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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2002-05-02
Let's Talk Business: I am Worthy & What I do has Real Value
By Rick Rickman
If you truly are a freelance photographer then you'll know already that this has been one of the hardest downturns in our business. Many of the oldest and best-established picture agencies in this country are struggling and barely holding on by the quicks of their fingernails.
Many magazines are curtailing assignment work and using stock or, worse yet, pick-ups. (More on Pick-Ups later). Many very well established photographers tell me that they've never felt so uneasy. Photographers like myself are wondering if we can hold on till the cycle turns around.
There are people in this business who have reputations that allow them to move through these kinds of downturns without much distress. However, there aren't many Natchweys, Heislers, or Lankers out there so the rest of us are in the unenviable position of having to drum up work.
To ad insult to an already bad situation, establishments like the New York Times and AOL/Time have decided to try and get photographers to sign over all their rights to their work for abysmal compensation. The Associated Press started this trend several years ago by strong-arming their freelancers into doing work for them for almost nothing. In most cases this strategy on the part of AP worked because the stringers who chose to work under the new AP contract didn't have the foresight or self esteem to be able to take a stand and say no to this bad situation.
That scenario has encouraged other publishing interests to try the same strong arm techniques in hopes that photographers will again cave in to pressure and sign these bad contracts and hence give the rights to their work away again.
Well, now that you're really depressed and can see that things are darker than you ever imagined, here are a couple ideas to think about.
I have two photographer friends who are very different in philosophy and approach. For the sake of this column one friend will be named Bob and the other will be named Pete. They are both real people but I am changing the names to protect what little sense of dignity either has left.
Bob is a very young, talented, and ambitious photographer who, I believe has one of the finest natural eyes for images I've ever seen. Pete is a much older, very talented, but more traditional photographer type. Let's deal with Pete first.
Pete started photography later in life. He has always had a deep-rooted desire to become a sports photographer of note. He shoots very nice images consistently but really the most important thing for him is whom he is working for and where he is shooting. Pete has been obsessed most of his career with wanting to be a regular in the pages of Sports Illustrated, hopping from event to event and being seen as talented because of his position.Pete's always had some real issues with self esteem and it's my belief that he believes that working for someone he feels is important is more important than the pictures he produces.
Pete has worked for some time now and in his traditional pursuit of a career, he hasn't always had much luck pursuing SI. He also hasn't always made the best decisions in whom to work for. He spent some time working for a company that paid him under a work for hire arrangement and in that arrangement he agreed to give the rights to all his film away.
Upon leaving that company Pete talked to me at length about how it was a bad idea to work in a setting that didn't allow a photographer to maintain control of his body of work. A year or so passes and Pete finds himself in another tight money crunch and this time he feels compelled to go to work for the NBA. This arrangement is very similar to a work for hire arrangement that Pete still has no control or resale of his work but he says he needs the money.
Pete's a classic case of many photographers, who because of fear or lack of imagination can't seem to escape the rut of being roped into continual bad situations. I love Pete like family but he is the very type of photographer that ultimately sabotages his own career and subsequently the entire industry without taking responsibility for his actions. Pete will never change and will be doing the same things a year from now that he's doing today but for less money because of bad decision making.
Bob on the other had has never been very traditional in his approach to his career. As I said earlier, Bob has one of the most interesting natural eyes I've ever seen. His ability far exceeds his years and he is very self assured and comfortable with himself. Several years ago Bob was pondering a freelance career right out of college and was frustrated with more and more magazines insisting that photographers sign over the rights to their work. He always said that if people didn't stop agreeing with that crap no one would be able to make a living freelancing in the near future.
Bob came over to the house one afternoon and proclaimed in a very thoughtful way that he wasn't going to do this magazine thing anymore. He was taking a job with one of the big film manufacturing companies. He said confidently, "I'm not gonna give up my pictures, I'm just gonna find a way to finance my personal work in a way that isn't so damn compromising." I was concerned that Bob would never get to keep up with his pictures in this new position but I wished him well and good luck. Bob not only continued to shoot on his projects but also got several shows of his work in the Southern California area and now was completely debt free. That is something that I envied greatly.
