Revising the History of Freelance Photojournalism
November 2002


Photographer Fred Ward has been battling with the attorneys of National Geographic since 1999, when he filed a lawsuit against the Society.

In 1997, the executives at that revered company that hosted one of the most prestigious brands in photojournalism, decided that in the interests of the new "synergy" between print and multimedia, it would create a CD for sale that would encompass the entire 108-year-old history of the magazine into a 30 CD set. Various editors and department heads at Geographic immediately raised red flags. They pointed out that Geographic did not own many or even most of the images that had been featured in the magazine. In a willful act the executives overrode their warnings and proceeded to sell the discs. The CDs were an immediate hit. In Geographic's own press releases they were the called the largest selling CD set in history, with reported revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

When photographers found out their images had been scanned and sold without their permission, they immediately cried foul. But by their accounts, Geographic made no effort to come to some sort of understanding. In fact Geographic had made matters worse in June, 1997 by sending letters to 2000 affected photographers informing them of the upcoming product and telling them they would not be paid for the use of their material.

Over the past four years, lawsuits have been filed, and last year, photographer Jerry Greenberg won the first big court victory against Geographic in a federal court in Atlanta. That case has since been remanded to a court in Miami for the assessment of damages.

Fred Ward's case is still in progress. He has the largest single archive to be hijacked by Geographic, more than 800 photographs. Panicked Geographic lawyers, reeling from the Greenberg decision, have come up with a last ditch attempt to rewrite the history of the relationship between photographers and publications. They have come up with the proposition that in the 60s and 70s it was common practice for photographers to sign away all rights for the privilege of being published in major magazines.

This is simply not true. As Fred Ward recalls, "In those days almost all assignments were done with a handshake, without contracts. I did about half of my nearly 30 years of NGS assignments with nothing more than a phone call from photography director Bob Gilka." The American Society of Magazine Photographers had already established the basic relationship between photographers and editors that assignments were done for a one-time use. This was the formula that would allow photographers to resell their archives in future years, to make up for the lack of benefits that staff photographers and the editors who assigned the stories enjoyed.

In a lengthy interview with photographic doyen Arnold Newman early this month, which will be seen in its entirety in the January issue of The Digital Journalist, he told us that photographers before have fought these moves on rights grabs.

In the mid 1950s, Arnold, who was quickly being recognized as the "master of the environmental portrait" received a letter, along with 9 other major freelance photographic contributors from Life Magazine. LIFE wanted the illustrious stable of photographers to relinquish their copyright to their work, retroactively, before getting their next assignment. The photographers met in Arnold's West Side home, and replied to LIFE that the proposition was unacceptable. For over a year, none of these great photographers got an assignment from Time-Life. Finally, LIFE realized it needed the photographers as much as the photographers needed LIFE, and they called in Gjon Milli, one of the "group of 10," and told him, "we would like to continue to work with you, but we can do without the others, and so if you come back to work, we will make it right." Milli replied, "If you think I am going to walk across that picket line, with my friend Dimiti Kessel on the other side, you have another think coming." Life capitulated, and for the next 40 years a stable relationship between photographers and the magazine ensued.

However, in 2000, another major magazine wanted to do an exclusive portrait session with President Clinton, and wanted Arnold Newman to shoot it. The White House turned the magazine down. Arnold, who had photographed almost every American President over the past half-century decided he wanted to do it anyway, so he called his contacts in the White House and asked for an appointment. The White House agreed, and so Arnold paid his own expenses, hired assistants, and went to Washington and did the shoot.

Several weeks later, attorneys from the magazine started contacting Arnold demanding that he give them all rights to his shoot. Arnold refused. The attorneys could not believe that Arnold could get access to the President without the cachet of the magazine. After 3 increasingly heated calls between Newman and the lawyers, he was told that if he did not give them the rights, the consequences would be severe. According to Arnold "from that day on, none of the magazines in this big organization has ever given me an assignment."

Arnold thinks all this is indicative of a larger problem. "I predict that the little talents in photojournalism will be getting all the money. They will do it just to be exposed, and the people depending on that money, the older photographers, the real talent, will not get work. The young photographers will be getting $350 a day, that's like $35 when we were starting out, and these photographers will work for 5,10, or 12 years, then they will be replaced by other kids just out of school for even less, and they will have nothing when they leave, no copyrights to their work."

We fear that in the process photojournalism will become ever more inconsequential at a time when our culture is becoming ever more dependent on the work of the people who have mastered the craft.

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