THE DIARIES OF A FREELANCER
by Sean Cayton
Colorado Springs, CO
Today, I'm a wedding photographer. Yesterday, I was a freelance news photographer.
What's the difference? It pays better. That's the truth. It really does pay better, and it offers the security of knowing you won't be in the poor house because there aren't enough jobs out there to pay your bills or the ones that are out there pay lousy. Or the newspapers you seek work from demand the rights to your work in perpetuity - which means essentially handing the earning potential of your images over the lifetime of those images to a newspaper company just because you're desperate.
What's the other difference? You have to learn how to run a business. That's the truth. You really must know how to run a business, develop a business plan, market your services, learn customer service, balance the books, pay sales tax on the services that you provide and, yes, spend more time in your office than on the street making photographs.
Those are the only two differences, but they're big ones. They're too big for the freelance news photographers I know. They prefer waiting for calls from photo editors. They prefer shooting daily over working in an office. They prefer the notion of getting lucky and landing the big picture or landing the staff job over the idea of doing good, solid work consistently and being paid fairly for that work.
Why did I make the switch? I realized that I never really wanted to shoot a Superbowl. I don't have a desire to go to the Olympics. I don't need the grief that comes with working in a newsroom where the editors consider you a second-class journalist. I hate going to car accidents. I can't stand making head shots. And I didn't want to work under the terms of a written agreement given to me in September that handed the rights to my work over to the newspaper company I freelanced steadily for.
That's what staff photographers do. They have to do some lousy assignments. They live as second-class journalists. And they hand over the rights to their work for benefits and the notion of job security.
Giving away the rights to your work is not something a freelancer should take lightly.
But apparently that was the case when I balked at the 'written agreement' I received in the mail. With the agreement came a letter from the Director of Photography that said if I didn't sign it, then I wouldn't receive any more assignments. No more work for you. Period.
It didn't matter that I worked in a part of the paper's coverage area that was inconvenient for its staff photographers to reach. It didn't matter that I had consistently and reliably turned in work on assignment and on speculation almost daily for two years. It didn't matter that I care deeply about photojournalism and the power of photography to improve the lives of others. None of it mattered.
So, while I signed the agreement, I determined that day that I would leave the world of newspapers for good. I the end, it just wasn't worth getting cheated.
But it was worth it to a handful of freelance news photographers around the state who signed that agreement. I have a hard time figuring out why they did. These were photographers who are older than me. Many had worked on staff at large newspapers before embarking on their own. One of these freelancers was a former Director of Photography who was recognized for his work at the paper that he left, before starting his freelance career.
If anyone should know the value of the rights to their photographs, it was these folks. Established in the industry, dedicated to the art and certainly wiser that I was in the ways of the business.
When I contacted them, they were already resigned to their fate and they couldn't understand why I had a problem with this 'written agreement.'
What does that tell me about
freelance news photography? It tells me all the good people are gone. It
tells me the ones still around are hangers on. It tells me the freelancers
that are left are either not smart enough to know better or that they are
too old to care.
Is the wedding world different? Yes. You keep the rights to your work. It's fun to shoot weddings. You make a lot friends. Your clients appreciate the work that you do and aren't afraid to tell you. Weddings also give me the freedom to continue pursuing my passion for photojournalism. It just won't be for newspapers.
I realize that I can shoot what I want when I want on my own time. Interestingly, that is what I did as a freelance newspaper photographer. I picked my projects - projects that I cared about - and I did them. Then I would pitch them to the newspaper. There is no reason I can't still do that today. I will just pitch them to publications that pay me fairly and will not steal my rights.
Sean Cayton is a former freelance news photographer based in Colorado Springs, where he lives with his fiance Cathy and his dog Boris. He is now embarking on a career in wedding photography and still pursuing his passion for photojournalism. His other passions are golf, skiing and fly fishing.
In 2001, Sean received a First Place Award in the newspaper division Portrait category of the 59th Pictures of the Year competition with He's My Brother. In 2000, he received the PASS Award from the The National Council on Crime and Deliquency for his work on mothers in prison. And in 1998, he was awarded Best News Photograph by the Colorado Press Association.
Sean's work has appeared in the New York Times, LA Times, The Denver Post, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, Time for Kids, the Christian Science Monitor and in newspapers across the country.
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