Well, a few months ago Bob came over to the house again. It's funny, every time he comes over he has some big announcement to make. This time was no exception. "I'm quitting my film job next month, but you can't tell anyone because no one else knows yet."
"Now what do you have up your sleeve," I asked knowing full well that something really good was coming.
"I can't work there anymore because the company is dying and they're too entrenched in bureaucracy to be able to save themselves. Anyway," he went on, "I've found a way to have fun shooting and make some real good money."
"I'm gonna do documentary weddings!" I felt this big smile creeping across my face but I couldn't stop it.
"You're kidding," I said, Bob looked me in the eye and said, "Not in the least." I've been doing my homework Rick and I can make huge money. I don't do any of the group portraits and that other f---ked-up stuff. I just do it like I was doing a documentary story then give the film to a guy I know who will put the picture into a great looking book and they pay me $8000. I'm doing it all digital so my overhead is very low.
"I clear more than $5000 on each one. You think I'm crazy but I've already done two and the people loved them and I had a gas." He pulled out this portfolio looking book and showed me the two weddings he had done and it truly was wonderful pictures. Not only that but they were black and white.
We talked a little more about his new venture and then he dropped the bombshell: "I'm going to Italy for three weeks to work some more on my project there."
"Did you get someone to finance it for you?" I asked.
"No," Bob said, "I'm using the profit from my two trial weddings to finance this trip. I've got more savings than I know what to do with right now so the money's no big deal. I can relax and just shoot. Anyway, I've gotta go Rick. I'll talk to you after Italy."
"Hey," he said as he got this funny little Bob smile on his face. "If you decide you want to do a wedding or two let me know. I think I'm gonna get real busy."
I realized at that moment the reason Bob is never going to have trouble doing the things he wants to do in this business is he always evaluates how to improve his value and how he is going to best able to do the kinds of pictures he wants to do without relying on someone else to finance them for him.
It's my feeling that this is going to be the model of the new photographer/ photojournalist going forward. It's going to become very important for us not to rely on publications to finance our productivity but for us to find creative ways to build our economic standing and use those resources to do the kinds of work that needs doing.
The quicker we can accomplish this task the sooner this pendulum of rights control will swing the other way. If publications find it harder and harder to find quality employees, the more likely they are to want to negotiate fairer arrangements for the content providers.
Imagine if you will this scenario: AP tries to get a photographer in Des Moines, Iowa, to cover a huge terrorist incident at Merle Hay Mall. Everyone they call says they've already been out there and have great pictures from the event but refuses to send to AP because its rates are so low. Imagine what kind of panic that would create in the New York office.
Wouldn't it be further irony if all the former AP stringers were doing other types of photography that brought in enough income to make the them feel confident enough to continue to say no to working for AP or the New York Times or even Time magazine under their current contracts.
What will ultimately save our free fall in this industry is people becoming creative enough in their thinking and indignant enough about their present situations to say enough is enough. I believe the Bob's of the world are on the right track. We just need more of his type. The Pete's of the world are going the way of the dinosaur. It's your choice.
Would you rather be a Bob or a Pete?
I spoke to two psychologists 3 days ago because I can see the path that needs to be taken but I didn't really have any ideas of what to suggest to people as a simple yet productive start. Ironically, both these women told me exactly the same thing, a little different wording but, exactly the same message. It's gonna sound a little wacky but I've been trying it now for several days and it seems to work. The message was this: the best way to initiate change is to have faith in your ability to accomplish change. One of the simplest things you can do is to make yourself believe that you are worthy of the change.
So your job every morning for the next 30 days is this: The first thing you do when you get out of bed in the morning is go to the big bathroom mirror and look directly at yourself, just taking in who you are. Then say to yourself while looking directly into your eyes: I AM WORTHY AND WHAT I DO HAS REAL VALUE.
I know by this time you all think I've crossed the serious KOOK threshold. I'm looking at this in print and figuring Bert will call me immediately and ask me never to write anything else again. However, like I said, I've been doing this now for several days and I really think if you'll try it you'll be surprised at it's affect. Anyway, lets all get out there and start to become more creative. I mean it!
(Rick Rickman is a freelance photographer based in Southern California and writes periodically for Sports Shooter on business issues. He can be contacted via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his work at: www.rickmanphoto.com)
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