Common Cents
June 2003

by Mark Loundy

"We have met the enemy and he is us."
— Walt Kelly's Pogo

As I gaze across the ruined futurescape of editorial photography I see the twitching carcasses of failed businesses, smoking heaps of rotting dreams and lines of dazed refugees trudging toward a far horizon and other professions. They shuffle along, some of them muttering to themselves, "Who could have done such a thing?"

Who indeed? The obvious villains are photo buyers, publishers and financial managers. But it wasn't them. They only took advantage of a situation created by someone else.

A foreign company that sells products in the U.S. for less than cost can be found guilty of predatory pricing or "dumping" and fined for violating federal law. Dumping is illegal because it creates unfair competition and can drive U.S. firms out of business.

Yet many photographers unwittingly "dump" their work, creating unfair competition not just with their colleagues but, ironically, with themselves. Young photographers who do not figure out their own reasonable Cost of Doing Business often end up working for unprofitable fees. Others, who might be aware of the numbers, accept unprofitable contracts in the hope that they will build their reputations and get the big paydays down the road.

Sadly, photographers who try to build their professional reps by accepting low fees and Work For Hire contracts are destroying their own futures. Photo buyers are no longer allowed to have personal loyalties. Fewer and fewer publications are considering anything beyond price. Not only will the "big paydays" never come for the young photographers, but they will also disappear for everybody else. Only the superstars will make a living wage.

Saying that accepting a bad contract is better than making no money at all is ridiculous and shortsighted. Such practices ensure that there will eventually be no good contracts for anybody. Like the intelligent young lady in last month's column, you can always work at another job to support your ability to say no to bad deals. Eventually, you will develop a list of good-paying clients.

Young photographers need to know that there is no such thing as a non-negotiable contract. As independent businesspeople we write our own contracts. Anything that a client might present should be considered only as an initial offer. All final contracts must support your business plan. If the client cannot meet your minimum needs, then you must politely move on. Accepting anything less than your minimum is tantamount to defecating in your dinner plate.

The profession of photography must consist of skills beyond the ones it takes to create compelling images. Photographers must learn long-term survival skills starting with charging profitable rates. If they don't, not only will they be reduced to hobbyists plying photography while supporting themselves with a "day job," but they will also have helped destroy a profession.

The starting place is education — not only in colleges and universities, but also among young photographers. Business discipline must be considered on a par with lighting skills and color management. That is unless your mechanic accepts JPEGs for valve jobs.

The Good: Not a one this month.
The Bad: "America 24/7" for its all-rights stringer contract that offers a few hundred dollars in second-tier software, discounts on some hardware and zero expense reimbursement. If they don't publish anything, the stringer gets nada.
The Ugly:

  • Newsday makes the list yet again for their masterpiece copyright-transferring "take it or leave it" contract.

    Please let me know of any particularly good, bad or ugly dealings that you have had with clients recently. I will use the client's name, but I won't use your name if you don't want me to. Anonymous submissions will not be considered. Please include contact information for yourself and for the client.

  • Welcome aboard to my friend Don Winslow who is the new editor of News Photographer. Don is still trying to figure out how to wear Jim Gordon's size 17 loafers. I have no doubt that he will.


    Article about U.S. Anti-Dumping Law

    Common Cents Column On The Cost of Doing Business

    Fotobiz - software

    HindSight's Photo Price Guide 2

    Marilyn K. White's Pogo Site

    "Negotiating Stock Photo Prices" by Jim Pickerell and Cheryl Pickerell DiFrank

    Small Business Administration

    Advertising Photographers of America Resource page

    Editorial Photographers Yahoo! Group

    NPPA Online Discussion Group Instructions

    © Mark Loundy

    Mark Loundy is a visual journalist, writer and media consultant based in San Jose, California.

  • Write a Letter to the Editor
    Join our Mailing List
    © The Digital Journalist