Same As It Ever Was
December 05, 2008
Kenneth Jarecke, Contact Press Images
The Stobist, David Hobby has an interesting, non-strobe related post today entitled "Four Reasons to Consider Working for Free".
David's post makes good sense, and is completely true (as opposed to mostly). In fact, some of the points he makes are part of my game plan for my next (as of yet) untitled project.
I just have two small things to add.
1) For photojournalists, and especially for PFJ's, free has always been the deal.
Actually, the deal went something like this, "I'm interested in this, your magazine may at some point be interested in this also. Give me a small amount of money that won't even cover my expenses and leave me alone. When I'm done you can look at my pictures."
That's how it went, from about the time Magnum rolled around, to roughly the time Getty came on the scene.
Instead of money, film and processing, an airline ticket, or even a letter of accreditation could be the medium of exchange. Regardless, the magazine (or many magazines in different countries) would help to get the ball rolling, but it was still your ball.
This system allowed photographers to pursue images in the way they thought best. Which was often quite different from what had been pre-envisioned during an editorial meeting in New York City.
If anyone cared to make a list, I think you'd find that most of the influential photojournalism from the past fifty years was done in this manner.
Before someone jumps on this, let me just mention that Gene Smith (for example, you can substitute some other well know, still living photographers who worked in the golden age just as well) followed this recipe except for the amount of money part.
The point that I'm trying to make (and I think David is also) is that photographers generally produce their best work when they aren't overly concerned with how useful their images might be to the mainstream press.
Think TELEX: IRAN by Gilles Peress for a real world example of the principle.
I'm personally opposed to beating horses/ponies (living or otherwise) that said, the system I described no longer exists, but it could. Instead of getting backing from three or four magazines around the world, its possible to create a system where a photographer could get backing from three or four thousand people around the world.
2) A hungry photographer is a better photographer.
I really believe that a photographer, writer, any type of artist really, needs to be balancing on the edge of disaster to produce great work. Gene Smith could have coasted at any point in his career at LIFE. He realized (on some level, maybe it wasn't completely thought out) that he had to keep raising the stakes on himself in order to continue producing groundbreaking work.
As a photographer you can raise the bar without threatening to jump out of the window. It might be something as small as standing in exactly the wrong place
Not on the window sill, a different wrong place.
I agree with you in part, Kenneth... but I think the larger issue is that in some ways David's post is giving credence to the large numbers of photographers who were already giving away the farm to "build a portfolio" or whatever, that same batch of non-pros carrying pro gear, floating on the credit bubble, legitimized by the democrazy of the internet, possibly unable to actually complete a professional assignment (esp. if one goes very wrong, no insurance, liability, etc.), which is damaging by their sheer numbers (or might have been depending on how deep the recession rabbit hole goes).
Of course our best work is done for ourselves. And certainly your pointing to Magnum and the history of important documentary project work is rampant with that core formula (with the exceptions of some - Ferrato, Greenfield - who I understood regularly got assignments to dovetail into their bodies of work).
What I get from your posts over the last few months is something that I recognize in myself, and something mentioned by Chase in his under-scoring of the Strobist post, is that I as a photographer, as an "artist," as someone who feels sort of isolated too often, I want to say yes and collaborate and work on something new and challenging, regardless of monetary concerns. But that is about being open, not about searching for $Free.99.
Posted by: John Loomis | December 05, 2008 at 12:32 PM
I know what you're saying. My post today is not taking the current financial situation into consideration. I should have made that clear.
I was trying to speak more to how the business itself has changed.
There's always been that semi-professional photographer working at the low end of the spectrum who's main advantage was being cheap or even free.
There's also "the digital makes it easier" argument.
Both of these are factors of course, but what I was really trying to get at is this...
The model of the photographer looking to create their own work while being semi-financed by the print industry no longer holds true.
The system use to benefit both parties, which is something that David was speaking about (mutual benefits). Now the system is completely one-sided in regards to the magazine's needs, not the photographers.
I'm not saying (in the past) that an editor would help finance a trip out of the goodness of their heart. Many times they were motivated by fear of getting beat by a competitor. Other times they were motivated by wanting to build a positive relationship with a certain photographer.
Regardless, there is no longer (besides the A-list celebrity wedding perhaps) a situation when a magazine worries about getting beat.
As far as an editor working to build a relationship? Well, they don't really have that ability in the budget any longer.
I guess what I'm saying is the low-end is now perfectly acceptable to an industry that has been driven into the ground (through its own hubris of course).
Think Chrysler's "K" series for print.
Thanks for the comment btw.
