Slaves of Photography, Unite!

The discussion continues whether photographers should stand up to the abominable rates paid these days. Well, the discussion not only concerns photographers, but journalists, writers and many artists as well. Isn’t it pretty obvious: free societies don’t exist without a quality free press, and creating value and quality with importance and excellence costs money. Photography, journalism and also writing are noble and necessary for free people and free societies, and they are worthy. Or in the age of the Internet, is it a lost cause to expect the photographer to be paid for work?

Is our vocation, photography, worthless? This op-ed Slaves of the Internet, Unite! in the New York Times Tim Kreider speaks for many of us who were ever asked to work for free or have our work published for zero zilch nothing. Can happen to the best of us. Excerpt:

So I’m writing this not only in the hope that everyone will cross me off the list of writers to hit up for free content but, more important, to make a plea to my younger colleagues. As an older, more accomplished, equally unsuccessful artist, I beseech you, don’t give it away. As a matter of principle. Do it for your colleagues, your fellow artists, because if we all consistently say no they might, eventually, take the hint. It shouldn’t be professionally or socially acceptable — it isn’t right — for people to tell us, over and over, that our vocation is worthless.

Great Exposure!!! | New York Times
Great Exposure!!! | New York Times
Thing is, and the same is valid for photographers, Kreider received in a single week three invitations to write an original piece for publication or give a prepared speech in exchange for no ($0.00) money. We’re not talking invitations by blogs that are pure labor of love. We’re talking publications that make money.

Or, asks Kreider, would you expect anyone to give you a haircut or a can of soda at no cost? With a straight face and a clear conscience?

Then he delivers the line many working photographers, journalists, writers and artists hear all too often:

They often start by telling you how much they admire your work, although not enough, evidently, to pay one cent for it. “Unfortunately we don’t have the budget to offer compensation to our contributors…” is how the pertinent line usually starts. But just as often, they simply omit any mention of payment.

They assure you’re getting paid in the fare more valuable currency of exposure and building up your name a.k.a. your own brand… Just imagine how many “hits” you’ll get. Next day’s headline will read: “Photographer Dies of Exposure.”

In fairness, the publishing business isn’t anymore what it once was. Budgets are tight and the economy is still largely in ruins. But with the Internet, also called the “most democratic media” in history, information becomes so cheap and ever-present that everyone gets the impression to have a grip on everything.

Explains Kreider:

This is partly a side effect of our information economy, in which “paying for things” is a quaint, discredited old 20th-century custom, like calling people after having sex with them. The first time I ever heard the word “content” used in its current context, I understood that all my artist friends and I — henceforth, “content providers” — were essentially extinct. This contemptuous coinage is predicated on the assumption that it’s the delivery system that matters, relegating what used to be called “art” — writing, music, film, photography, illustration — to the status of filler, stuff to stick between banner ads.

Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again.

It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge. Photography. You upload a photo? Within a millisecond, it becomes available in the back of beyond. For free. For everyone. Imagine you get a cent for every time someone looks up that photo… Calculating a theoretical sum, it doesn’t seem all that funny.

What makes people think someone photographs or writes for nothing? Is it shockingly enjoyable work? Kreider:

I suppose people who aren’t artists assume that being one must be fun since, after all, we do choose to do it despite the fact that no one pays us. They figure we must be flattered to have someone ask us to do our little thing we already do (…)

Not getting paid for things in your 20s is glumly expected, even sort of cool; not getting paid in your 40s, when your back is starting to hurt and you are still sleeping on a futon, considerably less so. Let’s call the first 20 years of my career a gift. Now I am 46, and would like a bed.

Practicalities aside, money is also how our culture defines value, and being told that what you do is of no ($0.00) value to the society you live in is, frankly, demoralizing. Even sort of insulting. And of course when you live in a culture that treats your work as frivolous you can’t help but internalize some of that devaluation and think of yourself as something less than a bona fide grown-up.

So next time someone asks you for free photography, shot with a camera and gear you probably worked your ass off for, answer the polite Kreider-way:

Thanks very much for your compliments on my [writing/illustration/whatever thing you do]. I’m flattered by your invitation to [do whatever it is they want you to do for nothing]. But [thing you do] is work, it takes time, it’s how I make my living, and in this economy I can’t afford to do it for free. I’m sorry to decline, but thanks again, sincerely, for your kind words about my work.

(via New York Times)

  • Brian

    As I started reading this article, I thought about advice given decades ago: Shoot Weddings to make money. At the end of this page – big ad for a Wedding Photographer.
    Go where the money is. People still want a wedding album, family portraits, and special events.

  • True, but you better offer still photography and video. Even as a complete “one man show does all” production unit, wedding photography has become a price fight. Maybe not (yet) much so in more traditional areas/markets.

  • Bengt Nyman

    The world economy has hit a wall and inflationary values have imploded.
    An artist friend of mine bought a house in San Diego for $600,000.
    “Can you afford it I asked?”
    “No, but it will be worth 800,000 in a couple of years. I can’t afford not to.”
    Well, you know the rest of the story.

    We have been overproducing everything from homes to cars to cameras. Factories are shutting down, american homes are standing empty and people are living on the streets. Yet, some of us are maintaining a wishful outlook on life thinking that wars, famine and starvation are for others. So we pick up our camera, go out and shoot some pretty scenes and send the pictures to iStock, thinking that we will make some money.
    Well, by now you know the rest of that story.

    When an inflationary bubble implodes it turns into an economic black hole. It sucks in and neutralizes everything fake and exaggerated. The shock waves tear through the economy blowing things over and testing the economic validity of every product and service. Those not associated with reality are sucked into the black hole until the balance between supply and demand has been restored.

    So unless you lower yourself to taking pictures on demand, like weddings, or do some charity photography for community and events, simply accept that your masterpieces will stay on your hard drive, or end up on Flickr or in other crowded picture heavens.

  • Core of the problems seems the Internet leveling a whole new playing field — as Kreider says:

    The Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again.

    Add the multiplication of cameras = supply while demand stays about the same.

    Going old school might be more difficult today, but by not depending on the value-destructing Net niches might be found that still pay the way they always did.

    Another new income source is real estate photography — we spoke about it here:

  • Brian

    When I was a kid- 12 years old, repaired and started shooting 8mm movies. Bought my first RF the year before that. My advice to a young person thinking about a career in photography: It’s a great hobby. True statement, and I am glad that it is not my profession.

  • Rich

    I first saw the evidence of devaluing photography when a news editor with Freedom Communications showed his front page with an image running three columns saying it was from a cellphone and “was good enough”. With today’s news sources just looking to out-scoop each other and news editors not caring about quality, the devaluation will continue.
    With respect to wedding photographers, so many couples have an “Uncle XXX” who has a camera so he “must” be a photographer that even the wedding biz has taken a hit.
    I have very few answers and can only lament the demise of photographic quality, especially in photojournalism.

  • Good publications still pay good money for good photography, but a few years ago every published photo was paid reasonably well. Now they make you beg. A cell phone can indeed produce “sufficient” quality, but the more photography gets diluted, the stronger a trend gets to please esteem quality photography again. Or so I hope, perhaps, hopelessly.