2) a proper lens.  Not to mention the fact that jouralists are journalists.  Their craft is writing and words.  They express their feelings and describe what is happening through their words.  It is a fine craft and profession (well, it is when the writer CAN actually write and does have a basic command of the English language, again, call me a snob if you must), but it is completely different to the specialist skills of a photographer.  

The art of a the photograph, and a photographer comes through telling a story through the eyes, and in recording a moment in time to remind us in the future of what happened at a particular moment in time.  Think of all those wonderful and iconic images taken of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and their contribution to our ability to remember him and remember Camelot.
"In the still-fledging digital world, no job is apparently secure. The entire photography section of the Chicago Sun-Times is the latest - but won't absolutely be the last - to fall victim to the increasing perception, at least among media moguls, that many others can do their work at a lot cheaper prices. The photographers will likely take legal action but even that will not stop a worldwide threat against what used to be exclusive expertise or comfort zone of professionals." 
The Nation.  10 June 2013.
I thought that these were salient points about the future of the news industry, and the value we place on the jobs that fills these industries:
"In some form or another, journalists – however you define us – will always be needed. Stories will always need to be told. Images will always need to be captured (including those tricky ones in low or odd lighting). My fear is that in restructuring of the industry, we risk losing it.
If Pulitzer Prize-winning photographers such as the Sun-Times' John H White can't hold down a job in journalism, maybe it's a sign that the collapse we've all been fearing is finally upon us. Perhaps it's only a matter of time before the top print stories are littered with text message shorthand and emoticons, and front-page photos as well as broadcast stand-ups shockingly resemble smartphone selfies.

Redefining the industry should not be simply about cost-cutting. To keep journalism alive, it's vital that we place an economic value on those who help to keep it afloat." 
Lindsey Bever.  The Guardian.  UK.  5 June 2013.
The mass retrenchments in Chicago follows the large scale redundancies which occurred last year within the media industry in Australia for both the News Ltd and Fairfax newspapers.  In Australia at least it wasn't just photographers who were retrenched, as they lost a number of fine journalists as well.  And admittedly, first they primarily called for voluntary redundancies where photographers (and journalists) could put their hands up and elect to leave.  But to lose 35-40 photographers, including some of your best and most experienced, leaves a fair hole to fill.  

News Ltd and Fairfax are putting a reliance on picture wire agencies such as Getty Images to fulfill their image requirements, but Getty also retrenched a number of photographers recently too.  Including some pretty high profile ones.  Some of the photographers I worked alongside for years on track have wandered across and are now working 'casual' for Getty and AP, but the conditions strike me as poor.  

The daily rates are incredibly low, the photographer doesn't own their IP, and they have to supply their own equipment.  It's a pretty poor deal if you ask me, and for these reasons, I've never sought fit to 'sell my soul to the devil' and work for free.  Particularly when you examine the fees charged by some of these picture libraries for the use of their images, it just strikes me as a poor deal for the photographer now working casual.  Yes, it may be 'easy' money, but in the long run, it's still a bad deal for the photographer who has no leave, no entitlements, no worker's compensation, and still has all the operating costs, and worst of all, nothing to show for their efforts at the end of the day because they've just signed their IP away. 
"Art is a way of seeing the world. It challenges perceptions, evokes emotions and stimulates thought" With this in mind, it is easy to see why art can only exist by virtue of change. It needs to always show us new things, or show us existing things in new ways. It’s in the way the photograph documents everyday life from a new perspective and enlarges the mundane to make it special" 
David Cohen de Lara is a freelance photographer based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
How much is too much?  How much is giving it away?  Is it a nonsense to work for a daily rate of $350?  I think it is.  Is it a nonsense to 'give' away digital downloads of your work for $25, when you know that the end user can then run off as many copies of that digital file without you ever seeing another cent?  I think it is.  I recently got asked if I would sell a digital download.  My answer was a curt no, I don't do it.  Unless it is sold editorially, and then it's a one off fee, or for a set time period.

I suppose it all depends on economies of scale.  You can afford to price it lower if the orders are flooding in from many different sources, or if they order a swag of images from you.  And clearly the more people who have a similar product or image means the less you can logically charge for your own image unless your own image is vastly superior.  But the bottom line should be that there is an expectation that it's a valuable service, and that the work has an inherent value, and you can't give it away for nothing.  It's an unfortunately common, and short sighted approach to give work away either for free, or for very little.  Many photographers feel compelled to do this, in order to get that small amount of revenue flowing in  But it's not sustainable, and I don't believe it leads to any real sense of worth to the photographer involved, or for the profession as a whole.  

The improvements in digital technology has meant that more people are shooting recreationally with better cameras than they did in the past, and that the cameras we use today are far superior beasts to the ones when I was using 20 years ago.  But the adage holds.  Putting a camera in your hand doesn't necessarily make one a photographer.  It makes you a camera owner.  And there's a very real difference.  That's just my 2 cents worth anyway.

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