STILL BUILDING TOWARD AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

by Greg Smith

The construction continues here at the Last Resort.

As noted last month, despite fears for the future, I'm building. You could say I've spent the past few weeks on little else.

My construction sites include our aging dock in the river, a book under contract from UNC Press and efforts to improve the future of photojournalism, or at least, publication photography in general.

My major effort was hosting a fall meeting of ASMP/South Carolina. I serve on the state board for the American Society Of Media Photographers , and in that role, I must host one of our Quarterly Gatherings each year. Overly ambitious, I volunteered to serve an oyster roast (gathering the oysters myself from the mud near my home) on a Friday night, followed by a business seminar the next day. The former aimed to build relationships, the latter to reinforce our collective strength in the marketplace.

I also hoped the gathering - to which we invited all photographic professionals - might aid efforts to create and educate a local photographer's roundtable. Working with another ASMP member, who also hosted Saturday's estimating seminar at his nearby Savannah, Ga., studio, I've tried to get a group together to meet, talk and listen the second Monday of each month. Our market crosses a state line and includes coastal islands with road systems that are effectively big cul de sacs. Hence, we're a spread out bunch, some of us 80 miles apart by road (while only 8 miles by seagull). That may account for the fact we've only averaged a dozen folks at each of four meetings, out of a mailing list of four times that number. Still, we have attracted precious few of the most visible photographers in our area.

ASMP/South Carolina members talk about life and photography over oysters and beer in Greg Smith's yard. This photograph was made by an unknown photographer with a demo Canon EOS1-D camera that was passed around during the evening. Thanks, Canon, who sponsored our gathering.

I suspect these folks just don't see a value in getting together each month. Perhaps they fear losing a competitive edge. But the reality is our market, composed mostly of portrait photographers who shoot commercial and editorial on the side, generates rates and rights packages way below the national averages in these categories. As a resort area, we also harbor a plethora of "trustfunders" (offspring of the rich) with cameras, as well as retirees who can finally get serious about their hobby. They don't need to make a living, but they love photography. Some are even good. But most don't charge full freight for their work. The sheer numbers of such folks makes our local professional photography scene appear unprofessional. Rates are low. Rights aren't discussed. And experts come from out of town.

Nevertheless, each of the weekend's events attracted about two-dozen photographers, most ASMP members, but a few of my local comrades, too. One joined ASMP on Saturday. And all walked away better for the experience(s). I don't know how this will translate into building our market and our relationships, but some roads are worth walking, even if you don't know for sure where they lead.

 

FIXIN' AND MIXIN'

Three years ago, by a linking of acquaintances, I met Sallie Ann Robinson Coleman. Sallie is the descendent of freed slaves who settled on Daufuskie Island, a 5- x 2.5-mile sand bar with trees across Calibogue Sound from Hilton Head Island, and not far from here. The island has never had a bridge, and it has been one of the few homes to unique culture and dialect descended from slave times and known as "Gullah." In 1969, Pat Conroy, a young writer, schoolteacher and the son of a marine fighter pilot who grew up in nearby Beaufort, S.C., came to the island to teach. His experiences resulted in the best-selling novel "The Water Is Wide," and inspired the movie "Conrack." Conroy also changed 11-year-old Sallie's life.


Sallie Ann Coleman, dressed in her mother's old frock and apron, poses in her mother's kitchen in a 1998 photograph.
(c)1998 Greg Smith
She was reared in a pre-industrial Gullah world where Motown played on the radio and going to the grocery store was an all-day journey, involving an ox cart, boats and arranged rides "on the other side." Along with her sisters, mother, stepfather and extended family, she learned to grow, gather, catch, kill and prepare nearly every meal. Now, at age 43, she is a mother of four, grandmother of three, she lives in Savannah and she works as a certified nurse assistant, providing private care for the aged and dying. Sallie is an amazing person, my dear friend and my partner in writing a cookbook that details how her family lived and cooked.

This past month, after several years of submissions and negotiations, the University of North Carolina Press issued an advance contract (to be followed by a small advance fee) for us to complete her book: "Daufuskie Home Cooking: Fixin' and Mixin' Down Yondah." We have a deadline of mid-February. The book will include 100 recipes in eight sections, bearing titles such as "The Woods," "The Yard," "The Garden" and "The Sea." Some 30 recipes will include stories about how the experiences associated with acquiring and preparing the meal. I will provide 25 black-and-white images of the island, much of which has become a resort for the very rich, that I hope will give a sense of the food and the people who serve(d) it.

