In our editorial last month, we discussed the damage that has been caused to free-lance photojournalism by mega-corporate takeovers of what used to be mom-and-pop photo agencies. In his column this month, James Colburn offers a graphic example of just how dramatically these events have changed the basic eco-structure that has allowed individual photographers to sell their photographs, and make some sort of living in photojournalism.

Photographer Fred Ward comments, “We are now in the very last days of freelance photojournalism.” This is not, unfortunately, an over-statement of the dire predicament that photographers face today.

To add to the pressures, there is yet another factor to be taken into account. The rise of Royalty-Free CDs.

Companies offering what appear to be substantial licensing fees to buy wholesale lots of their work have approached many photographers. Often, thousands of dollars may be dangled in front of these people who are having difficulty paying their mortgages. Of course, once they agree to sell these images, by the scores or hundreds, their ability to realize further sales on these images disappear.

Photographer Jennie Zeiner uses the following analogy:

“In a couple of the Outreach programs I've done, I've asked the students if they know of a restaurant in their area where I could pay a one-time fee and eat there as often as I want, choosing whatever I want from the menu. Of course they look at me like I'm crazy. How about a record store where I can pay once and get as many CDs as I want? Is there any business that operates like this? I ask.

So why do photographers? What other business could successfully operate in this way?”

This is a very simplistic comparison, but it does make a basic point that even the youngest photographers can grasp.

Frederic Neema takes the argument a step further:

“Comparing food to images is not appropriate because one is perishable while the other is not. Every single time you eat at the restaurant, it costs them money while every time someone uses the same picture it costs nothing to its creator (he just doesn’t make the money he is supposed to make). Big difference.’

‘We need to stop comparing our business to restaurants, hotels and rental cars because they are different business models. Hertz will rent a BMW for the same price if the customer works for a local store or Macy’s, if he is an employee or a CEO. Same for the restaurant. When you book a table they don’t ask you who you are and give you a different menu.’

‘Our licensing fees should be based upon the value of our images. When we license our images, we ask who the customer is and what the usage will be. We calculate your fees according to this information because this is the only way to make it profitable. Although it does not “cost” us more to shoot and deliver the same picture to a local store or a multinational corporation, we do not charge the same price. Why? Because you base your fees upon the value of what we create, not what we record.”

Where “work for hire” agreements deny freelance photographers the future revenue stream from their images that they need simply to survive in a business sense, Royalty Free can have even more insidious effects.

Photographers, many of them “big names” who support expensive overhead as a daily cost of doing business, suddenly find that the clients, who used to be regular customers, are not commissioning new work. The reason, many of the needs are being taken care of simply by using Royalty Free stock. To add insult to injury, the agencies in many cases are billing their clients as though they were commissioning new work.

The job of the “art buyer” in many agencies has become a hollow title. The experience and contacts of these people don’t matter very much when images can be procured for the next big-dollar campaign simply by popping a CD into a computer.

In fact, the whole concept of an individual photograph having an intrinsic journalistic or artistic value is fast being lost. Those photographs have become nothing more than visual stock. They are like those fast food hamburgers, dispensed by the millions. Meanwhile, in the future, unless something gives, more and more photographers will end being those people flipping burgers by the millions.

© 2002 Dirck Halstead
The Digital Journalist

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