Monday, January 22, 2007

The Upside of Down

The concept -- "The Upside of Down" is simply the concept of growing through loss or challenge, and how this idea seems to be mostly devoid from many photographers approaches to their existence. It must always be roses and caviar, no burdens or challenges to tax their minds. In other words, the path of least resistance (and that usually equates to the path with the lowest pay or most onerous rights demands) is the road most taken. One of the things that always amazes me is how people in general (and photographers are not immune from this) will hold in admiration a colleague who is far more advanced in their career than they are, and how they would seem to do just about anything to spend time with them, learn from them, or possibly be mentored by them. Sometimes they write and ask for advice, othertimes, they talk during the down times of a lengthly assignment, yet, when they see the first opportunity to leap in and "replace" that photographer who's objected, in principle, to taking an assignment for a really bad deal, how they see nothing wrong with it.

About this time last year, photographers were checking and re-checking their equipment, testing their systems as was well documented by Apple where Vincent Laforet was working wirelessly (and no doubt tirelessly) and meeting deadlines because of the groundbreaking system he employed. Back in March of 2006, David Burnett, co-founder of the legendary Contact Press Images, wrote on the Sportshooter website, a great article entitled "The Great Disconnect: Chapter 2006", and I excerpt David's comment:

"...Torino for me was one of those times. I came THAT close to working out a credential and shooting situation for the Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. But in the end, the client wanted way too much of my flesh, in addition to the pictures, and I decided to be a grownup about it and just watch, read, and mouse around my own version of The Games like the other six billion unaccrediteds in this world. ...

The problem is, Someone DID take whatever bad deal David was offered. Someone sold out, continuing the downward spiral of photographers' rates and hold they maintain on their rights. More than likely, they did it for a cool assignment, one which David really wanted to cover, but he stood, on principle, and did not. Whomever took the assignment, by NO means REPLACED David, they were: 1) an also ran -- the client really wanted David, not them, and 2) produced what I am sure were "also ran" photos. Few photographers can cover the Olympics (or any event) as David has, and would have.

That "also ran" photographer more than likely has seen David's work, and, if they don't aspire to produce work as good as his, they aspire to produce work as good as David's peers, whom certainly hold David in high regard.

This has happened throughout the years with other photographers (P.F. Bentley comes to mind, as noted previously) who are well respected, yet those whom have that respect are so willing to step in and do the deal when those they respect have said no -- for respectable reasons. Why is it that that respect and regard does not extend to saying no to bad deals? I can't understand it.

It's like being friends with someone, until you can screw them, and then you do, and think nothing of it -- in fact, you think it's just fine. That is, until someone does it to you in a few years, and the downward spiral continues.

Perhaps no one has conveyed to David their appreciation for not giving up his flesh and giving in to unreasonable demands for rights that are his. I thank David, and appreciate his principled stand. Perhaps those who respect and hold him in high regard will refrain from becoming the "also ran", and stand on principle too, and not sell out.

So, the question becomes - how do you affect change? Make a difference? A noticeable difference? The truth is, I am seeing that fewer and fewer graduating photographers are willing to do freelance work under a WFH agreement, for example. While the non-photo-school graduates still are content to accept whatever scraps of assignment terms are thrown at them. And, for the photo school grads who are doing WFH, they atleast know they're doing something that's not so good.

We have a generation in place currently that did not have the "WFH is bad" mantra conveyed to them, and not it's pro forma acceptance of unfair terms. A continued dialog and outreach to up-and-coming photographers will help to be sure.

Of course, I have not reviewed David's contract, I do not know the exact details, yet there are a few things I can surmise. First things first -- all deals are relative. However, if someone you respect and hold in high regard says no to it, then the deal should either be equally unacceptable to you, OR, you should learn that that type of deal should be unacceptable, since the person whom you aspire to be a peer of holds it as such.

Above, I have referred to the photographer as an "also ran", which has a basis in fact, since Burnett was who they wanted, and only after he declined, did whomever did it then become a considered photographer.

So, David was close to doing the deal, right? Could there have been something of value to the assignment? Well, as is often said, close only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades. He came "that close" but it fell through. I'd wager that it was mainly a rights issue, and that for what they wanted, the compensation was not commensurate with the rights package. Surely positives were: A) going to the Olympics (again for David), B) expenses covered (this should always be a given), C) some form of a fee was paid per day, but perhaps not all the days, but David could make that up with other work once on location. Perhaps the deal was an "Olympic Official" pass which would give David access everywhere, and his expenses would be covered, yet no fees, and David felt that that was workable until the IOC then demanded non-exclusive all rights, diminishing the value for David to make up the lost assignment fees with stock sales. However, in the end, there was clearly a deal-breaker, and 90% of the time it's over excessive rights demands, or fees that are not in keeping with the rights packages.

So, what about the concept of "climbing the ladder", making lesser deals when you're starting out, and better, "elite" deals as you gain recognition? Surmising that the only way that you'll ever get the "good" deals is this way? Well, one might argue that only the "elite" photographers would have these "good" deals, and any work they did not have would be because of "bad" deals, and this just isn't the case. The "elite" photographers would have the same work they wanted, and when they were unavailable either because they were so booked, or there was a booking date conflict, or they were comfortable enough to limit the number of days they shot, then those assignments would be available to others. The terms would (should) remain the same.