The book will be a key focus for me in coming months, rather than a part-time diversion. It's a tough balance: to blend in enough Gullah for the island's flavor to come through, while not confusing the reader; to employ my best skills as a communicator while maintaining Sallie's voice; to tell our tales, while still producing a very practical cooking guide; to make pictures that give a sense of the food and place, without focusing on dishes of food, which don't look that good in monotone; and to continue my business and life while investing in the hope for some royalties down the road.

Look for us to be pitching the book on Oprah Winfrey in 2003.

 

THE DOCK

As explained before, I live on a tidal river, in a small house my second brother and I built beside my mother's home some 15 years back. I've reared two sons here and I'm halfway through rearing a smart, beautiful daughter. The two homes sit on three, wooded acres, which given the rapid development around us, have become quite valuable.

But in the late 1970s, this land was very affordable. My father, who earned a modest living as a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, on retirement, traded our suburban Washington home for a three-acre lot on the May River. He scraped up enough money 20 years ago to build a modest house, moved down here, and within months, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Nevertheless, while he was sick, plans continued to build a 230-foot dock to the shallow channel of the river. He and I watched the dock being built, and even enjoyed fishing from it a few times.

But 20 years took its toll on the rough-sawn planks and railings. For my mother's 80th birthday this past February, both of my brothers, their wives, my sister, myself and several of our offspring converged on the dock, redecked the walkway and replaced the railings. We didn't get to fixing the floating dock, nor the ramp that leads to it.

My oldest brother, in a manic mood, showed up last week, just as I came down with a cold and completed the huge effort of hosting our ASMP gathering. His goal was to finish the job. And I was thrown right into a huge project of pulling up old boards and creatively configuring new, wet, heavy 2-inch-thick, treated lumber to replace them. Somehow I have survived. And now we have a spiffy new floating dock for mooring our decrepit skiff, tying off our crab traps and launching our kayaks. The railings on the ramp are now sanded smooth; no more splinters.

My brother Sandy and his beautiful lab, Shadow, pause from dock building to watch folks cast for shrimp across the river.
Photograph (c)2001
Greg Smith

 

It was tough week, very hot for October as I sweated through a cold amid sawdust, bruises, splinters and playing a dutiful little brother. But we actually got along pretty well. And one more construction project is complete.

 

MY BIG MOUTH

Concurrent with all these efforts, I've continued to chime in occasionally on several e-mail lists for photographers and photojournalists. One of my latest such essays appeared on the Editorial Photographer's List .

In last month's journal here, I alluded to the plight of Jonathan Barth, a New York freelancer who used to sell images through Getty's Liaison agency. He made pictures on Sept. 11, and eventually transmitted some to Getty, where editors decided they wanted to use two pictures on their self-service stock web site.

Barth had a contract with Liaison that stated he received 50 percent of each sale, but for use on this web site, Getty editors demanded a "buyout" (or work for hire) of all rights to the images for a rather low fee. Barth responded by posting his tale on the EP list. Subsequently, his relationship with Getty was severed.

Richard Ellis, a former photographer who manages Liaison for Getty is one of the few members of the private EP List who is an agent. Many called on the list for him to explain his side of what happened. One of the list's moderators contacted Ellis, who apparently isn't allowed by Getty Images to post his own opinions. The moderator, a well-known and respected photojournalist and commercial shooter, reported that Getty believed Barth had acted unprofessionally by taking his complaints public. And, the moderator (whom I am not naming, because EP is a private list) noted, we need to understand that Getty is in the business of maximizing profits.

I replied:

Perhaps, in my mid-40s, I'm just an anachronism, a Boomer gone to seed. But I entered photojournalism not just to have access to crime scenes and get hot coffee thrown at me by celebrities.

I believed I was part of a team, a brother- and sisterhood working to make the world a better place by recording light shed on the truth. My editors (and I was one myself for much of my career) and agents were my partners, not my adversaries. They needed me. I needed them. Pravda (the Truth, not the newspaper) needed us all. We had the same agenda. They asked me what I charged. I asked them what they could pay.

Oh, how quaint those days seem. Perhaps they never existed at all and I was just na´ve. Regardless, I now find every assignment fraught with paperwork, tense moments of negotiation, and more often than not, dunning letters to collect. I've been virtually (if not officially) blacklisted at the only two American newspapers who regularly hire photographers in the far-flung reaches of our empire - meaning those areas outside the Eastern Megalopolis and Southern California - because I've had the unmitigated gall to record and report the light shed on their unfair deals.

Editors and agents, essential to what we do, are now enforcers of corporate policies that aim to impoverish us in order to further enrich stockholders who don't care a whit about Pravda, only the bottom line. I called one editor a "shill" for such folks and he freaked.

But he didn't deny it.

