A Love Story

December 2002

by Greg Smith

My words have appeared irregularly at this waypoint on the web, and like so many now in our business, my voice has complained about what is wrong with photojournalism.

The roots of those complaints are fairly obvious to nearly all involved in making documentary and news pictures: money, respect and the lack thereof. We love what we do and many folks would love, like us, to do it. Too many buyers of our photojournalism see our love - which, I contend, makes us more valuable - as vulnerability, and they exploit it. They take advantage of our motivations, which go beyond money, and choose to pay us less while demanding more. Too many of us have said yes to rights grabs and payments lower than our costs. We have allowed huge corporations to turn our creativity into a commodity. And like wheat growers in Kansas, whose livelihoods are in the hands of commodity traders in Chicago, we risk losing the farm.

But where do our complaints leave photojournalism students and recent graduates? We call on them to hold the line, to turn down bad deals, consider other careers. The fire to make pictures and tell stories burns in them as it did in most of us an unbelievably short 10 or 20 or 30 years ago when we started in the business. They have lenders and parents who have put up money so these students could scratch their itches to make pictures. Instead of offering fuel to help them burn brighter and advice to help them scratch, we seem to be tossing water on them, suggesting their education, efforts and the money that have paid for both have been wasted.

Who are we to dash their hopes? What sort of legacy are we leaving by discouraging the eyes and voices of the future?

Well, it is the season of hope. And with that in mind, let me offer 10 reasons for young shooters, old shooters and our reader/viewers to nurture hope that photojournalism will remain a profession, not merely a hobby or a training ground for other careers. Yes, many of these reasons for hope cut both ways. For instance, a wealth of talented photographers, producing lots of high-quality imagery, easily distributed in an electronic age, has contributed to our economic dilemma. But we are focusing on the positive here, so let's look at things that can help - even if they have a potential downside.

1. Arguably, our imagery has never been better. Those who came before us, from Matthew Brady to the LIFE photographers, blazed visual trails, and we have built on their efforts. Many today test the boundaries of visual storytelling, tilting horizons, blurring motion, pushing action to the edges of frames and expanding the visual language. Some efforts work. Some don't. But the visual lexicon is growing, both in variety, and I believe, in quality.

2. Our talent pool is tops. Photojournalism schools turn out thousands of skilled young storytellers every year, many of whom are ready to hit the ground running. Aging talent (such as me on my good days) remains ready to work, bringing experience with logistical and political concerns, as well as reliable vision. We are valuable, and if we market our value properly, buyers will pay for it.

3. The number of venues for display is expanding - changing in nature, yes, but expanding. While newspaper circulation is moribund, many fishwraps continue to spin double-digit profits. The magazine market is wild, with titles coming and going. But it is still expanding, even in a recession. Then there's electronic communication, including the web, television and whatever is coming next. If you're reading this, you're in the right place to see the beginnings of what photography, audio and video can do on the web. And on television, several folks - from Ken Burns to David Snider are seeking and finding new roles for still photography.

4. We have new tools that allow us to create quickly and efficiently. From fast, sharp, auto-focusing lenses to digital cameras backed by powerful computers and gadgets (such as cell modems and digital wallets), we have equipment that allows us to do more with less effort. Tiny point-and-shoots and mini-DV camcorders have many more capabilities than the 15-pound press cameras from 40 years past and the bulky Betacams of the past decade. More than a few aging photographers - including the editor of this forum - have confessed to me that reliable autofocus extended their careers. And younger photographers have found faster proficiency with tools that perform automatically many of the intricate and arcane tasks (often accomplished in darkrooms, remember them?) we had to master before we could worry about the quality of our imagery.

5. There is a wealth of affordable training and educational opportunities. From NPPA-sponsored seminars, lectures and workshops, to the Poynter Institute, ASMP and APA events, PhotoExpo and more, both industry and trade groups are helping photographers rise to today's challenges. Training opportunities range from how to survive in combat and cope with trauma, to how to tone digital images and negotiate win-win deals. Knowledge is power, and we're gaining it - both from our instructors and each other as we meet and share ideas and experiences.

