It Only Takes One
By Chris Council
The photography business, especially in the editorial realm, has become a race to the bottom. The only way the industry will stabilize is for photographers to band together, stand up and say “enough.” Photo credits don’t pay the rent, and neither do below-market fees. Sometimes it’s hard to say no to a job, even a low-paying one, but everyone needs to decide their own personal breaking point when it comes to accepting a job.
To put this in context, here’s an example of a recent “job” that I turned down. I put the word job in quotes, because it didn’t pay anything. The USA Pro Cycling Challenge rolled through Aspen a few weeks ago, and I was contacted by a representative of the local chamber of commerce to photograph the event. The pay — nothing, zero, nada, zip.
But I was told it would be an “incredible opportunity to ride on the back of a motorcycle to photograph the event.” All I had to do was drive 3 hours to the next town over the night before, spend the day on the back of a donorcycle without falling off, use $12,000 of my own equipment, provide the images to the chamber of commerce (where they could be used however they wanted, as long as they wanted), and oh yeah, somehow find a way back to my car after the event which would entail another 6 hours in the car round-trip. No thanks.
I was berated by the agency and made to feel that I wasn’t contributing to the community, since everyone else was pitching in. Ironically, the agency was being paid handsomely by the city, which spent $258,000 the prior year on the event, including $50,000 spent by the chamber of commerce. You would think they could come up at least a nominal day rate to pay a photographer.
Aspen is a small town, and the photo community here is small and fairly tight-knit. I was first in line for the job, and after I turned down the “job” the other local photographers gave the same response as me, except one, who accepted.
Which brings me to my main point, which is that it only takes one person to drive down rates and lower the bar. So instead of the chamber of commerce budgeting properly for this event next year, they will once again assume they can get free images.
There may be times when it makes sense to do a job for free, although I’m hard pressed to think of any. Perhaps it’s any opportunity for access you could never get otherwise, and you think there’s a way to sell the images as stock afterwards. Or perhaps you are trying to break into a new specialty and need the practice and exposure.
But if you take a photography job without pay, or below market rates, you had better have your reasons, and they had better be damn good. And make sure you think long and hard about how your actions affect the industry as a whole, as well as the other photographers in your community.
Chris Council is the chief photographer at the Aspen Daily News, and is also available for editorial and commercial freelance assignments. He and his camera have traveled in 42 U.S. states and 22 countries on 5 continents, including Russia, Estonia, Croatia, Poland, Tanzania, Thailand, Egypt and Australia. He is an avid outdoorsman who has bicycled across the United States, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and hiked in the wilds of Kamchatka. This editorial was reposted from his blog.