In the past few weeks, the National Press Photographers Association discussion list (NPPA-L@cmuvm.csv.chmich.edu) has been abuzz over a post from one of the most famous freelance photographers in the world—David Burnett. Alarmed over increasing challenges to the rights of photographers from magazines, Burnett wrote:
"I agree with those who are now asking 'What is the NPPA's position on photographer's rights?' This is, without question, the singular issue facing all photographers, freelance and contract in particular, for both the near and long term future. As someone who has spent almost 30 years building a photo archive, the licensing of which permits me to continue working, sometimes on projects with no obvious financial benefit, I cannot believe that there is even a debate about the organization getting involved with all of its energy to face this issue. No question about it: major media corporations, seeing the increased ease of reselling and reworking their original works (via the Internet, through online databases, overseas editions) and want to simplify their lives (and raise their bottom lines). They are clearly taking direction in how to do this from corporate/legal people in the organizations. 'The photographers will roll over,' is that phrase which though I haven't had the dubious honor of actually hearing it, is no doubt spoken every day in a publisher's office when these questions come up.
"We in large part are what the publications are about. No one seems to challenge the fact that modern magazines and newspapers are by and large visual media. Without photographs, they become the White Pages of information. It's all there, but who wants to browse?"
Following World War II, a new breed of photojournalist came on the scene. Until that time, most of these people had been staff photographers working on major picture magazines. During the war, they formed friendships and alliances with other photojournalists. In addition, many photographers and editors of major European picture magazines who were Jewish left Europe to come to the United States, helping to create a power center in this relatively new field.
It was during late evening dinners, and conversation over drinks, that these photographers began to talk about taking control of the profession by creating "photo agencies" able to do business with the magazines from an equal and fair bargaining position. The first of these agencies, Magnum, began to establish the kind of working relationship with publications that was to set the standard for the next 40 years.
One of the things that made these developments possible was an attitude among the magazines that there was a division of power between the editorial decision makers, and the business office. At Time & Life, this was called "Church and State." It was a fundamental precept of Henry Luce. It meant that editors were only to consider the value of words and pictures in the magazine as editorial entities. They were never to concern themselves with "budgets." It was the job of the editor to create a magazine compelling enough for the advertising managers to sell ads easily—thus supporting the magazine. This formula worked brilliantly and the magazines flourished. The relationships between agencies, photographers and the publications were based almost entirely on how good the work was that was being sold.
Then, in the 1980s, came the era of "downsizing." The editorial side simply gave up their magazines to the publishers. Newly empowered MBAs gained enormous influence while doing their job—which was to dissemble the "relationship of equals" between the photographer and the editor. At one point during this period, I was offered the job of photo editor for a major newsmagazine, but only a few minutes into the discussion I was told, "what we need is a Manager not an Editor." That was pretty much where the discussion ended.
Well, the MBAs had their way, and today they are in control. Attorneys with absolutely no appreciation of either words or pictures, unless it's a clause in a contract, now dictate the policies to the humbled editors.
As Douglas Kirkland pointed out in last month's editorial, it used to be that a handshake with an editor was the only thing required to launch a photographer on a round-the-world odyssey. Everyone was free to concentrate on producing the story. The pictures came in, were laid out, published, won awards, and sold tons of magazines.
Today, many photographers still work under the old rules. They value their relationships with the publications and editors. Somehow, they continue to hang on to the hope, the desire to produce the best possible work.
Unfortunately, as much as we may wish it were the case, the reality is that the people who are really calling the shots are not on the editorial floors, but generally high above, in sleek offices. Their view of photographers is generally that of pesky nuisances who need to be kept in their place. They also have the impression that photographers multiply like cockroaches, and generally have the same value to society.
The bargaining position of the photographer is no longer as a respected partner in the editorial process, but one of a serf seeking some sort of "boon" from the throne.
It is this problem that David Burnett is addressing. At some point, and soon, this erosion of the basic relationship of photographers to their publications must be stopped. Otherwise the tides of this change will sweep us all out to sea.
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