the History of Freelance Photojournalism
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
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
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.