Editorial Photographers:
More Than Just a Mailing List - a Business Lifeline
by Cameron Davidson

In the spring of 1999, a group of photographers based in San Francisco formed an e-mail list to facilitate discussion about the serious issues threatening to undermine the viability of editorial assignment photography as a profession.  That small gathering slowly but surely blossomed into “Editorial Photographers," or "EP," the current listserve of one-thousand-plus shooters from around the globe, daily discussing on-line the realities of modern-day editorial photography, realities that will surely either change the face and finances of the profession, or drive it into obscurity.  The EP mailing list and membership is now a “recognized force” in the photo industry.  This group is sharing contracts, delivery memos, terms, strategies, frustrations, successes, setbacks and ideas.  EP members are learning how to say NO to bad contracts, and how to negotiate better ones.

EP formed out of photographer frustration with bad contracts and poor management practices within certain magazine groups. Those contracts and practices, which severely restricted or sought to restrict the rights and re-uses of material created on assignment, placed an intolerable financial burden on assignment photographers working for the traditional “creative fee.”  The traditional creative fee does not (and was never intended to) reflect the value of the work created.  Historically, the creative fee for editorial photography was much lower than the fees paid for corporate and advertising assignments.  The joy in shooting editorial images was to be derived from seeing your images published in a format that showed your photography to the world and carried your credit line.  Financial success (or at least, viability) in the world of editorial photography was -- and is -- achieved by re-licensing your stories and images as stock, selling picture essays published in other magazines, or by licensing the images for use in reprints of stories, none of which is possible under a restrictive contract.  Freelancers are self-employed; they are not employees, and this distinction must be maintained in contractual arrangements. Freelance photographers must own and control the copyrights for the images they create on assignment.

Updating the Day Rate

Editorial day rates have remained stagnant for close to two decades.  The day rate set in the early 1980’s was a guarantee against space rate for one-time reproduction rights.  Editorial shoots in the early 80’s were often conducted using available light and little to no art direction. We were capturing “the real world!”  Editorial photography has its roots in photojournalism, and those images reflected that history.  Today, photographers are expected to shoot assignments that are scouted, produced, art-directed and rely on a great deal of manipulated lighting and technical expertise. These assignments very closely approximate the work being created for annual reports and advertising campaigns in the more traditionally “commercial” arenas.  Despite this, many magazines are demanding that photographers sign assignment contracts transferring nearly all rights to the magazine, with little or no additional payment to the photographer.  Adding insult to injury, clients are also demanding increased “content” control -- many photographers now must deal with publicists and PR people who want to restrict the publication and re-use of their “celebrity” client’s images -- all of this, too, for a creative fee set in stone long ago.  For a quick “reality check” using the cost-of-living index, at the minimum the editorial assignment rate should be close to six hundred dollars as opposed to the three-hundred and fifty dollars traditionally offered.

After eight years of continued economic growth - the amazing boom years of the 90’s - photographers are still being required to sign contracts that pay them a creative fee set back in 1981.  In such a situation something has to give; many photographers were contemplating leaving the field completely (and many did), or reduced the number of editorial assignments they would accept.

EP to the Rescue

Photographers in this industry are hungry for fresh information. They are excited about sharing ideas and how to change the industry.  The Editorial Photographers (EP) mailing list has focused on specific issues and solutions, and is helping photographers change how they run their businesses.  There is an incredible amount of positive energy within the EP group - the sharing of information has been quick and to the point. One list member pointed out that the EP list has the potential to influence the industry far more than any trade organization. The EP list includes photographers from New Zealand, Australia, Russia, England, France, Canada, Egypt, Singapore, Hong Kong, Panama, Costa Rica, Venezuela and the United States.

One of the beauties of this listserve is that information is spread worldwide on Internet time.  We no longer have to wait for suggested contracts or ideas to be parsed by the directors or attorneys of photo trade organizations.  The suggested contracts and terms that have been posted were written by exceptional copyright attorneys, including terms written by the lead counsel of a  trade organization specifically for one California photographer who shoots celebrity portraits for advertising and editorial clients.  These terms and contracts are being adopted across the board for advertising, corporate and editorial assignments.

EP in Action

Our influence is being felt in how we help and encourage each other to stay on-track.  The following story synopses illustrate the depth and breadth of the personal and thoughtful exchanges and support being offered within the growing ranks of EP:

After discussing prices for stock use of images in magazines, one photographer contributed his time and energy to take orders for forty-plus copies of FotoQuote® , a software program that is rapidly becoming the industry standard for licensing the use and publication of photographs.

In another instance, a member-photographer brought up and discussed on-line having experienced the unauthorized reproduction of images in reprints sold to companies profiled in business magazines.  Other list members quickly responded with information and suggested pricing, along with an adopted price list and terminology for contracts.

Brand-new list members are quickly brought into the fold.  A young professional joined the list and posted immediately, in a mild panic over an urgent request received from a client who wanted a fast price quote on an image for a package of rights and long-term uses outside of her experience, including Web site rights and uses. Better than half-a-dozen listserve members quickly responded with their views and experience on how they would price such a package, including break-downs of the diverse elements and tips on negotiating with the client. Best of all, many of them responded with detailed information on why they priced elements of the package the way they did, providing her and others on the list with invaluable insights into the decision-making processes underlying a complicated price quote, as well as providing confidence-building arguments that supported their conclusions.

In yet another example, one of the EP list moderators purchased a new computer system with a scanner and new printer.  In a rush to print out a new portfolio before heading to Europe, she posted a help request on another e-mail list. An EP list member recognized her name and spent a three hours on a long-distance call, on a Saturday afternoon, helping her set up her scanner, ColorSync and printer profiles.  They had never spoken before and have yet to meet in person.

The influence that EP is wielding is growing:  as a result of EP listserve discussions, people are even writing letters to the editors of magazines, rejecting their suggested contracts and offering to establish new working contracts that reflect the value of the images created.

Photographer Alan Goldstein (Silver Spring, Maryland) commented about the growth of the EP list:  “Editorial Photography (EP) is a bottom-up, virtual-group, whereas trade associations are top-down organizations. It is easier to maintain  a bottom-up mindset when it comes to communication, but it is harder to maintain when it comes to taking action. A bottom-up organization helps facilitate open communication, but may need more structure to make provision for taking action.”

EP members are taking action.  They are helping each other face the issues confronting editorial photographers.  The EP  list is growing rapidly - where and what the list grows into is anybody’s guess. Editorial Photographers recently changed its status to a non-profit, based in California.

Many photographers have commented that they have learned more about the business of photography by reading the EP posts in four months than by attending trade show seminars and business classes sponsored by professional photographic organizations.

EP is real.  EP is helping photographers stay focused on the important issues of our business.  To join the EP list, you must earn part of your income by shooting for book publishers or magazines.  The moderators approve each member.  It is a secure list that encourages an open and frank discussion about the issues facing editorial photographers. Visit our Web site at (www.editorialphoto.com)

© Cameron Davidson 1999,
Karen Atwood, Contributing Editor

Cameron Davidson is location photographer who is known for shooting from unique angles.  His images have been published in Audubon, Air & Space, American Way,  The Industry Standard, National Geographic, Preservation, and Smithsonian.  His career was profiled in Communication Arts and his work was recently featured in the televison series, Nature's Best. When not in the backseat of a Bell Jet Ranger, Cameron can be found trailing his enormous Catahoula Leopard dog, as she attempts to get a jump on the local squirell populace.

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