Friday, April 13, 2007

Traitors Among Us?

I know that there will be a lot of objection and offense because of this column. The problem is, it will be misdirected, because it will be directed at me.

I will give myself some cover first, it's inspired by Mark Loundy's April 2007 column Common Cents: Traitors - The Fifth Column of Freelancing, in which he writes, in part:

"Every day brings news of more casualties. Media company business managers literally laugh about photographers who assist them in turning a highly skilled profession into a commodity....Yet there are those who suggest that even using the term "war" only creates an unpleasant relationship with the same folks who are unapologetically lowering rates and imposing all-rights contracts....Although there are no RPGs or IEDs aimed at us, this is no less a war. The weapons are contracts, lies and our own willingness to work "for glory." The defenses are good business practices and the courage to say no. The traitors can be found no further than the shooters who say yes."
Thirty years ago, Nixon declared war on cancer, yet no real cure exists, and many people have resigned themselves to the notion that no cure will be found. War has been declared on poverty, and on countless other worthy causes. War, as defined by, lists, under the several different definitions, definition #5 "aggressive business conflict, as through severe price cutting in the same industry or any other means of undermining competitors: a fare war among airlines; a trade war between nations;", and #6 "a struggle: a war for men's minds; a war against poverty;", and #12 "to be in conflict or in a state of strong opposition." To me, the war on many things is a state of mind for the combatants, and in some cases, actual actions are taken by those combatants beyond just complaining about what's going on. As a nation, we were at war with the the Axis Powers during WWII. Yet, many a citizen continued on with their lives, Others engaged, to varying degrees, in the war effort. I do see that we are at war, under the definitions above, and in using common notions to ascribe our circumstances to such.

Those that shoot assignments just "for glory" are doing the tradecraft and art of photography a grave disservice. Is is any wonder that "Pride" is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, "In almost every list Pride is considered the original and most serious of The Seven Deadly Sins, and indeed the ultimate source from which the others arise," like "Envy" (man, *I* WANTED that assignment!), "Anger" (I CAN'T BELIEVE s/he got that assignment), "Greed" (I WANT more assignments that are exciting, I don't want to do the run-of-the-mill assignments), and so on.

Those that sign off on egregeous contracts that demand WMFH and pervert the intent of the originating language as it was applied to employees, are giving aide to the enemy. Those that lie about whether or not they've signed or are working under those terms, are giving comfort to the enemy that it's ok to do what they are doing.

Ed Greenberg's Top 10 List - "My Top 10 list of things experienced photographers insist upon doing (or not), despite logic, law, money, advice and screaming" over at EP, includes, in part "Treating clients and prospective clients as if they are buddies and pals who share your self interest;"

Look around. When I would do something stupid, and my mom would call me on it, and I'd say "but mom, so-and-so was doing it too!" she would respond (and I grew up on an island in the SF bay, so this made perfect sense to me) "if so-and-so jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, would you do that too?" To which the obvious response is, of course, "No, mom." Do you know people around you who are saying "come on, it'll be fun to jump off the bridge...let's go!"?

Just because others are signing WMFH, doesn't mean it's ok to do that. Just because people are accepting assignment fees below what will sustain anyone's business, doesn't mean it's ok to do that -- even when you'r starting out. Just because many many people are loosing this war on photographers, and succumbing to a life that does not include being a professional photographer, doesn't mean that on other fronts, for other photographers, there ar those that are continuing to succeed - and win - beyond what you could imagine. defines traitor as "a person who betrays another, a cause, or any trust." It sure sounds to me like there are a lot of photographers who fit this bill. Sadly, at a pittance of an assignment fee, and with no ownership of their creative endeavors, they won't be around long enough to know the damage they have done. Well known traitor Benedict Arnold was a traitor because he sought to turn over command of West Point to the Brittish in return for money and fame as a Brittish General (That's him, on the right, seeking fame and glory).

Ants make an ant-hill one grain of sand at a time. Eventually, it becomes big enough that it's a problem. Each assignment completed under egregous terms is that grain of sand, that over time, becomes a problem. Yet, inserted properly and with care into the right vessel, a single grain of sand (and each assignment) can become something very valuable, a pearl, or an image with resale value. A single decent-sized pearl takes from 3 to 5 years to cultivate. During the process, 50-60% of oysters die, and only 5% of the pearls from the surviving oysters will have a gem-like quality to them. So too does it take time to cultivate clients who respect your work and rights, and will pay you a fair fee for your endeavors. And, as with pearls, it's worth the wait.

