The Digital Journalist

Getting to Know You

Editorial by Dirck Halstead

Late last month, a post appeared on the National Press Photographers Discussion list. Peter Versfelt, an independent TV cameraman and producer was perplexed. Both the NPPA list and the Editorial Photo list, a "photographers only" forum - for discussion of business  matters - have been spending a lot of bandwidth trying to hang onto what has always been a given in the industry: the ownership of their images. Now, it seems, every editorial client wants to take that ownership for their own. To Peter, who like almost all TV photojournalists has never considered assuming the rights to their work, this concept is very confusing. He wrote:

"So, I am curious, how and why did this practice of still photographers wanting/deserving/expecting all or nearly all rights in a work for hire situation start? ...I truly want to know why this view of the photographer expecting most ownership rights in a work for hire situation persists when those of us in TV cannot reasonably expect that."

Peter's question is a very good one, and reflects the gap that has traditionally existed between the still and TV side when it comes to the basic question of who owns what. It also offers us in still photojournalism a chance to reach out and try to build a coalition that will help us all in this rapidly changing field.

I explained to Peter that on the most basic level, still photojournalism Has been conducted by one person. Because of the nature of the equipment, its size and affordability, the "unit" required to do the job is a single individual. A premium placed on creativity and originality. Following World War II, photographers banded together to form agencies that would allow them to continue to do their work, and provide collective marketing for their images. None of this could have happened if the photographers had not actually owned their work. In those days, there was no such thing as "work for hire." If you received a staff salary, with benefits, the company owned the pictures. If you supported yourself by selling - and more precisely licensing - your work on a case-by-case basis, you owned your work. 

Television, on the other hand, is a different beast altogether. The productions are collective works, in almost all cases team-created. The traditional "unit" consists of a reporter, cameraperson, soundperson, and producer. In most instances, a fifth person, the editor, brings the project to fulfillment. All of these people, together with the equipment necessary for each stage, represent a huge amount of money. Where a still camera and lens represents an investment of around $2,500, a Betacam 600 costs $60,000. A scanner and computer to produce the final image for stills, runs a few thousand. Up until now, to assemble a TV piece, you had to work in an edit suite worth well over $150,000.

As a result, the concept of a freelance TV shooter, with few exceptions (primarily for magazine shows) up until recently, did not exist. Everyone received a salary, vacation, health insurance, gear, and a car - until now.

Starting in the mid-eighties, things changed. Megacorporations gobbled up  newspapers, magazines, TV stations - even networks. What had previously been independent entities whose sole mission was to produce editorial product to win audiences and advertising, became small segments of much larger corporations, whose views did not necessarily coincide with those of the newsroom. Staff was cut. Buyouts became the norm. To pick up the slack, these organizations started to create "contracts" with the previous staffers. In essence, the freelancer was paid for a day's work, but received no benefits. He or she would also have to provide the equipment, and in many cases, finance the story - including travel - out of their own pockets. Because so many still photojournalists already owned their own gear this transition occurred without too many problems. However, the one thing that made it all possible, was the understanding in the industry, that if you freelanced you owned all your pictures. These pictures in effect became your pension plan, as they would be resold over the years.

This was fine until the mid-nineties. Publishers (now megacorporations) started to have second thoughts about returning all those photographs to the photographers. They now had their own websites, and foresaw the value in owning content. Since then, there have been continual grabs for the rights by these corporations, often by injecting the words "this constitutes work for hire" into contracts sent to the photographers AFTER completion of the assignment, but before a check is cut. 

The worst offender in the last year has been the Associated Press, which is forcing freelancers to sign contracts which say any pictures taken while on an AP assignment will be considered as work for hire. Yet, there are NO benefits given, nor equipment. In many cases not even film is provided to produce the work. Many photographers have refused to sign these contracts, and no longer shoot for Associated Press. If I were an AP staffer, I would do everything in my power to support these freelancers, because the fact is, if they all decide to do what is essentially staff work, for no benefits, it won't be long before there will be N0 staff photographers.

So, back to television photojournalists. Remember those $60,000 Betacams and the $100,000 edit decks? Well, guess what, they are headed out the door. What does it take to shoot a broadcast-quality tape these days? about $3,900 for a Canon XL1 Mini DV, or, if you really want to get fancy $12,000 for a top-of-the-line Sony DSR300 DVCAM. Editing? Well, you can go out and buy an AVID non-linear editor for about $100,000, or if you would rather save a dime or two, try a Mac G4 with Final Cut Pro software for a total of $7,500. Ah, ha! The light goes on! Gee, I could get my OWN stuff, edit it myself and sell it to the market just like the still guys always did! Except, I can only sell it ONCE, because I have to give the tape to the station, right? WRONG! This is where the next crucial step has to be taken, right now. The tape was always the property of the station because they supplied all the stuff one needed to acquire it. Once you start to supply the equipment and tape, all the station should get is the USE of the tape to cut their show. The final output tape created by the station (client) remains their property. But the original tape from which it was cut REMAINS THE PROPERTY of the photojournalist.

This concept is brand-new in TV. But it doesn't make the concept less valid. If you have a full-time job, using the station's BetaCam, not worrying about your heath insurance, smiling as you look at your pension plan, you don't need to even think about this stuff. But, if you know someone (perhaps a national award winner or two) who is now out there in the cold, making do with his or her own equipment, worrying about whether or not to go to a doctor - even for a check up, maybe its time a few of us had a little chat.

Next month, we examine the difference between still and TV photojournalists when it comes to our own competitions.

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