Jim Colburn
Don't Ask

The Agency Game

Being a freelance photographer used to be one of the more pleasant things in life. The money might not have been great but it was an okay living with many side benefits. You were your own boss. You could, for the most part, set your own hours. If you wanted to take a few days off you could. And then, after gaining a certain amount of experience and a decent reputation you could get yourself an agency.

Photo agencies used to be small to medium size businesses, run on a handshake and a trusted word. The "modern" photo agency started with Magnum back in the 40's. It was a co-operative venture with a group of fun-loving photographers getting together to share some office space, an accountant and a few dreams. Some of the later agencies started out as co-ops and then grew into real profit-making businesses.

The best part of being a photographer represented by a good agency was that it freed you. They handled the billing, the invoicing, the statements, the reminders, the hassles. It was a home away from home, a place to visit, a sympathetic ear, a cup of coffee, and a number you could give to anybody knowing that messages would be taken and passed on. A good agency hustled for you, got you assignments, sold your stock material at home and overseas, and for all this they took a reasonable percentage of the take. Many's the time you see a substantial sale to a magazine you didn't know existed in a country you'd only read about. The foreign currency was converted and you received your monthly or quarterly check along with a 1099 at the end of the year to make it a little easier to do your taxes.

That was then, this is now. It seems as though the entire photo agency business has gone down the crapper. Aside from the few remaining independent photo agencies (Hi Bob! Hi Jeff! Hi Sue!) everything seems to have coalesced into two huge "content providers." They've presented the world with a new business model, the mega-agency, and it looks like it's failing. Millions of dot com dollars were spent to buy every agency on earth and the people that used to run them took the money and headed for the hills. Now that the hi-tech economy is in the dumpster and the "content providers" have to actually show a profit, things are getting tense.

I don't know a single photographer that's happy with the ways things are going. Assignments and guarantees are down because of the downturn in the economy. Stock sales are way down because of that "brilliant" idea - the Royalty Free CD-ROM. Agencies are failing left and right leaving photographers to wonder if they'll ever get their pictures back, and if they do get them back, what the hell do they do with them to generate some income?

Some photographers have started taking shooting positions with low pay and low benefits. That means that the company owns all the rights to their work. There'll be no income in 10 or 20 years time from residual sales of the pictures you take today. You're treated like another wire photographer but without the 401K or the guaranteed overtime. It sucks.

Some people are still fighting and thinking of new things. Contact and Sipa are still around. Magnum is still going. Gamma has set up an independent American office and a group of excellent photographers (including Chris Morris and James Natchwey) have set up a new co-operative agency called Seven (or "VII" as they like to say) and I really, really hope these people succeed and prosper. If they can manage to hold on, make money and grow there might be some hope for the next generation of photographers who, after all, just want to take pictures, and let someone else worry about the details.

Tip Of The Month: If. For some reason, you feel the need to wrap your cameras and lenses in gaffers tape, PLEASE change the tape every year or so. If it stays on for too long the glue tends to dry out leaving an unholy mess behind when you attempt to clean the damn thing up before putting it up for sale on Ebay.

Jim Colburn
Contributing Writer

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