Don't shoot the messenger here. If you're really angry with my criticism, it might be because it's hitting too close to home. It might be that the traitor you're looking for is staring you back at you in the mirror. To requote Mark "The traitors can be found no further than the shooters who say yes" to the bad contracts. Is that you?

Despite all this doom and gloom, there is hope. Despite the fact that there seems to be a huge void of traitors-turned-heros (and by void, I mean, I couldn't find a reference to one), if you've signed bad contracts, you can turn the corner, you can improve your lot in life. Stop working for those multi-national multi-million dollar corporations. Don't go to the folks that are the photo editors and assignment editors and who have been friendly, helpful, and understanding, and be unpleasant. When they presented you with their contract, and apologized as they were for it's content, that apology doesn't change the facts as to what they were asking for. It's not personal for them, and you should not take it personally either, it's business. Yelling at a photo editor "I won't sign this crap", or otherwise being rude is just not productive. A simple:
"I'd love to work for you, but I can't sign a WMFH contract, it's against my personal policy to do so, but I will include a fair rights package to suit your needs commensurate with appropriate fees ",
"I'd love to do this assignment, but my fees for this are going to be a bit higher than what you've outlined you're willing to pay. I will send along my estimate, but understand if it's too high for you. If you can't find someone at that lower figure, I will do whatever I can to make the assignment happen should you call back."
is all that is required of you as an upstanding professional. Operate your own business with good business practices. Do turn down egregious demands. Do take the time that you're not shooting those assignments for low or no pay and use it constructively to do self-assignments to improve your portfolio and then to locate the appropriately paying and non-rights-demanding clients.

And, take a guess as to how the now endangered staffer feels about you? When what the company is paying you is 1/2 of what it costs the company to keep the staffer, whether they admit it or not, they see you as a threat. Back in the days where unions would strike when a corporation would not increase pay commensurate with the annual cost of living increase or how well the company was doing, those that crossed the picket lines and minimized the strike's impact, were called scabs, (see def#4) , because they were protecting the "wound" that the strike was trying to inflict because they were looking out for their own self-interests (a short term benefit), and not the good of the workforce (a long term benefit). As photo department staff are reduced, and more freelancers are hired, I have heard of more than one staffer refer to the freelancers who work for their organizations as "scabs." You are a threat to them, and whether or not you know it, to your own well being.
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.


Anonymous said...

Thought provoking and well said! Thanks for starting the discussion.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post. Thanks, I plan to spread it around as much as possible.

Anonymous said...

Your comments are, as always, thought provoking. How you view them depends upon how you frame them. To illustrate - you comment that Benedict Arnold was a traitor. Not to me, the traitor was George Washington who broke his oath of loyalty to the Crown and then went on to commit untold acts of high treason otherwise know by Americans as your history. (That last section was written with my tongue very firmly in my British cheek but I think it makes the point.)

Of course history is written by the victors and the majority view is now that Arnold was a traitor.

Jumping to the present I also have to admit that I am an accountant who occasionally makes some money from photography. My point from the present is that photographers are trying to win an economic battle. Sometimes the contestants are both skilled and understanding of all the nuances of the law - such as in the editorial photograhpy examples from your post. Other times - such as in commercial photography - there is little or no understanding of the photgraphers position. To illustrate, at work we had a product photography firm takes catalogue shots for a new printed brochure. Our Swedish operation saw the brochure and asked if they could use the images on their local web site. When I, the controller, commented that we may have to pay extra for this as we had not bought these rights my fellow managers looked at me as if I had gone mad. The concensus of opinion was that they were our images so we can use them as we want. Copyright was just not understood.

I explained to them that we buy some of our cars and trucks and we can use these as we want while other cars and trucks are taken on contract hire where we pay for so many miles in so many months. Once we reach the end of the contract we can no longer use the vehicle and if we run up extra miles we have to pay extra. Furthermore there are restricitons to where we can use the vehicles, if we want to use them outside of the UK we need to ask permission and maybe pay more. This reframing of issue helped them to understand what they previously perceived as a "rip-off" from the photographers.

