To the Barricades, Comrades!

by Peter Howe

When I was a teenager in South East London I belonged to the youth section of the Labour Party. It was called the Young Socialists and as a revolutionary organization ranked somewhere between the Boys Scouts and the Yale Glee Club. However that didn’t prevent us from acting out all the fantasies of being an underground radical cabal. We would meet in a council flat (city housing project to you) in the rather complacent blue-collar neighborhood of Lee, where the only truly working class member of our group lived with his mum and dad. Because we were certain that our activities would be bound to attract the counter-terrorist unit of MI5 we would devise carefully coded door knocker sequences which would cause whoever was on the inside to ask the question: “Who’s there?” The correct response was your name, followed by the honorific “comrade” As in: “It’s Peter, Comrade.” This was the only way you would be allowed entrance unless it happened that the comrade’s mum was by the door when you knocked. Under these circumstances J. Edgar Hoover himself would have been let in and given a cup of tea. However my experiences with the Young Socialists gave me a couple of things that I took into adult life. One is that a life in politics is really boring and should be avoided at all costs. The other was knowledge of how collective bargaining works, and how there really is strength in numbers.

I still only partially understand why it has always proved to be impossible for photographers to organize when faced with threats to their livelihood, whether they are lower percentages, a loss of rights, or any of the other travails that have plagued the photo industry in the last decade or so. I realize that photographers for the most part are people who prefer not to join organizations, who like working by themselves, who are creative and unpredictable, who are competitive, and who are often cynical and suspicious. In fact it’s all of these qualities that endear them to me, and that, when you get right down to it, I share. However, having understood that, there are other creatives who have many similar qualities but who still join with their fellow workers to present a unified front in defense of their professional needs. The recent negotiations in Hollywood between the writers and producers are a good example. They may not have been totally successful for the writers, but the film companies certainly took them seriously, and are likely to proceed with much more caution in the future based on this experience.

So why is it that traditionally photographers have been incapable of uniting in a common cause. I understand the legal reasons as a result of help from Nancy Wolff. Every photographer is regarded under the law as an independent contractor, and if a group of independent contractors try and force collective agreements this falls foul of the anti-trust laws. Although I understand this it still seems to me to be a perversion of the intent of those laws. But there must be ways for photographers to protect their common interests and not have the Justice Department do a Microsoft on them. I think that we are seeing a movement afoot that might do just that. Remarkably it may be in the form of photographers’ cooperatives.

Until recently the term “photographers’ cooperative” should have been in the Guinness Book of World Records under the heading “World’s Greatest Oxymoron.” Certainly anyone who has attended, heard about, or seen in the BBC documentary on Magnum the annual members’ meeting would agree with this. The word contentious doesn’t even begin to describe the atmosphere. But the advent of the Internet has changed many things in photography, and one of the most advantageous is that it has reduced the isolation under which most photographers used to work. Groups like EP and APA may have marked the beginning of a new attitude towards cooperation. It seems that every week now I hear about one group or another forming alliances, whether it is the disaffected Getty photographers in the StockArtistsAlliance, or the group of seven leading photojournalists who have banded together under the simple if uninspired name Seven. For certain photographers under certain circumstances working together in a loose association such as this may be a better alternative to a traditional agency. The time is right to try this because there are so many companies springing up that can offer these groups the support that they need in terms of on-line licensing, workflow management including invoicing and many other functions that agencies traditionally undertook for their photographers.

This kind of arrangement may even develop into the next iteration of the photographic agency. When agencies such as Sygma and Gamma in editorial and the Image Bank in commercial started up they were revolutionary, and redefined the way photography was sold, but that was over thirty years ago. It was appropriate for that time and place. It probably doesn’t work that well today. In fact not much is working well today, and it’s time to question the way everything operates, from the magazine market through copyright protection and agency representation. We may find that the tried and true ways are still the best, but that discovery won’t be made until we challenge them. To do this there has to be a real change in attitude on the part of many photographers. Until the realization that what’s good for one is often good for all it’s going to be impossible to make any real progress towards industry practices that are better and more equitable for photographers. A lot of egos are going to have to be put on one side to achieve the progress that is so necessary.

That things are bad in this industry is apparent to everyone involved. I can’t think of the last time that I got what could even be loosely interpreted as good news, and in a bizarre way this actually may be the good news. Change often evolves from desperate circumstances, and it sometimes takes backs to be against the wall to push movement forward. If photographers can find new ways of working together to protect their common goals in a spirit of true comradeship, then maybe the pain will have been worthwhile. If this ever happens, however, please do me a favor. Don’t call me Comrade Howe. I would hate to lose my citizenship as the result of Un-American activities.

Peter Howe
Contributing Editor

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