Being a freelance
photographer used to be one of the more pleasant things in life. The
money might not have been great but it was an okay living with many
side benefits. You were your own boss. You could, for the most part,
set your own hours. If you wanted to take a few days off you could.
And then, after gaining a certain amount of experience and a decent
reputation you could get yourself an agency.
Photo agencies used to be small to medium size businesses, run on
a handshake and a trusted word. The "modern" photo agency
started with Magnum back in the 40's. It was a co-operative venture
with a group of fun-loving photographers getting together to share
some office space, an accountant and a few dreams. Some of the later
agencies started out as co-ops and then grew into real profit-making
The best part of being a photographer represented by a good agency
was that it freed you. They handled the billing, the invoicing, the
statements, the reminders, the hassles. It was a home away from home,
a place to visit, a sympathetic ear, a cup of coffee, and a number
you could give to anybody knowing that messages would be taken and
passed on. A good agency hustled for you, got you assignments, sold
your stock material at home and overseas, and for all this they took
a reasonable percentage of the take. Many's the time you see a substantial
sale to a magazine you didn't know existed in a country you'd only
read about. The foreign currency was converted and you received your
monthly or quarterly check along with a 1099 at the end of the year
to make it a little easier to do your taxes.
That was then, this is now. It seems as though the entire photo agency
business has gone down the crapper. Aside from the few remaining independent
photo agencies (Hi Bob! Hi Jeff! Hi Sue!) everything seems to have
coalesced into two huge "content providers." They've presented
the world with a new business model, the mega-agency, and it looks
like it's failing. Millions of dot com dollars were spent to buy every
agency on earth and the people that used to run them took the money
and headed for the hills. Now that the hi-tech economy is in the dumpster
and the "content providers" have to actually show a profit,
things are getting tense.
I don't know a single photographer that's happy with the ways things
are going. Assignments and guarantees are down because of the downturn
in the economy. Stock sales are way down because of that "brilliant"
idea - the Royalty Free CD-ROM. Agencies are failing left and right
leaving photographers to wonder if they'll ever get their pictures
back, and if they do get them back, what the hell do they do with
them to generate some income?
Some photographers have started taking shooting positions with low
pay and low benefits. That means that the company owns all the rights
to their work. There'll be no income in 10 or 20 years time from residual
sales of the pictures you take today. You're treated like another
wire photographer but without the 401K or the guaranteed overtime.
Some people are still fighting and thinking of new things. Contact
and Sipa are still around. Magnum is still going. Gamma has set up
an independent American office and a group of excellent photographers
(including Chris Morris and James Natchwey) have set up a new co-operative
agency called Seven (or "VII" as they like to say) and I
really, really hope these people succeed and prosper. If they can
manage to hold on, make money and grow there might be some hope for
the next generation of photographers who, after all, just want to
take pictures, and let someone else worry about the details.
Tip Of The Month:
If. For some reason, you feel the need to wrap your cameras and lenses
in gaffers tape, PLEASE change the tape every year or so. If it stays
on for too long the glue tends to dry out leaving an unholy mess behind
when you attempt to clean the damn thing up before putting it up for
sale on Ebay.