Last week, I was on a panel of photographers at the Palm Beach Photo Workshop. The subject matter was to be "war stories," our recollections on what it was like "in the old days." We were only minutes into the storytelling when it took an abrupt detour into a discussion about the critical changes within our industry during the past decade.
Douglas Kirkland, who had been a staff photographer on the original Look magazine, and certainly one of the most famous photojournalists in the world today, started to talk about the bond of trust which formerly existed between photographers and editors. "Assignments used to be given on a handshake. We rarely talked about money. We went out and shot a story, submitted a bill, and were paid. Editors like Frank Zachary, at the old Holiday magazine, would regularly send photographers on around the world assignments, without ever discussing a budget. If you needed money before you left, you went to the 'cash window' and drew thousands of dollars without any questions being asked." Arnold Newman, one of the world's best known portrait photographers agreed, then compared those times with today--the cash window has disappeared, and editors are afraid to spend even the smallest amounts on photography. "I got a call for one of my most famous pictures recently. The subject had long since died, and when I quoted my price, the editor objected strenuously. I told him "go out and shoot him yourself."
Over the past years, freelance photojournalists have learned to cope with the reality that the days of cash advances are over. However, in past months a far more ominous development has started to spread across the industry. David Friend, former director of photography at Life, lampoons in this issue, the unrelenting drive by lawyers and MBA's to steal more and more rights from the photographer--with an equal and opposite move to cut rates and expenses.
Almost all publications will claim that their policy is to pay fees and expenses in a timely fashion upon presentation of invoices. However, it is becoming increasingly common for photographers to be put on 90-day payout schedules. At the same time, the source of the photographers' funds, the credit card companies, have tightened their payment schedule. American Express, for example, now expects to receive payment in full within 10 days for small companies and some individual credit card holders. What this means is that a photographer who completes a major assignment is probably already late on payment before she or he even unpacks from a trip, let alone prepares an expense account. Many studio managers and spouses of photographers are living today in fear that a "big assignment" will come along forcing the photographer to go thousands of dollars in debt, while sweating and praying the client will pay them before their credit card is cancelled.
Editors profess to be concerned about these developments, and promise it "won't happen again," but they are powerless as the publishers pressure the business office employees to stretch out payment until the last possible moment. I have seen some of these dedicated business office people who have maintained relationships with photographers and their agents for years suddenly get transferred because they "worried too much about paying the photographers."
This trend has gotten increasingly worse. It has become very difficult for photographers to continue to work in the "field," as they become preoccupied with calls from home, asking when the next check is coming.
Colin Finlay, one of the most respected photojournalist shooting in black and white today, whose essays on places like the Sudan have graced the pages of The New York Times magazine, finally had to give up waiting for funds to finance his coverage. He turned to television. Now, under contract to Fox, he roams the world shooting and creating memorable stories with both his Betacam and Leica. Finlay would have preferred to stay in conventional photojournalism, but he couldn't take the financial pressure any more.
Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to this problem. Today, there is a tendency to undervalue photographers and their photographs. They are seen as easily replaceable parts of the machine...if one quits, there will be plenty to take his or her place. However, the shattering of trust between the photographer and editor will only produce greater pressure on the editor to do more with less. Ultimately, the publishing and photographic communities are in danger of going into a death spiral. The creative process will become fraught with fear, and the result could be nothing less than the destruction of photojournalism as a craft.
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