(The moderator in question), whom I admire on just about every level and whose excellence I have chased much of my career, is right that we all share blame for accepting bad deals. Work for hire exists because too many of us will accept this totally unreasonable approach to compensating independent creators.

However, you don't need to be staring at another bowl of Top Ramen and a broken D-30 to know work for hire is unfair. The suits and their shills know it. Some even apologize as they offer us rotten deals - "take it or leave it; if you won't do it, I have a line outside my door." It's up to us, they say, to organize some of the most independent-minded folks in the world, so the shills don't have to sully their hands by doing their greedy masters' bidding.

We wouldn't want them to lose their jobs, would we? They might end up like us.

Folks, our clients (employers under WFH) demand we not have conflicts of interest, that we not set up pictures and call them news, that we fairly report our time and expenses, that we not "dress up" quotes or unfairly characterize a scene - in short, that we deal fairly with them and their reader/viewers. But you're suggesting they don't need to deal fairly with us. We need to be on our guard with them, because their primary role is to "maximize profits."

I disagree. The great journalistic organizations were built by men and women who had something to say. Yes, they believed their messages were marketable, and indeed, many profited handsomely. But they also knew the places to make real money were oil, banking, real estate and railroads. They chose to market their version of Pravda instead. Their successors, I believe, have torn down the foundations of such organizations while building them into great towers of babbling anchor people, where ads are the product and editorial mere filler and expense.

Yes, we do need to tidy up our business practices - especially given the predatory climate THEY have fostered. We must educate our ranks to protect our profession. But that doesn't mean we should accept as right their wrong actions. They bear much of the responsibility for pitting us against each other, for proffering bad contracts, for paying low rates, for destroying the viability of stock photography, for silencing important voices who must profit from their work in order to survive, and for reducing creativity and truth to "content."

If they want our loyalty, they must show us the same. If they want our respect, they must respect us and our needs. If they want our pictures, they must include our continued viability in their BIG PICTURE. If they want to read our opinions on a private list, they must share and debate theirs with us.

This might not fit with their corporate five-year plan. But I believe there is a much bigger plan we ALL need to fit with. And it's not a scheme for merely "maximizing profits."

 

MAKING PICTURES

Obviously, all these building efforts distract me from picture taking. I've made a few nice images this month, including a family portrait, and I've rediscovered some fun, old negatives in the darkroom. But I've had precious few assignments and very little time for the kayaking and nature photography I love. I did get out a couple days, though. And on one paddle, I photographed some clapper rails (also known as marsh hens), on an extreme, new moon, high tide, which submerges the marsh thickets where the wonderfully camouflaged birds normally hide.


A pigeon rests on the railing the Empire State Building's observation deck, with mid- and uptown Manhattan as a backdrop. I made this image in June 1998, but I printed it for the first time in October 2001.
Photograph (c)1998 Greg Smith.

And yesterday, I took a visiting photographer friend on a paddle, where we surprised a couple of dolphins who were fishing. I made a couple pictures with my inexpensive Canon A-1 underwater camera right before one animal bumped into my boat, but I missed the best shots as the dolphin freaked out. I was ducking and bracing for fear he would roll me over. There was much thrashing and splashing as the two dolphins realized we were right on top of them, potentially blocking their exit from a narrow, shallow creek. They came by us VERY fast. My friend left with an impressive memory, if not too many pictures.


A pair of dolphins swim in the May River in a picture I made during another dolphin encounter last year.
Photograph (c)2000 Greg Smith.

 

Nevertheless, I have many pictures yet to make. I'm building now, organizing, preparing, checking construction projects off my list. I even bought and configured a new Titanium Powerbook computer this month, and I'm headed to New York to peruse the latest photographic technology and market issues. I may even buy a new camera. But before too long, I'll be out marketing my skills. The world needs images and tales. We provide them. We must work together, talk through forums such as this one, growing ourselves and our profession.

We must stand our moral and legal ground against those who would suck the lifeblood from photojournalism, a profession I believe is vital to the future of democracy. We must get our businesses in order, communicate, and above all:

We must not be afraid to pour our love into what we do and to share it with each other. Some see that love as an opportunity to take advantage of us. I see it as value we add to every project. We love what we do, so we do it better. That makes us more valuable as employees and contractors. Don't forget it or apologize for it. Capitalize on it. Build a future for photojournalism that we can be proud of. And please have ...

Courage,
Greg Smith
mediasmith@hargray.com
http://imediasmith.com

 

Contents Page

 
Contents Page Editorials The Platypus Links Copyright
Portfolios Camera Corner War Stories  Dirck's Gallery Comments
Issue Archives Columns Forums Mailing List E-mail Us
 This site is sponsored and powered by Hewlett Packard