Posted by: Kenneth Jarecke | December 05, 2008 at 03:00 PM
Can anyone make a living in this field and keep their own vision or credibility alive? I'm not sure, I think there has to be some give and take now day. Look at how many photographers are working as wedding photographers these day. Do they do that to stay alive and shoot other stuff on their own? Do magazine even give out assignments to individuals anymore to go shoot whatever and then run the stuff later as some exclusive find?
If none of this is true, then why stay in the business? I mean, why stay tied to taking and making images and publications?
I really don't have the answers, but I'd like more so an explanation of why anyone should be a working photojournalist these days.
Kind of the along the same lines as the American public asking why we should save the auto industry. Might it not be better to let it get really bad so, that starting over would bring about a new model of change? Again, I confess I don't have the answer just the question of why it would be worth staying in...
Posted by: smart-ass | December 05, 2008 at 05:08 PM
"A hungry photographer is a better photographer"
That is true.
Posted by: Fotografi | December 06, 2008 at 03:04 AM
I've paid for the right of first refusal before. Usually it's a small fee or covering the travel expenses and a letter of accreditation. It's not a bad way to go if there's a story the photographer and I are interested in but I can't get the editor on board. If the CFO knew I was doing this kind of fishing I would have been fired but I've landed huge exclusives for the magazine this way so I know it works.
Now, about the whole working for free thing from the magazines side. If a magazine wants to run crap photography or they want to give assignments to people who are learning on the job then it can all be had for free. Nothing will stop that. It's always been possible. I've allowed writers who claim to be budding photographers to take pictures on assignments because the editor wasn't sure we'd ever run the story. 100% of the time the photography that came back sucked. I don't think people fully grasp the immense chasm that exists between mediocre pictures and truly great photography.
Strobist is trying to evolve from newspaper photography and he's not going to find clients willing to risk a shoot on his learning curve. He's got to bake up some personal projects that will get him hired to shoot the way he wants. Nothing new here except instead of him and Jarvis talking about it over the phone they do it in front of hundreds of thousands of people.
Jarvis appears to get most of his work selling stock so he's used to shooting stuff for free and hoping that someone buys it later. Same idea really.
Posted by: Rob Haggart | December 06, 2008 at 09:43 AM
Thanks so much for your comment.
I don't have any idea what motivates Hobby or Jarvis. Besides the fact that, like the rest of us they're working on make a living.
When I was starting out, I learned very quickly that whenever I tried to do what the editor wanted I would fail. Sometimes quite spectacularly.
The secret for me was to concentrate on making pictures that I wanted to look at and let the rest sort itself out.
To that end, regardless if I'm getting paid or not, I work for myself (which I think is what everyone from Vince to David to Doug are really saying).
Which doesn't mean I leave my assigning editor looking foolish in that morning meeting, of course you need to protect their interests. I've always use the high-wire analogy..."I've got your back when you're showing, you've got my back when I'm shooting".
It also doesn't mean that I ignore the needs of my subject either. Most of the people you photograph won't be in a magazine too often, so its a big deal to them. You need to treat them right.
It just means that I consider my end use more important than the magazine's. Crazy talk I know, but anything else is a trap.
Its a trap because editors, if they aren't really vigilant can start judging the quality of an image by the "successfulness" of the shoot. So the fact that a take gets published, the managing editor is happy, it was completed under budget, no one got arrested, ect. ect. can obscure the fact that the image produced just wasn't very good.
Ironically, working in my own best interests ultimately (at least for me) produces the best possible images for the magazine.
I guess my libertarian streak is showing today!
Posted by: Kenneth Jarecke | December 06, 2008 at 01:05 PM
You've got me thinking about a post specifically dealing with the questions you've raised.
Thanks so much, I'm thinking....
Posted by: Kenneth Jarecke | December 06, 2008 at 01:09 PM
Ken, thanks for a really thought provoking post here. Few and far between in the reading I do these days of copyblogs...
Posted by: Jon T | December 07, 2008 at 04:58 AM
Glad I stopped back by to see the subsequent comments... again Ken, thanks for the conversation. I love that "smart-ass" has in essence answered their own question, in that the only real way to blow-up in freelance photography right now is by cultivating a real and unique vision, which brings me to Tony Fouhse's post this morning (along with Mark Tucker's post about his F.U. book.) The bigger question is whether or not there is any room for a middle of the road, or even emerging young photographer right now...
Posted by: John Loomis | December 07, 2008 at 02:43 PM
Nice post, and thank you for reading mine.
That Strobist post got the hornet's nest up, mostly I think, after listening to a few others detail it more in depth, because it meant different things to different people.
I prefer to work on my own. My best work has been produced on my own, but I've never really searched for backing. I figure i have a limited about of time and energy, I'll take it and go make my pictures, regardless of anything other than making the images.
Posted by: Daniel Milnor | December 08, 2008 at 08:36 PM