So, next time you look to win a skirmish in this ongoing war with a non-specialist remember to frame your comments in a way they can understand. Then you might find that even the basement dwelling bean counters can be won over.

Anonymous said...

I'm a young photographer in the beginnings of my career and appreciate your post.

Though I'm really just getting started in negotiating licenses and such, I'm shocked on a regular basis by the way that 'established' media art buyers will ask for things that just don't make any sense. I take it as my responsibility to educate them as best I can that I love my job, and I want to keep doing it so, despite my 'altruistic' desires, I have to be profitable to maintain my existence, and protect the value of a quality image. What I'm learning is that You have to stick to your business senses, and the rip off buyers might be the least suspected. It's like red riding hood, I wouldn't have thought grandma would be out to get me!

I often find myself thinking "Is it me, or is this buyer crazy? Everything I read tells me one thing, and here this person expects unlimited rights into perpetuity for 10% of a fair price!" Your post is the kind of encouragement I need to hear from time to time to keep me saying no! I can't do business for that price, and it's you who's crazy, not me! Of course I phrase it differently, but you understand what I mean.

So thanks again, I enjoy the blog.

Scott in Homer, Alaska.

Anonymous said...

Get things right - there are two and only two decent programs for invoicing that guide you in the process - and help you write the license language - they are: FotoBiz and BlinkBid. (There is also the APA set of templates for Filemaker but they are getting long in the tooth.)

Forget the legacy programs - don't even talk about the joke giveaway programs. If you want to do this right - but either FotoBiz or BlinkBid and use them

I own both - prefer BlinkBid for being able to revise estimates but they are both incredible programs.

Anonymous said...

Copyright in Canada

I realize that this Blog is USA centric, but it is read elsewhere. It's worth commenting that the cited laws are American and may not be the same elsewhere. Case in point, this from the Canadian copyright web site. I cite it, as a few years ago I made the false assumption (based on USA law) that I owned the copyright, when under Canadian law, I did not.

Generally, if you are the creator of the work, you own the copyright. However, if you create a work in the course of employment, the copyright belongs to your employer unless there is an agreement to the contrary. Similarly, if a person commissions a photograph, portrait, engraving, or print, the person ordering the work for valuable consideration is the first owner of copyright unless there is an agreement to the contrary. The consideration must actually be paid for the copyright to belong to the person commissioning the photograph, portrait, engraving, or print. Also, you may legally transfer your rights to someone else, in which case, that person owns the copyright.

Thanks for an excellent site.

Anonymous said...

What are your thoughts on photographers and models who do TFP/CD deals?

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

In response to Canada above (as a fellow Canadian), this is why you have your ownership/licensing in writing in the contract, that way the cited Canadian law does not jeopardize your ownership of your images.

Good point though.

Anonymous said...

Rule #3 of the top 10 is:
Failure to register work.

Can someone explain what that means?

Anonymous said...

You say that I should be doing self assignments when not shooting, I am cool with that; but, a lot of people who grant access want prints or use for those same photos they allow me to take. With that in mind, they also do not expect to pay what is fair. So how does one shoot the items they want to do, ie. Grand Prix, Model Runways, etc.; where access is limited only only granted to you by someone who wants something for free or below market price?

Peter Pauer said...

Excellent article!

Really like the concept of traitors and scabs being used.

Rotten contracts are showing up everywhere opening the festering woulds and these low ballers/glory hounds taking them are doing their best to keep the lesions open.

Too bad unionization is next to impossible for an industry served by wide spread independents.

Anonymous said...

The idea that a union could help photographers does not really work. We are a fiercely independent group of artists/craftsman/business people who work for other creatives or corporations - each with very different needs.

I think it is better to address the problems within the industry by educating people how to do things right and to pass that information on to others.

David Riley

This blog is a very good starting point along with the trade organizations that offer solid advice and the tools needed to grow your business as a proffessional and artist. is a good place to start along with the ASMP and EP sites.

I am glad to see that people are reading and responding to John's blog.

Anonymous said...

Education can be done till you are blue in the face, and the bottom line is the lowest bid will win.

It has been said more than once photography has become a comodity.
In all fields it seems
"photographers" are competing against each other to see how low they can go to win a bid.

The concept of being an "artist" or a "crafstman" is a big part of the problem. The other part is many photographers are not very good at the business end.

