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|| News Item: Posted 2008-06-30

Ask Sports Shooter: Getting Paid
Matt Mendelsohn offers help on staying away from freebies to photographer Andrew Worrall.

By Matt Mendelsohn

Photo by Andrew Worrall

Photo by Andrew Worrall

Roseville area high school gymnastics.
(Editor's Note: Each month Sports Shooter will take a question sent in or a topic from the message board and get an answer. I received a question that has been discussed somewhat on the Message Board. For this specific question on the topic of "shooting for free" I asked Washington D.C. - based photographer Matt Mendelsohn to write an response.)

I have a question: I've done a lot of "free" shooting for my old high school gymnastics program, including making state/national championship posters for the team the last three years. I've mostly agreed to do it all for free because of the unrestricted access to the team and my personal relationships with the girls and coaches and the need to build a portfolio. But this past year I've been at college - however managed to get back for a substantial number of meets - and it's becoming harder to say "yes" as my friends graduate and of course as my needs grow financially.

I was hoping you might have some suggestions as to how to go about getting paid or at least letting them know that I will need financial compensation to continue to provide for them in the future. They are a great group of people and I don't want to ruin any relationships (although I do think they would understand - I'm just unsure how to actually say this all to them.)

Any advice would be greatly appreciated!!

Andrew Worrall

Yours is a good question for the times we're currently living in, not to mention a predicament that every young photographer has had to contemplate ever since Mathew Brady first schmoozed the Lincoln's with free prints. And without getting too folksy in my response, the answer, like just about everything else in life, can be found in my mother's favorite saying of all time: "How you make your bed is how you lie in it." (My father, on the other hand, loves to quote from Walt Kelly's legendary "Pogo" cartoon strip, and without a doubt his favorite Pogo-ism is, "We have met the enemy and he is us." Funny how apt that one is in this case as well.)

Let's start with the bigger issue first and then we'll talk about your specific situation.

Photographers have had a long love affair with freebies. And I'm not talking about the Canon fanny packs and Nikon Olympic pins we all love to get at big time sporting events. If only. No, I'm talking about giving away freebies. Free prints. Free portrait sessions. Free wedding photography. Free photographs to the local SID. Why, I'd bet there are some photographers who would give away their own grandmother for the promise of a 6-point photo credit along the inseam of a trade publication. And while I'd love to say that all this giving only proves that we have big hearts, the sadder reality is that we have an addiction to giving things away and the only hope right now is for an intervention.

This love affair with the freebie has been going on for a long time and it's important to point out here that you, as a younger photographer, bear no more guilt and responsibility for adding to this practice than any of us older photographers. In fact, I get particularly peeved when I see a young photographer ridiculed on a message board for saying they shot a job for Brazilian Vogue on spec, or did some volleyball pictures for their university for free, or even signed a restrictive wire service contract. Why? Because we've all done things in our youth that didn't get the scrutiny and thought process we give to decisions later in life. And I'm not going to stand here and say that I didn't do some of these same kinds of things when I was getting started. We all bear part of the blame. What is true is that younger photographers, more than ever, will inherit the house of cards we've all contributed towards building.

The malaise of the freebie can be traced back to several factors, not the least of which include a scarcity of business training and expertise for photographers (my friend John Harrington deserves huge kudos for his work towards this end) as well as a historic precedent of apprenticeship-type beginnings. Many of photographic heroes started as darkroom techs for wire services and would have done anything to get that first published image. But there's a grander theme in play here and it's rooted in the fact that all photographers dream big. We aren't satisfied shooting Little League for very long, the Major Leagues are calling. We don't want to cover car crashes on I-81 in Binghamton, New York (at least I didn't, back in 1986), we want to be on a presidential campaign in New Hampshire. We wear out our DVD of "War Photographer" because we dream of being the next Nachtwey and we pour over Vanity Fair to try and see what Annie's been up to lately. And in order for many of us to make our wishes come true, we're very willing to do whatever it takes to climb that first rung, including working for free.

But, you ask, if photographers have been giving things away for so long, and if we've all been in this boat at some point in our careers, why does it seem that younger photographers today are being accused--with much more frequency and with much more venom--of crupping it up for everyone else? Well, to employ a business term to answer a business question: margins.