6. We are communicating and learning from each other as never before, especially in the realm of business practices. Editorial Photographers grew instantly from nine members to hundreds, and now, after less than four years, counts 3,700 members around the world, with a long roll of offshoot lists for various specialties, regions, languages and nationalities, all discussing the business of editorial assignments and stock sales. More than 1,000 folks daily read the NPPA List. Thousands more tune in to APA, ASMP and PhotoPro forums, again with many regional and specialty versions, as well. Online, e-zines, such as The Digital Journalist, ZoneZero and foto8 are eclipsing the importance of printed photo magazines. And many of those rags, such as PDN and PEI, have strong online components that help us share and grow. The more we read, view and talk, the more we understand. And the more we understand, the better we perform - both in our shooting and in negotiating for the full value of our work.

7. Our clients obviously see value in our work. Otherwise, they wouldn't be demanding (and too easily getting) more rights to it. Huge picture agencies mine millions of dollars from their vast image databases, even as they cut photographers' royalties and undercut stock and assignment pricing to a point where others can hardly compete. The New York Times spent millions to unsuccessfully defend the Tasini case concerning electronic reuse of articles and images. This suggests the rights Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and his company's fellow defendants wanted to steal without asking, and now demand in one-sided contracts, might be worth a bit. Our challenge is to negotiate
and demand our fair shares.

8. With the web, e-mail and other information resources, finding and researching story ideas has never been easier. The same tools also help us market ourselves and locate funding for important documentary projects. Speaking of which, there seems to be a growing number of grants available for still and multimedia documentary projects. And groups have formed to help talented folks acquire and make the best us of these grants. Check out the Blue Earth Alliance and Double Take magazine.

9. Journalism has always been messy. Journalists have almost always been poorly paid. And for most, journalism careers have been short. Take a look at old movies such as The Front Page that depict newspaper life in the mid-20th Century. Bucking (slightly) my professor's advice, in December 1979 I left my Eastern home, crossing Big Muddy for the first time to work for a six-day Oklahoma newspaper for less than $200 per week. When I arrived in beautiful Bartlesville, I found that week was 48 hours long. All the depressing chat that today's recent graduates worry and complain about might have taught me better to read the fine print. Would I have leaped at the opportunity anyway? I don't know. But having all the information - even if that information is depressing - makes for better decisions.

10. Aging complainers such as myself aren't giving up. Despite poor business conditions, hundreds of us volunteer thousands of hours to help ensure a future for our profession. We are educating each other and lobbying legislators on a long list of fronts. These are acts of love. And we believe, not naively, that love can conquer all.

This is certainly a case where the silver lining has a cloud. Each of these hopeful signs could also point to doom. And I would be irresponsible not to note it. Staff newspaper jobs are disappearing. Staff magazine shooters are pretty much gone. Freelance rates aren't rising, and indeed, if inflation and rights demanded from each assignment are included in the mix, they are dropping rapidly - even as the costs of our operations in a digital age keep growing. The stock photography business isn't funding photographers as it used to (I've spoken to active photographers whose stock income has dropped by 80 percent and more in the past five years). And folks who accept bad deals are hastening these trends.

But if we bring the same love to our business dealings that we bring to making pictures, there is hope. We need to respect ourselves and respect our profession. We need to understand what it costs to operate, bill accordingly when we can and find other work that pays (from making family portraits to waiting tables) when we can't. Photojournalists are a fiercely independent bunch, but when we get together we always have fun. Perhaps we can get together for profit, too.

My advice to young photojournalists: Follow your heart; but use your head.

Courage and Peace,

© Greg Smith

Greg Smith, at age 45, is an independent photographer, writer and producer who lives and works on the banks of a tidal river near Bluffton, S.C. This month, he completes his term on the ASMP/SC board of directors, and he is a member of The National Press Photographer's Business Practices Committee.

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