Best to think of yourself as a photo mechanic and like other skilled mechanics set your fees high accordingly

Anonymous said...

I completely agree that photographers should strive for fees that are commensorate with their skills, their costs and the service they provide. We can't forget though that we work for ourselves in what is a completely free market. Comparing low ballers to picket scabs is a little naive. If people want to get involved in a price cutting war then that is there business/problem and may or may not be a succesful strategy for them. It happens in every competive industry and good luck to 'em as it could make or break them. When price is important for the buyer there will always be people willing to make their price a selling point.

We don't work for each other and in every photographer who purports to work altruistically there must also be a healthy dose of synicism or they wouldn't be in business for very long.

"Those that shoot assignments just "for glory" are doing the tradecraft and art of photography a grave disservice" ...

Come on! This is free market commercial photography we're talking about! Since when did any pro get into the field to do the "art of photography" a favour?

Anyhoo .. good discussion though.

Anonymous said...

That is total B.S. if you think the lowest bid always wins!

It is also total b.s. if you think a photographer is not equal parts craftsmen, artist and business person. To succeed in this business you need all aspects to work together.

I am often the highest bidder or next to highest bidder on shoots and work pretty much when I want.

For great clients who understand location photography, what it takes, what is involved and appreciate how much effort I put into the production of their shoots and the extra value I bring to their shoot.

Keep swimming to the bottom of the pool if you want. If you vision is so limited to think that it is always the lowest bidder, than that is exactly what type of jobs you will get. The lowest.

You have to bring increased value to your shoot. You attitude, ability, production skills, experience and you have to show or sell these to you client.

If your only concern is the lowest price, than that is what you will get. The attitude of the poster above disgusts me.

Do you think the greats and near greats in our industry got there by cutting their creative fee;s, no, they did it by great work, taking risks, developing reputations and doing it right. They are artists, craftsmen and bsuinessmen rolled into one.

They are not low-baller cheapskates who cave into clients demands and have no ability to see past the next low-ball assignment.

Anonymous said...

"I'd rather do it right"

You need both a reality check and a maybe a few lessons in reading comprehension.

You seem to have completely misinterpreted the posts prior to yours.
Nobody here is advocating going for the lowest bid.
But that is what is happening in large segments of the market.

The discussion here (what the entire thread is about) is the troubles wrought by the glory hounds, low-ballers, and hobbyists who are busy offering work for next to nothing. And who do not understand the damage they are doing to an entire profession.

Your quick decision to find fault and state you are "disgusted" by someone else's post, that in reality you have successfully completely misinterpreted does actually disgust me.

But that is not what this topic is supposed to be about.
Best return it to its normal course.

Anonymous said...

Ugly thread. Interesting commentary and I must say, some misunderstandings from several writers and responders.

Many industries are in turmoil, brought about partially by the internet levelling the playing field for many industry newbies. There was an excellent article in the New York Times this week about young mothers, digital photography and how they have created a new business model that embraced lower price prosumer digital cameras and recording the lives of young children.

I am saddened to see the level of dicussion in this blog brought down by the snips of a few posters. I guess when you are "Anonymous", it is easy to fire off a few zingers and go hide behind your shield.

John is a friend of mine and I appreciate the effort he has put forth to educate people who are interested in knowing more about the business of photography.

After reading this thread, I feel that every person who has posted to it, added something important to the conversation.

Personally, I feel that education is critical to the health of this business. At the college level and from the trade groups. I do feel that it is important to try to shoot and operate your business at the highest level that you possibly can.

Turning down jobs that are not right; either from a financial point-of-view, from rights needed/demanded by the client or just not the right fit for your work is in the long run, the most responsible action you can take for your business and career.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

Multiple Kudos to you for this article.

One way we as photographers who are doing well and getting proper day rates can help is to make sure we support the up and coming photo work force of assistants and specialty talent we need and use to produce our work.

I am coming back to the field of Commercial Photography. I had left after a bad injury made it too difficult to do physical work. 12 years later here I am and the industry I left has changed drastically. If I can not get the rates I deserve, my plan is to support the photographers who are getting those rates by doing production work, Digital, Editing, etc. to supplement my income. The pay rates for those tasks pay just as much or more than the rates I have seen offered by the prospects that are undermining us with lower fees.


Robert Fishback Photography

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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Anonymous said...

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