Insider’s Take — Dumping, Price War, Oversupply: Freelance Photojournalists Fighting an Unwinnable Battle

Diego Giudice, director photo agency Archivolatino
Diego Giudice, Director Photo Agency Archivolatino

For freelance photographers who have historically been the vast majority of photojournalists, the last few years haven been very tough. Their traditional customers, newspapers and magazines around the world, are still immersed in a huge and endless crisis, steadily losing sales and readers at the hands of the Internet. Staff reductions, downsizing and restrictions on the purchase of freelance material have been the worst effects of this market trend.

At the same time, changes in photographic technology put quite good cameras into the hands of almost everybody, enabling a large segment of aspiring or amateur photographers to fight for less and less money — at the place of professionals. In Latin America for example, we have seen newspaper writers at a press conference producing images and video with their point-and-shoot cameras their newspapers’ websites.

True, the quality is not the best, but also true, quality on the Web is much less noticeable.

The coup de grâce to freelancers lately seems to come from the more popular vehicle to sell photographs: agencies. Basically two major agencies, Corbis and Getty Images, have achieved in recent years a large concentration of the market thanks to the acquisition of many smaller agencies that they merged or kept under their umbrella as distinguishing brands.

Additionally, newspapers and magazines around the world started to run their own agencies aimed to sell the work of their photographers. Few years ago a photographer covering a story for a newspaper had to provide a good pictures for the printed edition of his media. Now, probably for the same money, he covers a story not only for the print edition, but also for the website and must provide additional sets of images to feed the newspaper’s agency. Well, he or she might even have to videograph…

These small newspaper agencies, besides selling within their own country, probably have an agreement with Getty Image, Corbis, Alamy or another minor player in the game. This way, the work of a photographer working for a single local newspaper gets a distribution and enjoys a selling force that leaves many freelances out of the market.

Not surprisingly, this troubled scenario led to a price war. Under pressure to gain a market share, some agencies started lowering prices to license their pictures. The reasoning is simple and flawed: 20 photos licensed for $10 is the same as licensing a single picture for $200.

Maybe the agency can afford such a thinking, but it sure doesn’t serve the needs of the photographer who besides has to cover all the costs to make the pictures, not to mention the acquisition of gear…

Religious ritual, Venezuela | Howard Yañez / Archivolatino
Freelance photojournalists have often unmatched access, but their work is honored less and less — Religious ritual, Venezuela | Howard Yañez / Archivolatino
The idea of a globalized market and the prospect of selling their photographs to a world-wide sparked enthusiasm initially. But we haven’t had to wait too long to see that this meant a blow for the chances of a freelance photographer to make a living from his profession that’s often a passion.

Soon a multitude of websites appeared offering very cheap photographs and even royalty-free photos for just one dollar. And this is not all. Many agencies making journalism belong to governments, such as AFP in France, EFE in Spain or Xinua in China. They don’t run profitable businesses, a fact they can afford because they have government budgets. Associated Press, on the other hand, doesn’t belong to a government. It’s a cooperative of American newspapers — and guess what, also losing money.

Now these “government photo agencies” supply their material to some global agencies that in turn license the pictures for very, really very little money.

If all I said looks a little too complex, let me try to give you an example. This week we had the famous carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro. Such a big event was covered by all photo news agencies, many of them spending government money. The event was also covered by Brazilian newspapers which passed on the pictures to their own agencies.

Both of them, big international news agencies and local newspaper agencies, distribute their photos through some global network or syndication to feed the retail market. Both of them are in no need to make money from this world-wide distribution. They have their own budget to cover the story. They just erode the market even more.

So, how can a freelancer sell his pictures during the Rio de Janeiro carnival, having to pay all the expenses himself? How can he win against an agency that is licensing pictures for less than $10? How many pictures would the freelancer have to license to just pay the cost of covering the event?

In a world full of regulations and antitrust laws, freelance photographers are defenseless. They fight an unwinnable battle trying to make a living amidst globalized agencies that lower the prices for even excellent work beyond any reasonability. Add the dumping of government-budgeted news organizations.

Diego Giudice is the director of Archivolatino, a photo archive specialized in Latin America that resisted and survived a decade of radical changes in the professional market.

Diego Giudice has been a writer for ten years before becoming a professional photographer. He worked for The Associated Press in Venezuela and Brazil. He went back to native Argentina where he founded Archivolatino and runs the photo agency to this day, against all odds.

  • lorenzo

    Greate true article.

  • Thank you for this important article Diego.

    True, the convenience of digital photography produces so many more photographers struggling for a piece of the cake.

    True as well that the heightened competition raises the bar.

    Each and every day some amazing photography floods the wires and the Net.

    To make a living from it one has to deliver really outstanding work.

  • PWL

    And THIS is why, in my comments to the article “As A Photographer, Your Credentials Are Worthless,” I said I would not give up my day job to try to make a career in photography. The days of HCB, David Douglas, and Alfred Eisenstadt are long gone–thanks in part to technology which guarantees that any idiot can take a good photograph. I love photography, but not enough to starve trying to make a living at it.

  • True.

    Still, understand the increased competition as pressure to aim even higher.

    Overall, I think today even better photography is produced than pre-digital.

    For HCB et al it was so much easier. They wouldn’t have a chance with trying to publish the same images today.

  • I seriously doubt the current situation leads to photographers aiming higher. A classical pianist who cannot get enough work because the market dictates people want to dance to disco music will not get the job no matter how much better his Bartok performance might be.

    There are so many people taking photographs today and depending on luck the photographer who knows his (or her) stuff is hard put to compete. As the fast food world has taken over, so has fast digital access to snapshots. An image about an event today is likely to be forgotten tomorrow.

    If there is a one-day event and fifty people shoot 600 digital images each (snap snap snap snap snap snap snap ad infinitum) that is a source of 30,000 images to choose from for magazines and newspapers and others scouring the internet. Out of those, probably a few people got lucky and took interesting photographs that can be shown on the internet site os newspapers etceteras. They just did not know it.

    The photojournalist who knows his stuff risks being left out in the cold. Or he sells at a ridiculously low rate which will eventually lead to being unable to justify travel ad lodging and gear costs. I know freelance photojournalists that are on the verge of throwing in the towel. They cannot survive ion incomes 20-40% of what it used to be.

    Today it is also easy for average photographers who know how to promote themselves to find niches, like wedding photography or giving street photography lessons (the quality of which has declined beyond comprehension) to people who do not know any better. This “average” photographer is probably in the top 10% of photographers today considering how meaningless toting a camera and lens has become.

    A photographer’s success is far more dependent on selling himself than actually building up portfolio through blood, sweat and tears. If you know how to market yourself and bamboozle you are far more likely to be able to make a living with photography than a photographer who knows more about photography and the world but lacks, or refuses to apply marketing skills.