Yup, the margins are tighter these days and younger photographers are feeling the pinch more than ever. Back when I was just starting out, a photographer who did an occasional free job in exchange for a photo credit or some kind of access did so in the belief that he would be rewarded later on with a lucrative career. Someday, we would tell ourselves, we'll look back on those early giveaways as a necessary evil, the only way we could get a foot in the door. Nowadays, however, the freebie has become the "later on." Today, established photographers are constantly being asked to give something away for free, not just beginners. Today, photographers work in a world where editorial work is drying up, where SID's don't have to pay anyone for photography because there's always someone who will do it for free, and where everyone with an iPhone is now a paparazzi-in-waiting. Photojournalists at newspapers are being laid off every week and royalty free stock images are everywhere. Too much supply and, in this recession, too little demand. The margins are much tighter we can no longer expect anything to come of the freebie-today-equals-paying-job-tomorrow pipe dream. It's done, kaput, yesterday's news.

And now that I've said it, the practice will stop immediately. Yeah, right. The reality is that things will get even tougher. The same Internet that enables photographers to read John Harrington's Photo Business News & Forum is also the one that offers photographers a fifty-dollar day rate to shoot an event via an ad on Craigslist. Despite an ever-growing drumbeat for photographers to educate themselves on issues like work-for-hire, copyright and self-promotion through sites like Digital Railroad, the lunacy still marches on.

Here's an example from the wedding world.

I recently received an email from an editor at the premier wedding magazine in the country. The biggest magazine, bar none. To give you an idea of how much money this particular magazine brings in, full-page ads for photographers start in the $15,000 range. Charity, one would think, is not something they're really in need of. And yet this editor sent me, and a few hundred of my best friends (there were 80 photographers cc'd and that was just the "M's"), a chain email looking for free photographs to be included in a forthcoming book. Now, lots of photographers send pictures to local bridal magazines in hope of having their work seen. I'm not sure there's much harm there, if the photographer believes a story with several of his or her images will result in future bookings. But this is a book project by a company oozing money. And here's the kicker: in order to be considered, photographers submitting images were requested to sign the following release:

"...Photographer further grants Elegant Publishing, Inc. a perpetual and exclusive license to use the photographic materials in its discretion and to modify said materials as it deems necessary. Photographer shall not publish, reproduce, sell, distribute, or otherwise disseminate said materials except to promote photographer's own business and professional services to prospective clients."

As Ira Gershwin once wrote, "Nice work if you can get it." Not only is this magazine asking you to give away your work for free, they're also telling you what you can now do with your work. Your work, not their work! And you know what? Thousands of photographers will be falling over each other to get in this book. In their defense, these shooters will employ the lamest of all lame excuses for devaluing one's work: "Someone might see the photo credit." Oh, man, if I had a nickel for every time I've heard this line I'd be living in the South of France already.

So let's get one thing straight, once and for all. No one---and I mean no one--gives a hoot about your photo credit in a magazine. No one!!!! The only person who reads American Lacrosse Enthusiast and gets excited about the photo credit on page 26 is you and your mother.

So what can you do, Andrew? Give up and go to law school? Heck no. As Bluto says in Animal House, "Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?" Photography is a wonderful, wonderful way to make a living. But the operative phrase is "make a living" and free won't put food on the table or kids through college.

I would approach your friends at the gymnastics program and ask to have a meeting. I would explain to them how much you enjoy shooting gymnastics and how much you've enjoyed working the organization over these past years. I would also explain to them exactly what you explained to me in your letter: that you are now a professional photographer and, as such, can no longer provide free service. You think, "Oh, they'll just find someone else." They might. But I'll bet none of those free photographers can provide the quality of work you would be providing.

Look, it's simple: The teachers are being paid. The coach is being paid. Why are you the only one doing it for free? I've often told younger photographers that the most important day in their fresh careers just might be the one where they turn down a job. Turn down a job? Sacre Bleu! You might feel a lump in your throat as you enunciate your thoughts, no question. But it's a sign that you're in control of your own destiny.

One more thing: Like a Band-Aid, you need to rip this one off fast. I remember taking my daughter to her first dentist appointment when she was 3. The dentist asked me if my daughter was still using a pacifier. I sheepishly answered yes, knowing that she should have been beyond such a crutch by now. The dentist said, "Well, you'll stop that as of tonight, right?"

"Tonight?" I asked, thinking maybe I could ease my daughter into it over the coming weeks or months.

"Is there a better day?" the dentist answered. "You'll stop tonight."

Photographers don't agree on many things--D3 versus Mark III's, film versus digital, Photoshop versus natural--but if we could all just agree on this one issue--tonight--we'll have gone a long way towards securing better futures for ourselves and generations of photographers to come.

(Matt Mendelsohn is a Washington, D.C. photographer who writes about photography on his blog, "The Dark Slide."

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