So, since you're an inexperienced photographer, you should be more amenable to a bad deal? Bad deals are almost always about rights, and then secondarily about low pay. WMFH, low/no pay...that's the downside of down, and there is no upside. Look elsewhere. Walk away.

Please post your comments by clicking the link below. If you've got questions, please pose them in our Photo Business Forum Flickr Group Discussion Threads.


Andrew Smith said...

Hi John,

Firstly I want to thank you for running this blog, which I saw linked from Strobist. I'm about six months into working full-time as a photographer so the business advice you're posting is invaluable to me.

With regard to the Olympics job, was the other photographer aware of David having declined the deal? Because if he wasn't then all that happened is someone got a lucky break. They likely didn't know they were second (or third or fourth) choice, and the deal was acceptable to them. (Do any of us answer the phone with the assumption that we're not first choice?)

If you regularly shoot $1,000 assignments then you'll be looking for a better deal than if you're shooting $50 newspaper shots. It's a fact of commerce that a "good deal" is relative.

I recently quoted $200 for a family portrait which was cheap considering the work involved. The client went with another local photographer who, they say, undercut me. My price for that job was fair, yet I shoot weddings for less than half of what the other guy charges. I don't believe that either of us are undermining the other or devaluing the industry. The differing prices are just the end result of many other factors.

At this point in my career if I was offered any major sporting event for editorial sales only and no image rights, I'd accept. It wouldn't be out of malice or greed, it would simply be taking a step in the right direction. Great deal? No. Better than not doing he job at all? Hell yes! I want to work, not sit on my backside feeling good about all the not-good-enough deals I turned down.

Go easy on us little guys :-)

Andrew Smith

Gonzalo Abascal said...

Hi, Thank you very much for this blog, it is educational for many of us.

I think Andrew Smith who has just posted is right. You cannot blame someone for getting a job. What may be a bad job for a top-notch photographer could be a one in a lifetime opportunity for another. This is a business rule not only applying to photography.

Let's say I would like to be like Steve Jobs. Steve has got an offering as a CEO of a small company, perhaps that would not be a good deal for him, but it might be for me no matter how badly I want to be like Steve.

So this time I have to disagree with you, I'd say it was good for David not to take that job (I imagine he chose what was best for him) and good for the other guy who got the job (he chose what was best for him). This is the whole concept of an open economy in the global world... Business is business

Thank you, please keep posting, this blog is becoming one of my usual readings

Xpressive Studio said...

Great post! I agreed with you on image rights. Without image rights, I am just a person hired to click the shutter - no more. The images we create are what define us as photographers - not our gear or our pay.

Of course, if your priority is to put bread on the table, then I see no problem putting money before rights. I don't think we can say the other person is wrong - just different personal choice and priorities.

Michael said...

First, this comment page doesn't work with Firefox 2.0, it can't be resized and the fonts don't show up.

Now, This is my first comment and I'm learning a lot and I'm just a hobbyist who's dreaming of turning pro but will most likely never do it. I see a lot of parallels here with other business experiences. For example, some say open source software is killing the software industry. Others say software developers in India are going to kill the software industry. The fact is there's always someone willing to work for less. And we're now in a global economy. Asian painters are already selling on ebay. I imagine if they're not already, Asian photographers will be selling on stock sites (especially microstock). And people like me dreaming of going pro will end up taking a job that a pro turned down just as an Indian programmer will accept a programming job that I turned down.

I'm not certain of the future of the photography business. The DSLR explosition has and will continue to have an enormous impact, just as the internet has done for online commerce. I think we must accept free trade and compete on our own merits.

David the pro photographer will get what he is worth. And how much is that? It's what he is able to get. :)

Sean C said...

Upside? Do it on your own...sell it on your own.

The trend of aggregating all content and ownership under one super umbrella by the producers of any 'event' is an old story.

There is no upside to walking away. The only upside of down is to walk in an altogether different direction photographically speaking.

Let the producer produce and today that includes photographers.

Anonymous said...

Great Blog. You have an interesting perspective on the world of editorial and commercial photography.

Please continue.

I have the upmost respect for Mr. Burnett, he is a talented photographer, strong businessman and a fine example of a long successful career in photography - plus he has been everywhere - if only for a minute.

A bad deal is no deal. Just walk away. In the end, you are much better off by either working through the process to try to make it work for each party, or respectfully declining.

Joseph A. Sorrentino said...

Well John - It looks like some people still need to be convinced. I'll take less money then David but I won't give up my rights. My rights are my portfolio, my future income stream, my retirement package, my children's college education. Competing on talent or monetary price are fine - NOT RIGHTS.

Stacie F. said...

This is definately a much needed discussion at the water cooler (or the Bears' Gatorade table). The idea that getting your foot in the door means taking a job with "bad" terms is bad for everyone including the "also ran". Someday said "also ran" will become a full pro and will want what is due to him/her. Because people have been accepting bad deals to get their foot in the door, the industry standard will become nothing but bad deals. This is a very real reality, as dark as it sounds, if we don't stand up for ourselves, even as a beginner. I have walked away from quite a few "bad" deals in my 4+ year career. You really have to be ready to walk away from ANY deal if a likeable compromise can't be reached. I think that too many people become married to the money/opportunity before they sign the contract. Walking away has not affected my fortunate income, nor my career status. In fact, I think it has done my career well. I respect myself and I am respected back. My work is worth something as well as every talented artist, beginner or not.

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